Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Letters to a Young Poet

Last summer, I read Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke. A lot of quotes struck me, especially since I'm trying to write more poetry now.

(I'm definitely going to read more of Rilke's work, and the work of the writer (Jens Peter Jacobsen) he mentions in the letters.)

“Go into yourself…ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?” (6)
Yes. I must.

“Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary…rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty…use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember.” (7)
Indeed, love poems are facile. I haven’t had a proper crush in ages and I wrote one last week (in my defense, there was a more specific message - but it was love poem nonetheless). The poems I've written that embarrass me the least are the ones about loneliness and history.

“Your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance.” (8)
I have felt precisely this sensation. Sitting in my room in the evening, as the sun is going down, and listening to the sounds of others outside, while inside of me my thoughts settle.

“Ultimately, and precisely in the deepest and most important matters, we are unspeakably alone.” (14)
At times, this statement depresses me, but sometimes it seems instead a declaration of independence, of which I can approve. Maybe because I often feel alone, and the knowledge that others, too, live in solitude is somehow soothing.

“Always trust yourself and your own feeling…Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened.” (23)
In other words, when someone asks you for your opinion and you say you don’t know, you’re not being wishy-washy, they’re being impatient. I particularly loathe those who ask you your opinion only because they hope it will reinforce theirs. Patience. Patience.

“Love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.” (41)
I've done a lot of that.

On Rome: “Waters infinitely full of life move along the ancient aqueducts into the great city and dance in the many city squares over white basins of stone and spread out in large, spacious pools and murmur by day and life up their murmuring to the night, which is vast here and starry and soft with winds.” (48)
Moving water, white stone, windswept sky. Yes. Think of these things when you are ill at heart or troubled in mind.

“What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours - that is what you must be able to attain.” (54)
When no one else’s opinions are pressing against yours - when no one may impose their way of thinking onto you - when you are free and alone and can do what you wish - then will you have inner solitude. I do not know for sure, because I have not yet reached it.

“It is important and full of new experience to rediscover a work of one’s own in someone else’s handwriting. Read the poem as if you had never seen it before, and you will feel in your innermost being how very much it is your own.” (66-67)
This is how I feel about "Seaside".

“We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.” (68)
I believe this in theory and occasionally apply it in practice. Self-control is the highest virtue.

On love: “two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.” (78)
My ethos in love is close to null, because I’ve never been in a relationship. But - for an introvert, this quote describes the perfect formula.

“Ask yourself whether these large sadnesses haven’t rather gone right through you. Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad…If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiments, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing.” (81-83)
Reread this passage when you are sad. Surely the only way to move on from unfavorable events is to incorporate them into your being; surely, if nothing else, suffering is a way of becoming stronger. Or maybe suffering is just a way of learning more about yourself, how you respond to bad things. Though self-knowledge, I’d argue, is just another kind of strength.

“We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can…This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.” (88-89)
Frontier courage. I need more of that.

“Art too is just a way of living.” (108)
I don’t agree, literally, with the “just”, but I think Rilke is emphasizing the point that we don’t have to separate our art from the rest of our life. In fact, as a way of living, we have to bring it as much into ourselves as possible.

Ray Bradbury’s immortal quote always, always applies:
“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

I've never been drunk. But Rilke's letters are just like a sip of cold, clear water that, somehow, feels like an toast to the moon.

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