Saturday, December 04, 2010

Letters from a Poet's Soul

Rainer Maria Rilke at his desk in his Study
One of the things about modern communications is that the sentiments expressed therein have become quicker, instantaneous, abbreviated and reduced to a type of text-speak which lacks the flourish of a letter.  Recently I penned some ten posts or so on the letters of one of my favourite poets, that is, John Keats.  Today I have been reading the letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, at least his letters to a young man who wished to be a poet.  Significantly enough, this book of letters is called Letters to a Young Poet.  You will find a copy of them on line here at this link: Letters RMR

Some young prospective poet chanced to send his poems to Rilke and had asked for the poet's appraisal and criticism of same.  Unusually, and kindly, Rilke replied with complete understanding and compassion.  He sees the young man's request as being a very important one - one of conviction, one of dedication, one not of choosing a mere career or profession, but one of engaging in a vocation, answering a calling, following a path, a soul path, a path to sefhood, a path to truth; a real journey to authenticity in more existential terms.
In the first letter he addresses the following words to the would-be poet:

You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must," then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.  (See the above link)

A little later in the same letter he says:

And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to inte4rest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can't give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take the destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted. (See the above link)

Interestingly, in Letter 3 to this young man, Rilke speaks of how near the creative act of any of the arts is to the sexual act - speaking about the books of an author named Richard Dehmel, he opines:

Life is as transient as my footprints in the snow: 02/12/2010
You have characterized him quite well with the phrase: "living and writing in heat." - And in fact the artist's experience lies so unbelievably close to the sexual, to its pain and its pleasure, that the two phenomena are really just different forms of one and the same longing and bliss. And if instead of "heat" one could say "sex" - sex in the great, pure sense of the word, free of any sin attached to it by the Church - then his art would be very great and infinitely important. His poetic power is great and as strong as a primal instinct; it has its own relentless rhythms in itself explodes from him like a volcano. (once again, see the above link)
Then, Rilke speaks of his own books as if they were his own children.  Indeed he had a daughter named Ruth (1901–1972) who was born in December 1901 to him and a sculptor friend Clara Westhoff. However, Rilke was not one for a middle-class family life, and in the summer of 1902 he left home and traveled to Paris to write a monograph on the sculptor Auguste Rodin who became a great friend. Still, even though they were separated, the relationship between Rilke and Clara Westhoff continued for the rest of his life.  Anyway, it is interesting how tenderly he writes of his own books in this short letter:

Finally, as to my own books, I wish I could send you any of them that might give you pleasure. But I am very poor, and my books, as soon as they are published, no longer belong to me. I can't even afford them myself - and, as I would so often like to, give them to those who would be kind to them. So I am writing for you, on another slip of paper, the titles (and publishers) of my most recent books (the newest ones - all together I have published perhaps 12 or 13), and must leave it to you, dear Sir, to order one or two of them when you can. I am glad that my books will be in your good hands. (once again, see the above link)

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