Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet," letters 9 and 10

Your doubt may become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become critical. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perplexed and embarrassed perhaps, or perhaps rebellious. But don't give in, insist on arguments and act this way, watchful and consistent, every single time, and the day will arrive when from a destroyer it will become one of your best workers--perhaps the cleverest of all that are building at your life.
This passage from letter 9 spoke to me intensely. I have struggled all my life with doubt, with second guessing, with ambivalence: it has taken me most of my years to begin to see this behavior as "one of [my] best workers--perhaps the cleverest of all that are building at [my] life." Rilke is right: it's been important to "train" doubt--to "demand proofs from it." In the sphere of writing, doubt is where revision comes from. In the sphere of being a plain aging human being, doubt is where empathy and patience come from, but also the ability to stand away from the tumbling crowd of assumptions and declarations and say, "Wait a minute. Something is wrong."

At the same time doubt is so debilitating, and pervasive, and endless. I never learn not to doubt--for instance, when Rilke writes, in letter 10, that "art . . . is only a way of living." Yes, I think, and then I read on, about unreal "half-artistic professions, which, while they pretend proximity to some art, in practice belie and assail the existence of all art, as for instance journalism does and almost all criticism and three-quarters of what is called and wants to be called literature." Is that me? Am I part of that "three-quarters of what is called and wants to be called literature"? Doubt here becomes a nearly unbearable burden. Though I am not at all suicidal (do not worry, do not worry), I feel the necrotic pang: why bother to exist if one is only in "pretend proximity" to the art one has been working so hard to live for and within?

Anyway, those are my thoughts. My edition of the Letters includes Kappus's reactions to each of them, which I have decided not to read. I'm not very interested in listening to him contextualize Rilke's words. For some reason, the idea reminds me of those poets who stand up in front of a microphone and read a poem and then afterwards waste time explaining what the poem was about, what really happened, etc., etc.--a readers' tic that drives me crazy because it distracts me from the poem into sideshow storytelling. But you should feel free to follow your own predilections.

By the way: a few new comments have appeared on previous Rilke posts. Scroll down and see what others are thinking, and keep the conversation going.


Carlene said...

Response to L. 9-10
Rilke returns to his themes of self-awareness and allowing life to be sufficient unto itself and one’s needs. Again, he is speaking to me: “…find patience enough in yourself to endure, and single-heartedness enough to believe…let life happen to you…life is right, at all events.” Good advice, and very hard to internalize and follow! I get the sense that Kappus hasn’t really learned much—at least, he hasn’t trusted the advice given to him over the course of their correspondence—and Rilke feels that he has little more he can tell him that might help. This idea is followed in L. 10, where Rilke is telling Kappus that he ought to be pleased with his remote military outpost and his regimented duties, as those may well give him a real occasion for embracing solitude. Like Dawn, I don’t really want to read what Kappus had to say about these letters; I find it interesting to let my imagination pretend that Rilke, through these letters, is talking to me. I don’t want the context; I want, instead, to bring these letters into my own context. Self-serving, perhaps, but isn’t that one of the joys of discovering or rediscovering literature?
Of all of these letters, I am most satisfied by a passage in L. 10, in which Rilke is describing beautifully what he wishes for Kappus: “…you may confidently and patiently let that sublime solitude work upon you, which can no more be expunged from your life…” I think that in today’s world, we are often too stimulated, and mostly to our detriment. I need quiet spaces in every day, if only to slow my breathing down and become conscious of what my body and mind need at that precise moment. I think this is the gift Rilke was trying to give to Kappus, this awareness that we are solitary creatures, and we need to enjoy that uniquely human quality. We need to become aware of our separate selves, before we can bring anything to any types of relationships and associations we form.

Maureen said...

I don't know what accounts for it (or if any meaning can be ascribed to it) but the lapse in time between Letters 9 and 10 is four years.

Rilke has a way of being rather dismissive or at least firm in cutting short his replies to Kappus, as at the end of Letter 9, where he notes inclusion of "a little piece" where he has more to say to Kappus. The impression is, "Here; read this, and perhaps then we'll have something to correspond about." After that. . . four years till the next letter.

