earthweal weekly challenge: THE NATURE OF POETRY

Ranier Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926)


How did we become poets? There is a professional track, of sorts — here in the United States, education takes one as far as the MFA in Creative Writing / Poetry; after that one teaches the writing of poetry at a college or university, meanwhile continuing to write and publish and become known in the community of publishing poets. I had a girlfriend, once, who travelled that way and became (well after our brief poetry affair) quite successful; her poems may be remembered a decade from now.

I doubt many of us in this online forum have come close to that — that’s too costly, select and privileged a path. Still, I think all of us consider ourselves poets and work diligently at it, as time and resources allow. Most of us have day jobs earning our keep and write in our spare time. We take pride in our work and appreciate the response and support of the online poetry communities we participate in, the forum being a tiny example.

Over time an interest in writing poems became a dedicated enough of an avocation that we called ourselves poets. Does that make us artists? My wife is a talented seamstress with a deep sense of her craft and art in general, yet she refuses to be called an artist. And as much as I’m devoted to poetry in my spare time, she doesn’t think the handle applies to me only. To her, artists are the rarest of phenomena, those with once-in-a-generation vision and sensitivity. For all the people who love to paint, there is only one Picasso or Rembrandt. And for the way many of those epic artists behave, humanity is better off having fewer artists to contend with.

I’m on the fence with that. Poetry is a deep passion; my creative writing efforts (apart from the journalism and marketing and copywriting and feature writing I’ve done in my day jobs) have played with prose, but verse is the daily dive, the sufficient voice for singing between the worlds of life and dream.

For me, how I came to be a poet is a mystery. I thought I was going to be a guitar god. In my early round of college classes (I dropped out to play rock n roll) I was attracted to Sylvia Plath and Theodore Roethke — their words sounded like ones I was just discovering within – but it was a passing interest. I didn’t take up poetry with any seriousness until I gave up on my musical ambitions. When my last guitar crashed and dived, talking with it all interest in playing again — words started surfacing.

This was back in the early ‘90s, when I was in my early 30s. Sobering up, I got married, landed a professional job at the newspaper and finished my degree over 8 years of night classes. The passing fancy I had for confessional poets from a decade ago took root as I dived into English and American literature, read Spanish poets as I walked back and forth to work, and read Rilke.

Somehow reading Rilke brought me to calling myself a poet. Much as I hate the handle – I mean, yuck – poetry cultivates the deepest realms of my nature, no matter how much the title has fallen in popular opinion.

I came to Rilke through some pretty bad translations by Robert Bly, but not even his awkward skein of substitute words prevented something incredibly loud and succinct from booming through, a sound which echoed in a massive space within that I hadn’t known existed.

I moved on to reading a much better translation by Stephen Mitchell, who took me through Rilke’s major work, and then on to other translations by A. Poulin, Jr, Edward Snow and Franz Wright (James’ son). There were biographies by Wolfgang Leppmann and Donald Prater and a two-volume collection of his letters translated by Jane Bannard Greene and M.D. Herter Norton.

Not all at once. Reading Rilke has been a dive I keep going back to. I’m presently re-reading his Letters to a Young poet again in a Penguin Classics edition with translation by Charlie Louth and an introduction by Louis Hyde. The story behind them is this: Rilke was just 26 years old when he received, in 1902, the first of a series of letters from Franz Xaver Kappus, a 19-year-old student who was trying to decide between a literary career and becoming an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army.

As Kappus later related, he had been in sitting under some ancient chestnut trees in the garden of his military school reading a volume of Rilke’s poetry. The academy chaplain happened by and asked to look at the book when he saw the author’s name on the jacket. He leafed through a few poems and then said: “So, our pupil Rene Rilke has decided to become a poet.” Turns out Rilke had studied there some fifteen years before. The chaplain remembered the studious young man who struggled with the enforced rigors of a military school. As a result his parents had taken him out and had him continue his studies from home in Prague. The chaplain had not heard of the young student again until that moment. Kappus related it was then he decided to write Rilke and ask him to look at some of his poems and tell him if he should forego military school for the life of a poet.

For his youth, Rilke was already a successful poet, having published “eight or nine” titles of popular verse since the early 1890s, and he was himself pondering big moves in his career which would take him from a nice lyric poet into the hallucinatory perceptions of his New Poems and the “hurricane of the spirit” which characterized his late Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus.

Kappus included some drafts of his poems, including “My Soul”— one can imagine where that was headed — hoping to get affirmation from a master which would tell him which way to go. Kappus would not get that from Rilke, who thought such advice would be useless. What he did provide, over the course of ten extraordinary ten letters, was a deep dive into the nature of the poet that Rilke had so quickly come to realize.

