Friday, July 11, 2014

Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet": More Responses and a Reading Schedule

I am overwhelmed by the beauty of what you all wrote in response to yesterday's post. Everything you said made so much sense to me, but Teresa's comment seemed to come from inside my own heart. That conundrum--doing the writing versus living the life--lies at the heart of my anxiety. Without living fully in my world, what material will I have? What morality will I have? Without stepping away from that world, what poems will I have? The sensation is perpetually distressing, and reading Rilke's letters does not make me feel any better. What I have to remember is that Rilke's world and my world are not identical. Neither is our poetry identical. A poet's life intersects with her writing: one feeds the other, and the key is learning to balance the needs of each. Easier said than done, of course. Jean says that "young writers typically dismiss their own experiences as not exciting enough," but I would argue that we all do this, at least to some extent. Why can't I be Shakespeare? Why do I just have to be me?

Carlene's response to the letters also moved me--in particular, the way in which she shifted so seamlessly from her teacher mind into her reader mind. That gives me so much hope for all of us: that no matter what we need to do for others, we have this fount of literature--of deep and engaged reading--to sustain and strengthen us. Carlene made this point much better than I am doing, but I think it goes back to another Frost Place conversation. Our students, co-workers, and family members have to put up with us, no matter what. So why not give them the "best us" we can? In other words, spending time on our own inner lives is not a waste of time, for either ourselves or our compatriots.

Ruth's recollection of some of the writing advice she received at the conference is also pertinent to these letters. "Gentleness of response" does not mean that the reader is shying away from acuity of perception or intensity of demand. Nicholas, I know you thrive on the vigorous language of revision, but in the mouths of many teachers, that flaying word choice works to manipulate and destroy rather than lead an apprentice poet to notice and construct. (You were very fortunate to have the teachers you worked with in your graduate program, but others are not so lucky. There are too many careless, self-aggrandizing, power-hungry teachers in the poetry world.) Anxiety is a blinder: when a student is cringing, she's not all that likely to be able to open herself to new ways of entering her own work. She may manage to follow what she perceives as teacher or classmate instructions, but that's not really useful in the long run. It seems to me that a good teacher's goal is to teach herself out of a job: that is, to bring the student to a sense of confidence in his own ability to make decisions about his poems. That's what I hear in Rilke's tone in these first two letters.

Both Nicholas and Maureen zero in on the way in which Rilke reveals his humanity as well as the challenge he makes to himself as an artist. Nicholas notes that "Rilke bleeds his heart right down onto the page." Maureen identifies "the great test" of Rilke's words: "what we are willing to forgo, give up, neglect, to write." This all goes back to what Teresa said about the tensions between writing and living. Rilke gives so much to Kappus, but what does he retain for himself? Is the unspoken also a lesson for us as teachers, mentors, compatriots, and solitary strivers?

Feel free to keep commenting on yesterday's post and to add your thoughts to today's, but let's also set a schedule for the next letters. How about letters 3 and 4 by Wednesday, July 17? If you all prefer to move more quickly (or more slowly), let me know.


Ruth said...

If one must live in order to have experiences to tap, then finding the time and motivation to get them down on paper in some form can be overwhelming. Dawn,I know that that is one of your reasons for your blog (one for which I am certainly grateful).
Nicholas, I suppose the "rip it apart" is akin to tearing off the bandage versus removing it bit by bit. That IS how I take off a bandage, but not how I would treat anyone's work and certainly not from one of my students. I echo Dawn's comment that you have been very blessed to have had such good instructors and to have such a strong positive attitude and determination.
I would hope that Rilke is a model for us as writers and as teachers.

Carlene said...

I agree about struggling to find the balances between living and writing, and especially with valuing the everyday experiences. I also think that if we don't value what we do/are as worthy "fodder" for what we write, then we are missing out. Though, to be honest, I've yet to be able to do that consistently/successfully. =/ Rilke's point about using childhood is especially important, I think: when the world was new and each day was vividly different from the next, before we piled on such artificial things as schedules and duty, things were, as it seems anyhow, more memorable. Maybe it's because our memories, faulty as they are, filter out the mundane and leave us just the shiny bits? Not sure. One poem I wrote some time back is, I think, one of my best, because it captured a moment of childhood without being "sticky" with descriptions. Hm. Maybe a writing challenge can go along with this, Dawn?? Write a childhood poem? I'm game!

AMY said...

I've appreciated everyone's comments thus far. I especially love how Dawn synthesized all the comments from yesterday into her lovely post this morning. That is a skill I am still working on perfecting -- it's also one I must teach my students to do better. As part of their AP Language exam they must take six documents and synthesize at least three of them into their own argument. Dawn does that seamlessly, and I may use these posts and comments as models for my students come fall. "See, this type of skill IS useful in real life!" So many reluctant writers do not see the value of writing at all, much less developing skills that make them better at it. So, that is my first point: thank you all for providing me with something I can use to help spark my student writers.

In regard to Rilke: in my quest to continually improve as a teacher of writing, I absolutely agree with his assertion to "Go inside yourself."

My notes at the end of Letter 1: Look inside. Write what you know. Personal. From the heart. Seek not outside praise -- write because you must.

The approach I take with students is one of exploration. We always start with narrative. I learn more about my students, build relationships, and get greater student buy-in than with any other genre. We read lots of mentor texts, and we model the style of professional authors. My job is to help them to believe that their lives matter, their voices matter, and that through writing well, others may benefit from what they have to say. This ties into what Teresa said: I talk to them like writers. I try to never talk about their writing. The difference is dramatic. Rilke does that here. In Letter 2, he talks of ideas and developing a tone (I love that bit about irony), and he encourages Kappus to seek mentors. I'm curious to know who are your "greats"?

Ruth said...

Amy, love your comment about helping your students to believe "that their lives matter...." You are right that is exactly what Rilke is doing.

the Greats...must think

Dawn Potter said...

I am loving all of these comments. Amy, your description of your teaching practice is inspiring. And, Ruth, your bandage/revision comparison is really helpful. Yes, there are moments when "ripping" is the right action, but it's a rare student who thrives on that kind of response from a teacher. Finally, Carlene: writing challenge?? If you have more thoughts about this, let us all know!

David said...

Please pardon a latecomer: First, thanks to Dawn for posing some initial questions, helpful focal points for a very wide open plain. Nicolas’ “bleed down onto the page” is a lovely bit of phrasing. And I agree completely with Teresa’s “yeah, but”—even as a reader-not-writer, it’s hard to hew out the space and time from the working and living day that allows for that real relationship with a work that makes any other approach to it a very thin and wan thing. On a more mundane and maybe ligher note, I also couldn’t help wondering how many drafts of or edits to these letters Rilke made before mailing Kappus the ones we’re reading...

Ruth said...

Writing Challenge suggestion:

A time when you had to be the grownup even before you were ready to be one