Friday, February 3, 2012

Aimless Reading: The R's, Part 12.2 (Rainer Maria Rilke)

Rilke, Rainer Maria
Letters to a Young Poet

Last book in the Rilke section. I am not sure if this is the copy of this book that I read in college. I know I gave away several copies to students and so forth when I taught. It's useful insofar as it advises would-be poets to ask themselves some honest questions about their dedication to writing.

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. (Tr. Stephen Mitchell, not this volume).

I am sure no one answers the question: "No, I must not write." How could any young poet answer such a question in the negative? I think it actually takes years of working at one's writing to be able to answer. If it were a simple, honest yes or no, then most would have to say no and move on to something else.

I guess the most important part comes after the question, the part about building a "life in accordance with this necessity." Following that dictum, one can at least create the conditions that make possible a simple, honest answer to the question.

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