He was smart and accomplished enough in his work of becoming a poet to sense how difficult the task ahead would be. “As with many young artists, Rilke had a sense of the land to which his gifts might lead him, but he was also anxious that he might never get there,” Hyde writes in his introduction. “He lived in fear of two false fates; either that he might end up as lost as the ragged poor who had surrounded him in Paris or else that he might succumb to the safe but numbing comforts of convention.”

Rilke lived on the tippytoes of that most perilous of tightropes of late romantic poetry, constantly walking on an air of words through the deepest and wildest sea forests of the human heart. The opinion of the past century — a fair breadth of time for such an assessment — is that Rilke, despite his lousy accomplishments as a human being (typica for artists), did it: He natured into the forest of song, and no amount of modernity has been able to erase that.

Let’s take a look at some of the first letter Rilke wrote in response. I pick up about halfway through. What follows is to me one of the most accurate, unsparing and heartfelt attempts to describe what it means to become a poet:

You ask whether your poems are good. You send them to publishers; you compare them with other poems; you are disturbed when certain publishers reject your attempts.  Well now, since you have given me permission to advise you, I suggest that you give all that up. You are looking outward and, above all else, that you must not do now. No one can advise and help you, no one.

There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.

Then draw near to nature. Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose. Do not write love poems, at least at first; they present the greatest challenge. It requires great, fully ripened power to produce something personal, something unique, when there are so many good and sometimes even brilliant renditions in great numbers. Beware of general themes. Cling to those that your everyday life offers you. Write about your sorrows, your wishes, your passing thoughts, your belief in anything beautiful. Describe all that with fervent, quiet, and humble sincerity. In order to express yourself, use things in your surroundings, the scenes of your dreams, and the subjects of your memory.

If your everyday life appears to be unworthy subject matter, do not complain to life. Complain to yourself. Lament that you are not poet enough to call up its wealth. For the creative artist there is no poverty—nothing is insignificant or unimportant. Even if you were in a prison whose walls would shut out from your senses the sounds of the outer world, would you not then still have your childhood, this precious wealth, this treasure house of memories? Direct your attention to that. Attempt to resurrect these sunken sensations of a distant past. You will gain assuredness. Your aloneness will expand and will become your home, greeting you like the quiet dawn. Outer tumult will pass it by from afar.

If, as a result of this turning inward, of this sinking into your own world, poetry should emerge, you will not think to ask someone whether it is good poetry. And you will not try to interest publishers of magazines in these works. For you will hear in them your own voice; you will see in them a piece of your life, a natural possession of yours. A piece of art is good if it is born of necessity. This, its source, is its criterion; there is no other.

Therefore, my dear friend, I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth. At its source you will find the answer to the question, whether you must write. Accept it, however it sounds to you, without analyzing. Perhaps it will become apparent to you that you are indeed called to be a writer. Then accept that fate; bear its burden, and its grandeur, without asking for the reward, which might possibly come from without. For the creative artist must be a world of his own and must find everything within himself and in nature, to which he has betrothed himself.

A world within: What realms of animate and inanimate nature are discovered in our poems! It is said that the Greeks related myths as inner truths writ large in the heavens, each planet and moon and star a tale writ by the heart. Reading Rilke, I sense both the greatness of the forests and seas within and the angelic magnitude yet to be discovered. “The poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents Beauty,” Emerson writes in “The Poet.”  And each poem is a botany of that beauty which is the nature of poetry. “It is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,” Emerson continues, “— a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.”

The penultimate word betrothed in the above passage from Rilke is significant. I think of the pagan Irish kings who were ritually mated with a mare as part of their ascent to the throne, symbolic of their union with the spirit of the land. (They also later bathed in the horse’s blood.) Becoming a poet means deciding one must write poetry; and if the answer is Yes, then everything that follows is poetry. Easy, for a god, or a Rilke; but most of us contend with day jobs and love lives and the bad bowels of contemporary living, all of which are jealous of our time. Still, we make our way into the forest of poetry as best we can, and as poetry becomes our second nature, we take up the most difficult work of making it our first nature, that saying and being are one. We are married to this land; our work is the land’s work and the land’s work is ours. Culture and nature are one.

Rilke’s letters provide a botany of the poet’s nature as Rilke had discovered so far—how to feel, love, and speak truth in the innermost greening of every word. Rilke’s fame was just beginning – his most recent works, The Book of Hours and The Book of Images, were the first evidence of the major talent he would become. His shamanic initiation was just unfolding, but I think Rilke already understood that such gifts could only be increased by pouring them fully out. (Remember, Keats died in full expression at age 25).

