“The ‘ancient enmity between life and the great work.'” ~ R. M. Rilke

the-rose-by-cy-twombly-acrylic-on-plywood

“The Rose” by Cy Twombly (acrylic on plywood). Twombly has used phrases from Rilke’s poems on this series and a previous series of paintings.

“Build Your Life In Accordance With This Necessity” ~ Rilke

In 1903, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote 10 letters to a young man who was considering entering the German military. The young man, a poet, asked Rilke to criticize his poetry. Rilke’s correspondence lasted over five years. Upon Rilke’s death, the young man took the letters, omitted his own side of the correspondence, and published a valuable compilation of Rilke’s personal aethetics on poetry, the creative process, and life.

Letters to a Young Poet, written in Rilke’s native German, has been translated several times over the years, and is a favorite of poets and writers, particularly because of its honest depiction of a solitary artist’s unedited thoughts on writing. The thing to keep in mind, though, is that each translation bears the mark of the translator. In essence we are not supposed to see the translator, but that is a very hard feat to achieve.

The passage I have included below comes from a 1999 translation by Stephen Mitchell.

I chose this passage because it addresses the questions that I have been asking myelf of late: Do I have what it takes to be a writer? In response to Rilke’s question of whether or not I must write, the answer is a definitive yes. I must. I don’t know what would happen if I were forbidden to write. If my computer were taken away from me, it would be a hardship because writing by hand is harder on my hands, but I don’t think that it would keep me from writing. Not after coming this far.

It would slow down my output. But now that I am this disciplined about writing every day—every day—something I never imagined I would be able to do, I cannot imagine going back to not doing this. It is as natural as breathing to me. But I wish that I had a Rilke to look at my work and say, “Yes. You must keep doing this. It is outside you as much as it is inside you.” And then I would know that I have a chance. That May Sarton wasn’t the only late bloomer.

Enjoy this selection (emphasis added mine) from Letter #1, written in Paris in 1903:

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 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 not 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 attentions 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 but 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 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 the 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.

But after this descent into yourself and into your solitude, perhaps you will have to renounce becoming a poet (if, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn’t write at all). Nevertheless, even then, this self-searching that I ask of you will not have been for nothing. Your life will still find its own paths from there, and that they may be good, rich, and wide is what I wish for you, more than I can say.

What else can I tell you? It seems to me that everything has its proper emphasis; and finally I want to add just one more bit of advice: to keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your whole development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to question that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer. ~ RMR

Perhaps tomorrow, my outlook will be more positive. More later. Peace.

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