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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ranier Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet: Letter 1

Note: This quotes translations from Soren Filipski.

Rilke has a few interesting comments here. 

1. After he thanks the poet for the trust placed in Rilke for reading these poems, he...
"cannot comment on the style of your verses: far be it from me to make any critical comment! Nothing can touch a work less than critical words."
True? Poets are constantly discoursing on their own and other poets' verses. One suspects these three possible thorny issues:
  1. He must tread carefully around the poet's beginnings since few begin writing fully formed,
  2. Maybe he means that criticism can be abstracted too far and stray from the poetry itself, and
  3. Maybe he means what he says. Criticism is anathema to poetry. 
The problem with the last interpretation is that he goes on to say "Having said that," which is his way of negating what he'd just said in regards to discussing criticism.

2. His criticism is multi-pronged. First, the work has "no distinguishing style," which we might call voice today. 

3. Next, he talks about the poet's problematic approach of not being "personal": "very hidden and concealed." 

4. This point flows from the last although it leads to quite a different tack. Rilke discourages the young poet's search for affirmation and guidance from magazines and other poets. One wonders what Rilke would have made of the current MFA system. He writes:
"No one can advise and assist you.... Go into yourself [to examine the depths from which your life springs]. Seek out the reason that commands you to write; discover if it has stretched out its roots into the deepest part of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would have to die if it were forbidden you to write.... [I]f this should be so..., then build your life around this necessity... down to its most indifferent, most trivial hour."
Coincidentally, here is a Guardian article where the novelist hung up her quill. Another seemingly successful (at least highly praised) writer--also frustrated with the system yet still committed--linked to it to discuss the novelist's decision but ultimately deleted it. It is a sign of weakness and shame for writers to discuss the difficulty of publishing. It is grueling the amount of rejection a writer must endure. A few are successful out of the gate, or after they gather momentum. But momentum can falter. For every J. K. Rowling, there are a hundred, a thousand committed writers doing the same thing yet don't succeed. They might have had better skills even. But she made it. Writing is not just commitment and hard work, but also a little luck in finding the vein that happens to be the current or soon-to-be zeitgeist.

It makes sense, then, that poets might not measure their worth against magazines. Think of Kay Ryan and her not gaining momentum until later in her career, which makes one wonder, why? Imagine how poorer the poetry world would be without her vision had she given in to discouragement. It is hard not to. Maybe writers should be more forthcoming about this, instead of stowing it in a broom closet.

5. Rilke also lists what should be written about (not love, he says, perhaps forgetting Shakespeare, or rather, that one needs more skill in writing about love). I'm not sure how useful this prescription is, except it might keep a poet from growing maudlin or overly sentimental. The items he lists as good poetry topics go back to the personal discussed in 3.: sorrows, desires, thoughts, faith in beauty, dream images, objects from memory, childhood. Those, however, might bare similar traps to the unwary.

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