Rilke only mentioned his correspondence with Kappus once elsewhere, in a July 1904 letter to his wife Clara. He remarked that Kappus “is having a hard time,” complaining of having used up his strength. He responds that “the using up of strength is in a certain sense still an increase of strength …: all the strength we give away comes back over us again, experienced and transformed. Thus it is in prayer. And what is there that, truly done, would not be prayer?” The Letters To A Young Poet have the force of invocation, for Rilke is characterizing the poet’s vocation and nature as the windiest occupation of all. The only one available to one who must write …

It would be another twenty years before Rilke found the full vocabulary of his poetic nature. A friend/lover/patron had offered him the use of Castel Muzot, a 13th-century manor house in Switzerland with a tower overlooking the Rhone Valley.  He had arrived there after a long and deep depression; behind was a failed marriage, endless wanderings and the Great War and all his attempts to get to his sources in poetry which seemed inadequate.

One day he received a letter from his daughter Ruth telling him of the death of a friend of hers, the dancer Vera Knoop, at age 19. The news deeply affected Rilke and he got to work writing what became the Sonnets to Orpheus, with Knoop figuring as Eurydice in his eye. Something kindled to a roar and in three days he’d written 22 sonnets. He was then lifted into a creative  “hurricane of the spirit,” finishing the Elegies he had been struggling over for a decade and penning another 23 sonnets in the course of two short weeks. The poems were so quickly composed that he wrote in a letter that it was more like transcription, pacing back and forth across his room “howling unbelievably vast commands and receiving signals from cosmic space and booming out to them my immense salvos of welcome.”

Here is the third sonnet from the first section, translated by Stephen Mitchell:

A god can do it. But will you tell me how
a man can enter through the lyre’s strings?
Our mind is split. And at the shadowed crossing
of heart-roads, there is no temple for Apollo.

Song, as you have taught it, is not desire,
not wooing any grace that can be achieved;
song is reality. Simple, for a god.
But when can we be real? When does he pour

the earth, the stars, into us? Young man,
it is not your loving, even if your mouth
was forced wide open by your own voice—learn

to forget that passionate music. It will end.
True singing is a different breath, about
nothing. A gust inside the god. A wind.

The last two stanzas of that poem inspired me to write a verse autobiography titled “A Breviary of Guitars,” a three-beat bildungsroman three inches wide and twenty miles tall about learning to forget that passionate music. The daily writing exercise of it went on for 18 months; and though the result is an unpublishable mess (even here), still the work launched my second life as a poet of underworld inward innermost nature—that “different breath, about / nothing” — I am ever learning something new about. To be a poet is to become wind, I think. (Though there are ever more ways to read Rilke.)

For this challenge, write about the nature of poetry. There are lots of avenues you can take:

  • What is this nature, how is it like and different from the outside world it reflects? How is poetic nature like or unlike human nature?
  • Who taught you about this nature? Rilke was my inspiration for the writing of this challenge, though there were many other poets who also played a part, from Sylvia Plath to Wallace Stevens and Jack Gilbert and all of you. There were also professors who taught passionately and encouraged me to write. There are writers about poetry and the poet’s nature, and there were archaeologists and myths and dreams. Who inspired you to come close to your poetic nature ?
  • What does reading poetry have to do with writing it? Are both necessary to cultivate poetic nature?
  • Write a letter to a young poet expressing some of what you’ve learned about poetic nature. Maybe it’s a letter to your younger self, or to a young person wondering what this poetry is all about.
  • Write a verse letter to a mentor or a master. What would you say to an Adrienne Rich or Gary Snyder (or whoever) about how they helped you?
  • Or try writing a verse letter to an old master, that shaman or druid or wise woman who works on in your deepest nature. Is their work your work too?
  • Is it poetic nature dying too in the Anthropocene? Killed by what? Lack of air and moisture, reading and books? How can saving poetry keep us from killing everything?

Tell us about the nature of poetry!

– Brendan


About the young man: Franz Kappus completed military school and served in the Austro-Hungarian army for the next 15 years. After he worked as a newspaper editor and journalist, and wrote poems, humorous sketches, short stories and novels, and adapted several works for screenplays. His only memorable act for the ages was compiling and then publishing Rilke’s letters to him in 1929, three years after the poet had died of leukemia at age 51. He was like you and me, a recipient and reader of letters from a master, a carrier of that nature. Kappus was humble enough to conclude as such in his introduction to the first publication of the Letters:

The only important thing is the ten letters that follow, important for the insight they give into the world in which Ranier Maria Rilke lived and worked, and important too for many people engaged in growth and change, today and in the future. And where a great and unique person speaks, the rest of us should be silent.

