I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is prose; words in their best order; – poetry; the best words in the best order.
There is a tradition among budding poets that they look up to a forebear with a respect verging on hero-worship. In most cases the elder poet will be long dead, like Spenser’s Chaucer & Elliot’s Shelley, but from time to time a poet is lucky enough to meet their idol & engage in conversation with them. These moments contain a deep-seated poesis, either springing up from the bubbling soul of the young poet, & falling like rain from the wise spirit of the god-like elder. The younger poet is no longer grasping blindly at some spirit in the dark, but finds the passage is lit by the experience of his master. To highlight the experience, this essay shall concern itself with one such occasion, when the soldier Frank Xaver Kappus engaged in a series of letters with the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.
The younger poet had the fortune to attend the same military school as Rilke, & upon discovering this circumstance felt compelled to send a letter containg some youthful musings & poetry to Paris, where Rilke was staying at the time. What followed was a series of ten letters, written by Rilke on his subsequent travels across Europe; posting them in France, Germany, Italy, Sweden &, of course, Paris. In effortless & beautiful prose, Rilke engraves a ‘life-blueprint’ for the younger poet to follow, & in doing so created something of a universal standard. ‘There is so much, dear Herr Kappus, going on in you just now,’ wrote Rilke, the stately voice of experience recognizing a kindred spirit who would now listen intently, for as Kappus himself wrote, ‘when one who is great & unique speaks to us, it is for lesser men to fall silent.’
As Rilke sent off the letters, it seemed as he was rewalking the path which he had taken himself many years previously – the path to poethood. When describing those early moments which sees the young poet wrangling with his heart, mind & soul over the decision to be a poet, Rilke mused, ‘imagine each individual destiny as a greater or lesser space, we shall see that few people come to know more than a corner of their own room…. Examine the origins of your own life; that is the source at which you will find out whether or not you are called on to be a maker…. There is no-one who can advise or who can aid you; no-one. There is only one way – You must go inside yourself! You must seek for whatever it is that obliges you to write. You must discover if its roots reach down to the very depths of your heart. You must confess to yourself wheteher you would truly die if writing were forbidden to you. This above all: ask yourself in the night, in your most silent hour – Must I write? If there is an affirmative reply, if you can simply & starkly answer ‘I must’ to that grave question, then you will need to construct your life to that necessity.’
To those young spirits determined upon a life of poetry, Rilke says, ‘you must accept this destiny & you must bear it, enduring both its burden & its greatness.’ When the choice is made, when the fires of poetry burn brightly within them, the new poet may at last turn their attention to writing. ‘You will require a great deal of talent & maturity of your own’ says Rilke, ‘before you can contribute anything of your own to a tradition that has, already, so many good & sometimes brilliant exemplars.’ He urged Kappus to, ‘depict your sorrows & your hopes, your ever-changing preoccupations; your faith in some kind of beauty; depict it all with quiet, humble, passionate sincerity & use the things all around you to express it: the images of your dreams, the objects you keep in your memory.’
‘To be an artist means that you cannot enumerate or calculate but must grow as the trees grow – letting the sap flow at its own pace, standing firm through the gales of spring, never fearing lest there should be no summer. For there will be summer. But only for those who stay as patient as if all eternity lay before them, expansive, steady, unperturbed…. If you keep close to nature, to all that is simple in nature, to the small things which scarcely anyone notices & which can for that reason invisibly lead to what is great, what is immeasurable, if you truly possess this love for lesser things & if, by serving them, you can quietly win the trust of things that seem humble – then everything will grow easier for you, more unified, somehow more reconciling, not necessarily in your mind, which may hesitate, amazed, but in your deepest awarness & watchfulness & understanding… stay patient with all that is unresolved in your own heart – try to love the very questions just as if they were locked up riooms or as if they were books in an utterly unkown language. You ought not yet to to be searching for answers, for you could not yet live them… do not watch yourself to closely… do not be over-hasty in drawing conclusions from your experience; simply let it happen to you… What matters is to live everything. For just now, live the questions. Maybe you will little by little, almost without noticing, one distant day live your way into the answers.’
Rilke said that to a poet, their daily life is a rich source of poesis, & hoped the young soldier would be, ‘poet enough to evoke its riches,’ & when ready they should, ‘possess inside you the potential to create images & forms.’ Rilke compared poetic creation with sexual procreation; ‘the impulse to create, to beget, to give form, counts for nothing without its powerful & lasting confirmation…. For the act of begetting is a kind of giving birth &, surely, man also gives birth to whatever things he creates out of his inner riches…. To give birth is everything. To allow each thing its own evolution, each impression & each grain of feeling buried in the self, in the darkness, unsayable, unknowable, & with infinite humility & patience to await the birth of a new illumination.’ These creations are the poems, which he said should be, ‘things in their own right,’ & ‘independant entities… works of art whose mysterious presences, whose lives, endure alongside our own perishable lives.’
Further elaborating on the extant necesseties of poethood, Rilke emphasised the powers of solitude, when ‘your solitariness shall be a quiet place, a homestead for you, however strange the circumstances that may surround you, & by its means you will always find your true path… Think of the world you carry inside yourslef & give those thoughts whatever name you please – but pay attention to what grows up within you & give it precedence over the things you are aware of all around you… what goes on deep within you is deserving of your love: it is upon that you must work, at whatever cost.’
Rilke also recommended the use of a good library, actually naming the books in his letters, but the sentiment intended can be utilised by any budding poet; ‘you should live for a while in these books & learn from them whatever seems to you worth learning. But first & foremost learn to love them. They will repay your love a thousand times over &, whatever paths your own life may take, I am certain that these books will remain among the most important threads in the fabric of your living, of all your happenings & of your joys & dissapointments.’ He also warned Kappus of the perils of literary criticism when he wrote, ‘endeavour to read as little aesthetic critiscism as possible. Things of this sort are either perceived opinions, opinions grown petrified & meaningless, insensitive & far-removed from anything alive; or else they are clever word-games in which one view may prevail today & the converse view tomorrow…. almost all critiscism is nearly-art – which injures & defames all tue art… You should always trust yourself & your own intuitions against that kind of analysis or argument or presentation.’
Toward the end of the series, which had continued sporadically over several years, I believe that Rilke sensed the poetic importance of this particular dialogue, in the same way that Shakepseare sensed his sonnets were destined for immortality; ‘whether my letters are truly of any asssitance to you – that is something I sometimes wonder…. let us wait & see what may come of them.’ I believe this was an open invitation for Kappus to make a record of their private conversation with an eye to future publication. This indeed happened in 1929, three years after Rilke died, which the world would come to know as Letters to a Young Poet. They contain many splendid insights which can only benefit the poets of the future when, upon realising they are a poet… ‘something unfamilar enters into us, something unknown: our senses, inhibited & shy, fall silent: everything within us shrinks back, there is silence, & at its centre this new thing, strange to us all, stands mutely there.’
10 – 1 – 07