Poetry Sunday(?): 1929 (part 4)

My apologies for the delay….soon I’ll be free of school obligations for the summer, and it will be much easier to keep to my schedule.  As it was, with more assignments last week than there were schooldays (and a sermon to write for this morning—my priests do like to bring me in for my quarterly sermon on holiday weekends, it seems), this is as soon as I could get to the latest installment of our reflections on poetry.  As with last week, I offer an excerpt from one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which was published in English in 1929.  To chastise myself a little for being late, I offer his (not terribly encouraging) thoughts on literary criticism from the third letter:

Read as little as possible of literary criticism—such things are ether partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are just clever word-games, in which one view wins today, and tomorrow the opposite view.  Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism.  Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them.—Always trust yourself and your own feeling, as opposed to argumentations, discussions, or introductions of that sort; if it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights.  Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing.  To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to a completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as well as creating.

In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.  Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come.  It does come.  But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast.  I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”

Poetry Friday: 1929 (part 3)

Today, and maybe for the next couple of Fridays, I’ll be taking a different tack with the Poetry Friday post.  1929 was the year that Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet were published in English (the original letters were sent circa 1905-1908).  They are powerful, and I think posting an excerpt from a letter or two will get us thinking (and talking) about poetry in a good way: I’m not sure I agree with Rilke all the time, and I wonder if you do.  Today’s excerpt is from the first letter Rilke sent to a young poet friend of his.  It reminded me of plenty of conversations I’ve had with friends about our writing…except, of course, Rilke is a bit wiser and more articulate than any of us ever manage to be.  So, an excerpt from Rilke’s first letter to a young poet:

“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me.  You have asked others before this.  You send them to magazines.  You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work.  Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing.  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.  Then come close to Nature.  Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose.

Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance.  So 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—describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember.  If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.  And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds—wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories?  Turn your attention to it.  Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, 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—

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 interest 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 about 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 of 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 that 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.”

“Out of a pattern of lies, art weaves the truth.”

This is not at all from my Pulitzer journey, but I re-read the first chapter of D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature for class today, and he says so many fascinating, provocative, and often true things about literature and reading, I just had to mention it here.  If you’ve read it, go back and hit an old favorite chapter again–there’s more there than you saw before.  And if you haven’t, give it a look.  He will anger you, confuse you, and even contradict himself, but he’ll make you think.

And now that I’m realizing he was writing about American literature in 1922/1923, I have to consider his ideas more seriously as I look at these early 20s Pulitzer winners.  There’s always more to learn.