Kappus’ life had some resonance a hundred years ago, but none of it survives today except as proscenium to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.  A hundred years from now, I doubt anything I wrote on the wind will be heard anywhere except as a momentary and fragmentary carrier of the great spirit of song. Maybe an echo, or simply wind.


You: Poet, lover, shaman of the soaring trope,
peregrinal myth winging the water verdure
of my awakened voice—: You strode behind
me as I walked every day to work and back
reading poems out loud in my 1990s drone.
Just like you walked the streets of Prague
in 1895, dressed all in black and clutching
a lily to your breast: The walking angel of song,
behind me like a mighty bell’s unfading gong.
You vault and precipice, the winged shadow of awe
creeping like moonlight across the night’s shallows.
Who knew that your breast-pocket day-book—
inked slowly and cleanly with laced metricals—
would open for me like the doors of a cathedral
wherein the ages cupped oceans to the organ’s roar?
My sorrows baptized, my yearning sanctified
with a pellucid, booming, wave-carousing soar …
In your great rose window my voice found its stem,
gripping down in soil that planted the first tree.
Who wouldn’t stagger reading your poems, even
eighty years later and in English translation, trudging
home in brilliant heat with a briefcase in one hand
and a dog-eared trade paperback in the other?
Even then: Oaks hurled Being into the Florida sky,
tumescent, empurpled, slick with your birthing cry,
ending in ellipses like a burning bier that floats away …
With those monster newspaper presses failing behind me
and love waiting ahead with both her swords unsheathed.
Who wouldn’t prostrate at the altar you summoned
then anointed by knelling its purest empty sound?
How much I’m still there after all the intervening years,
walking to and fro in dailiness with your book in hand,
reading out loud the dazzle of our elegiac ghost land.

earthweal weekly challenge: THE UNSAYABLE


So many die of COVID-19 these days, their passing is lost in the whir and blur. Some news outlets try to remember them. At night the PBS News hours tells a brief story about five victims. The New York Times has tried to kept a paddle in the water with obits of important people we’ve lost — opera bass-baritone Antoine Hodge, age 38; Raymond Cauchethier, New Wave photographer, age 101; Claudette White, innovative tribal judge for the Quechan tribe in California; Elizabeth Duff, Nashville’s first bus driver, age 72; Dr. David Katzenstein, virologist and AIDS researcher, age 69; Rosemary Collins, high school chorus teacher and church music director, age 51. How to measure each loss, how to sum the whole?

The global COVID pandemic grinds on into its second year with hopeful and distressing signs in its massive, complex and invisible works, the vaccine become slowly more available and troubling mutations threatening. A fourth wave is possible if humankind acts like it lives in Florida and ignores all warnings in its hurry to return to normal life, a hope as retro as Donald Trump in the Hall of Presidents at Disney World.

What is remarkable to me is that for all its deadly impact on human health and harsh effect on the world’s economies, we arrive at this moment largely blind and silent about the pandemic’s presence in our lives.

Historians have noted that the Spanish Flu epidemic was soon forgotten in the world’s hurry into the Gilded Age. 50 million died of the disease worldwide, and yet there are few public memorials. (The Great War killed about 20 million.) Here in the United States, 500,000 citizens have died of the disease in the past year with about 3,000 more succumbing every day in recent weeks. And yet there is little mention of it where I live, except in anticipation of when we’ll see a vaccine. The dead are out of sight, and long-term sufferers are sequestered. Out of sight, out of mind.

Visualizing an invisible plague remains problematic; we see it less for what it is than what it does, like some gravitational wave warping the galactic weave. Helen Lewis wondered about the lack. of defining COVID images in a recent Atlantic piece; if it has to do with “the essential weirdness of this pandemic”:

It is a novel event in which nothing truly new is happening: People are staying at home, people are dying in hospitals, people are socializing in small groups or not at all. How does a picture of a woman standing at her window convey that she doesn’t just happen to be there for a moment, but has been trapped inside for months, shielding her fragile immune system?

… The challenge of documenting the coronavirus is to show how our existence has been put on hold, how time has telescoped while our horizons have contracted …  I would love to see visuals that show our time-lapse lives: the steady degradation of a home that is now an office, playground, school, coffee shop, and bar all at once, day after repetitive day; the slow blooming of beards as shaving became a needless task; the monotony of another day in jeans and socks as a wardrobe full of clothes hangs idle, with no parties or conferences to attend.

