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.