Tuesday, February 19, 2008
This week Carolina Alvarado shares a collection of letters by Rainer Maria Rilke.
Rainer Maria Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet" is a difficult read to write about. The first time I read Rilke's letters to a young man who solicited his advice, I immediately disagreed. Rilke seemed to be urging him on into the kind of self-inflicted solitude and suffering that so many aspiring young poets cater to in their obsessive vulnerability. Having read his devotional poems to God in the "The Book of Hours," I dismissed his advice, judging by their disclaimer of God's existence, as the work of his naive youth. Yet so much did the letters affect me that two months later, a week ago, I couldn't resist but revisit Rilke's letters. His thoughts now seemed wholly different from what I remembered. The confusion was unsettling enough that I read it over, and then over, and then over, and am still somewhat unclear as to what exactly the lifestyle Rilke recommends entails, as his own uncertainties seem to come across at times.
After my first reading, before sleep, I wondered whether my "deepest consciousness," demanded that I write, as Rilke said it should. It didn't. Perhaps his advice was just not meant for me, I thought. Perhaps that's why I don't agree. Perhaps, I just don't qualify. How could I agree with such reasoning as, "And you should not let yourself be confused in your solitude by the fact that there is something in you that wants to move out of it... it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it," as Rilke writes in his sixth letter? I told myself that however much yearning I could any day have I would never consider the lifestyle I thought Rilke insisted upon-- one of solitude and unnecessary difficulty-- a fair enough price to pay for a few poems. Until a better piece of advice came along I'd take my own, and wallow for as long as the world permits it hedonistic in the easy company of all the books I enjoy-- immersed in life as intensely as Whitman-- if not a better poet then at least a happier one.
Though at times his reasoning is still troublesome for me to follow without the subjectivity my own self-preserving instincts compel me to take, on a closer look, lines like "its growing is painful as the growing of boys and sad as the beginning of spring. But that must not confuse you. 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," shed a completely different light on Rilke's advice. "To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours," seems a much more admirable objective, once you consider it a kind of enlightenment, a growing into adulthood, or blooming into spring, attained from a kind of solitude that urges you to explore your own silence without the white noise of other selves. He goes on, "Only the individual who is solitary is placed under the deepest laws like a Thing, and when he walks out into the rising dawn or looks out into the event-filled evening and when he feels what is happening there, all situations drop from him as if from a dead man, though he stands in the midst of pure life." To be filled with the "deepest laws," to walk or look "into" things, to stand in the "midst of pure life," are the driving purpose behind Rilke's advice, even if it somehow along the way gets tangled with what may seem like suffering for sufferings' sake arguments.
"Letters to a Young Poet," moved me enough to make me think and realize, as it hopefully will you, how vague my own convictions were. It gave me, more than just the motivation, the actual need to figure out on just what principles I live my life. Reading and rereading it has been a pleasure, one I'm sure I'll relive many more times. Rilke's prose is poetic and and his imagery serene. His writing gives you the sense of meditation and peace his advice is meant to help you attain, which I now realize, after much thought and turmoil, was stated so simply in the very first letter. "So, dear Sir," Rilke wrote, "I can't give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows..."