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Remembering Rilke: A letter to a young poet

Dear Ingrid,

Most people will say it’s hard to talk about poetry with any kind of seriousness unless you have studied poetry. I think that is true, but only in the sense that you need to read poems to understand what they are and whence they might come.

Many of the people around you call themselves poets. They feel, however, the need to denigrate and intimidate. These, I think, are the marks of people who write lines and graphs, who want to be known as poets but have not yet achieved. It is hard to take them seriously. They have not read a lot of poetry; or, if they have, they have not reached the level of a-confidence that a true poet finds. That is, not confidence and not lack of confidence. These are leveraged on what others think. Rather, they have a sense that the poems speak for themselves, find their own audiences, and have their own successes and failures.

A poet need not read literary criticism or understand the background and history of poetry. But they need to read poetry.

Whitman believed that the poet is our Republic’s true citizen, prophet, and seer. I believe that. I really do. Listen to the great number of coffeehouse poets, the people who publish their own poetry, the poets who gain some public and academic notoriety. Among them are the people who have their creative lives attached to the ethereal bonds of the human soul, and this soul is bound with the universe and its expression. Their poems reveal the world as it is, what it once was, and what it will be. The poet sees the past as if they lived in it. They see the future. Their poems show them and they see.

You, as a poet and writer, can tell the difference between the faker and the real thing. You know when your poems are of you or when you contrive them. Do not fear your personality’s and ego’s success or failure. Attach yourself to those poems and trust and have faith in them the way other people have faith in an eternal god. Poems, if nothing else, show us the spiritual aspects of all aspects this life in this particular period of time. In doing so, they demonstrate that the universe, all its matters and energies, all its light and darkness, and all its dimensions and worlds and suns have that spirit. They always have and always will. I can think of no better definition of a god.

That is the beauty of poetry. Poets who are true poets real, shine. Those who are not serious or have no poems in their souls, fail. Don’t get me wrong. Some of those non-poets go a long time before they understand that poetry is not the description of an abstract and fluttering feeling, but the revelation of a concrete and solid thing. They fail when their audiences no longer hear the voice of the poet, are no longer tolerant of the rantings and ravings of pretenders.

But those who understand that poems are all around, that they need to have a conduit to solidity, that poems don’t need to be made up will surely find successes. They may not have audiences of more than a person or two. They may never be commercial successes. But they will have expressed the culture, feeling, and soul of their age. Then they will lose a sense of importance of affirmation and adulation. They will be poets and allow others to express their foibles, selfish desires, and ego failings in lines they scribble that are not yet poems. They will not be intimidated. They will feel pain in creation of poems but they will need to do so, and they will need to become more perfect conduits.

I’m not sure if there is one consciousness, as some of the Transcendentalists believed, or if there are true individuals that express individual minds. To me, it makes no sense to take a stand on either extreme. Regardless, it doesn’t matter. Let these arguments belong to those who think such discussions are important. Leave those conversations for your weekend or free hours—as entertainment.

In the meantime, get to the work of the poet. Write poems one line at a time. Don’t let yourself ever think your poem is finished. If you can memorize your poem, and deliver that poem again and again in perfect form, it is dead or has not lived (and never was a poem).

Let your writing live, change, and mature. Understand that a good poem grows up and walks. You do not own it anymore than you own your children. You care and direct your children. You give them discipline and direction. They are your responsibility until they become adults. But though you have these and other obligations to them, and they to you, you do not own them.

Let the age come through you. You doubt, you say, and I believe you. I doubt. I am my own worst critic. I do not do well under my own scrutiny. But when I sit back and let the individual and the culture (or whatever you want to call it) flow through me, then I write poems. They are not good poems. Only a few will live long. But they have come out of the ethereal nothingness, and that nothingness has found their expression.

It is work. Hard work to be this conduit from that nonworld into our world. Most of us do not sit down and write poems–what some might call “good” poems–unless we can discipline ourselves, become mature, grow to adults. Polemics and complaints do not make poems, though poems may be these. We may slander and take revenge with them, but they are not places for such human meannesses. Those looking for easy expression or easy money need to look for them elsewhere.

Poems are for and come through people willing to sweat, suffer broken hearts, and live life as it comes.

I suppose I would say, they are for a person just like you.

I hope you can visit us soon.


Published in Uncategorized


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