One wonders if something so resistant to imagery is worth noticing at all. I mean, there are lots of fish to fry these days, or rather lots of fish frying. Western democracies are convulsed, digital media is driving us nuts, bad guys abound.  Modernity moves so fast. Lada Gaga’s dogs were stolen, native languages have vanished and McDonald’s is trying to figure out a chicken sandwich.

Climate change is another invisible monster, perhaps the shadow twin of pandemic. (Or its monster grandsire.) Hundreds, thousands, millions of animal species are going extinct because there are too many carbons in the atmosphere and humans can’t and won’t stop spewing them. A 60-million-year march since the last great extinction is fast coming to an end in the next one, and happening so fast that even those cosmic blip humans can hardly see the crash of geologic time.

Back to Helen Lewis’s article, she sees a dire point to being able to memorably see the pandemic:

… We need photographs of this pandemic because we need to remember it collectively. We need to fix the coronavirus crisis in our minds, so we can stand back and consider the upheaval of our lives. We must remember the scale of the challenge faced by politicians, epidemiologists, health-care workers, vaccine researchers, and the clunking bureaucracies that silently run our lives—and remind ourselves which of those groups rose to the occasion, and which did not.

In a decade’s time, we will need to stop the dead from slipping into the mist, along with the failures that helped send them there. We need to see what happened—so that, later, we can all agree that it did.

The pandemic is one of many great challenges for poets these days as we try to articulate the momentousness of what is happening all around us and in our very bodies. Are words sufficient? We must clearly try.

Poetry I think is valuable for this moment because it has descriptive gears for the unsayable.

Donald Hall writes about the secret rooms which poetry can explore, not so much that we may understand them as to detect the presence of the invisible:

Friends of ours bought an old house in the country, a warren of small rooms, and after they furnished it and settled down, they became aware that their floor plan made no sense.  Peeling off some wallpaper they found a door that pried open to reveal a tiny room, sealed off and hidden, goodness knows why: they found no corpses or stolen goods.

The unsayable builds a secret room, in the best poems, which shows in the excess of feeling over paraphrase. The room is not a Hidden Meaning to be paraphrased by the intellect; it conceals itself from reasonable explanation. The secret room is something to acknowledge, accept, and honor in a silence of assent; the secret room is where the unsayable gathers, and it is poetry’s uniqueness. (“Poetry: The Unsayable Unsaid,” Copper Canyon Press, 1993)

The unsayable unsaid gathers — briefly, for a song — in gossamer nets of words we little understand and fabricate without much understanding, meant but mostly accidental clusters of words and dreaming rhyme.

The unsayable begins with an ill-defined, unlocated, peripheral entity we usually call “it” which slowly defines itself as door then room then altar then chalice filled with an unsayable potency the words can yet calibrate as drunkenness or wonder or grief. Sherod Santos explores “it” in the title poem to his 2003 collection The Perishing:

It began as a sound in the nettle trees
that grew along the runoff ditches near the leak,
the whisper of a dry wind rattling the leaves,

the unsettling air adrift with ash.

It began
as a sound, though hushed and small,
that in no time at all became a constant
and upwelling thing, the soft chorale
of something unsayable slipping away,

thinning out like an inwardness
over the mineral waste, or like a memory lost
in the evanescence of remembering.

the burning lake it passed, this sound,
and even as the feelings it awakened in us
seemed gathered up into its passing,

tinged with the nothingness still to come,
it luffed and flared and coalesced
into shimmering planes of vanishing,

An immense, chimeric seepage
through some misweave in the weft of things,
for it was we eventually came to see

the sound

Of our own perishing,
the all-but-unthinkable erasure
that’s both part of and apart from us,

a supersession so absolute,

so attuned to the particulars of our lives,
that even though it’s there
in everything we’ve done, in every shadow
of the broadcast moon,

We barely think
to miss it now the time has come
to imagine ourselves all over again,
to imagine us as we’d been before

we heard that sound in the nettle trees
and recognized it for what it was.

Presence and absence are partners here: We see what isn’t and say it is, it ghosts us leaving a fading imprint on a windowpane.

For this challenge, write about the unsayable. Describe the unsayable nature of the pandemic we are still fighting our way through. Is it the event which is best known or seen by its shadows and ghosts? What tools in the poetic repertoire are there for describing and naming and calibrating it? How is it akin to the slow but tidally monstrous impunity of climate change? Where does it differ? Are there other invisibilities to which it is akin, from digital mayhem to grief to galactic waves? Are there songs for the dead? How has the future landscape changed?

Let’s find out!

— Brendan