First, a very happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you, my friends! Éire go Brách! I can hear the sounds of our city’s festival from here, but it’s very rainy, so we’re not venturing out. Instead, this little Irish lass is enjoying a hot mug of Irish Breakfast tea and reading some of my favorite Irish poet, Seamus Heaney.
This is how poems help up live.
They match the meshes in the sieve
Life puts us though; they take and give
Our proper measure
And prove themselves most transitive
When they give pleasure.
If you’re never read Seamus Heaney’s poetry, or his book Finders Keepers, which is something of a poetry handbook and is incredibly useful to the aspiring poet or writer, then I highly recommend you check him out. He is well worth your time.
I don’t often talk about it, but poetry is my first love. Before I’d ever picked up Fitzgerald or Austen, I discovered Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Emily Dickinson in my neighborhood library during my eight grade year. I’m sure I’d read something of them, and other poets, before, but this is when they first captured me. I devoured Emily’s entire collection in a week, kept Tennyson’s Idles of the King on my bedside table, and was soon pluming the depths of Longfellow, Keats, Shelly, and the Brownings.
Worlds on worlds are rolling ever
from creation to decay.
Like the bubbles on a river-
sparkling, bursting, born away.
What breathing soul would not be captivated by such lushness? *Sigh* These poets inspired me to write for myself. What I penned, however, was not even a little inspiring, but rather an angst-riddled adolescent verse that the world was kind enough to label “poetry-ish.” (Though I dobelieve every writer has to get this angst-y, teenage nonsense out of their system before they can go on to write something that wont make them nauseated when they read it in ten years.)
"Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer." -Rilke
Then, in college, I discovered the modern’s- Sandburg, Whitman, Plath, Dylan Thomas, Neruda, Milosz, Brodsky, Marianne Moore, and Denise Levertov, among others- who all made me feel the world in a newer way. I also started writing a few pieces that were passable, and I started realizing that this wasn’t just a hobby for me, it was a need. I needed to write. It was around this time I first discovered Rainer Maria Rilke, and truly, I feel in love.
I don’t think you have a choice about your poetic voice, I think it just comes up from the depths of who you are and how you see the world, and that is the voice you have. I found my voice in Denise Levertov, and I love her dearly, but if I could have chosen my voice, I would have wished to sound like Rilke. He’s so smooth and simple and reads so effortlessly. He’s one of the ones that makes poetry sound like anyone could do it, when you know in reality he sweated blood over those verses.
Rilke’s Letter’s to a Young Poet chronicles ten letters he wrote to an aspiring poet who admired Mr. Rilke greatly. I read a portion of these letters in a college Modern Poetry class, but I’d never read them in their entirety. Rilke is everything you expect from an eccentric poet- passionate, abounding in a slightly opaque wisdom, and sitting on the edge of a benevolent narcissism. He’s mesmerizing. At just 90 pages, this little treasure is well worth the afternoon it will take you to read on your own, but here are a few of the gems I collected from it:
- Never substitute irony for real creativity. Irony is only of real use when it springs from creativity, not when it takes it’s place. Writers who are purely ironic may last for a season, but the truly creative endure beyond. (Hipster poets, beware!)
- Everything is inspiration. Everything you’ve done, read, seen, said, thought, touched, tasted, or desired is all gestating in you. Poetry is an amalgamation; don’t discount anything.
- Poetry is hard. If you don’t feel from your inner core that it’s something you must do, it is perhaps better to find another enterprise.
- Poetry is hard because it is a preparation for life. The poet delves deeply and examines life so that it may be lived more fully. And what is life without love? Nothing. So if you’re not willing to take the time to learn to love well, you’re poetry will be stunted. To use Mr. Rilke’s own words, love is “the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”
- If you want to write anything well, you’re going to have to get some time alone, and get it regularly. Solitude is the mother of reflection, and reflection is the mother of poetry.
- And, finally, this: patience will make or break you. Poetry is a marathon, not a sprint. My favorite quote from the whole book speaks to this:
“Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer….I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything.”
And after swallowing all this richness, I just had to read more of his poetry. I read the entirety of my favorite Rilke collection, Rilke’s Book of Hours. Oh Rainer, how you slay me! I have no real review except this: if you’ve never read this particular collection, do it! It is a feast for your thoughts. I’ll share here two short selections, an old favorite and a new one.
Poem I, 2:
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
Poem II, 16:
This is what the things can teach us:
patiently trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.
Have you ever read a poet that just set your heart on fire? Let me know below, I’d love to check them out! If you’ve read Rilke before, do you love him, hate him, or fall somewhere in-between? What is your favorite Rilke poem?