Even without having Kappus's letters, what sticks in my mind throughout the correspondence is the implication that Kappus so differs from Rilke in regard of life's experience and what he (Rilke) is willing to give up or ignore in service to his art. Where Rilke repeatedly urges to just let life happen and let it "work at you", that it might become under the right conditions the stuff of art, Kappus appears to twist and turn constantly, indecisively, and to become more than a bit whiny. No matter how many times or how many different ways Rilke advises, Kappus doesn't yet "get it".

I found Rilke's tone in the last letter a bit off-putting; the "harsh reality" of his own military experience never rose to "this solid, communicable existence" that yields "all these tangible and circumscribed things" for Kappus - things that seemed to have meant nothing to Rilke, anyway, in contrast to need for "splendid solitude" and tranquility that allow engagement with artistic life, and courage to deny oneself whatever fails to "put us from time to time in front of great natural things."

The "harsh reality" also, I think, underscores Rilke's acknowledgment, on the one hand, of needing to keep oneself alive by earning a living and, on the other, of sniffing his nose at anything, such as journalism, that might compromise art. The latter is utterly distasteful to Rilke. (Family life, given what I've read of Rilke's marriage, was another of those art-killing experiences. His wife Clara was not well-treated.)

Dawn Potter said...

Carlene, I got that same sense about Kappus: that he was not absorbing what Rilke was trying to tell him, which puzzles me, because clearly he got something from it: otherwise, why would he have compiled this book, which is not simply a "make money off a famous person" artifact? Maureen: I had not noticed the enormous gap in the dates. That is unsettling. Are letters from Rilke missing? Was Kappus sending many, many letters in between times? Was there really a gap in their correspondence? Maybe I should break down and actually read the section by Kappus at the end of the book.

Maureen said...

My copy is a 2011 translation by Mark Harman and it does not have the kind of section you note, Dawn. I'd be interested to know if the Kappus section in your book sheds any light on the time gap or if there were letters from Kappus that went unheeded. I'd certainly think it strange to write someone, hear nothing, and then suddenly receive a response four years later.

Teresa said...

The experience of re-reading these letters has been a strange one. At times I've been put off by Rilke's effusiveness, which, in days of old, not only invigorated my writing but also reminded me that great art is based on great emotions. I chalked up my toned down responses to age and wondered if I had outgrown the need for reminders.
Then last Sunday John, I and two visual artists went to the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney where we wandered through room after room of soulless objects that glorify an "art" with no emotional content. (If you want to have your poetry heart ripped out of your chest then check out Koons' interview with Charlie Rose.) By the end of the exhibit I felt despair and cried. Afterwards the four of us resembled zombies.
The next day I picked up "Letters to a Young Poet" to read the last two letters. And Rilke's effusiveness, his "all emotions are pure which gather you and lift you up," his "let life happen to you," restored my heart.
Thus, as it turns out, I have not outgrown the need for reminders. While I won't be returning to the letters on a regular basis, I'll know they'll be there when I need them.

David said...

Loved all this very good, insightful commentary. Reading these last letters and the comments a first thing that came to mind was Conrad’s “We live, as we dream—alone.” But no, that’s not the kind of aloneness being got at, is it. The solitude he keeps emphasizing, the one Carlene needs, again seems almost self-evidently necessary. But I guess it’s the self-evident part that isn’t to Kappus, or if it is it’s also fairly intolerable, and hence Rilke’s emphasis. Teresa has the right word: the effusiveness of these bothered me. All that full-bodied Germanic Romantic needs a certain mood to go down properly. A right amount of alcohol will be easier to come by than Jeff Koons out here, but I suspect, or maybe hope, would have the same rehabilitating effect on the letters, and without the heart ripping. (I’ve always suspected the same about Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, but haven’t tried the experiment.) Like Dawn and Maureen, I wondered too about the gaps in the letters, and if there were others, by what principle or idea were these ones chosen, what impression would we have from a book of the others, etc. In the end what I liked best in these last letters was, predictably given my job here, his comments about journalism etc. and the “half-artistic professions”, one of which, at a far outside stretch and reach, I just might be able to claim to practice. Which if nothing else, proves one thing, I guess: fear and (self-) loathing aren’t limited to Las Vegas. 

David said...

p.s. That last comment was supposed to have a smiley emoticon at the end. Sigh. No coincidence that technology and treason both begin with "T"...