The artist’s life, especially in today’s world of hi-tech use, is glorified as something worth pursuing. It entails spiritual liberation, the ultimatum of something deep inside all of us. But this expression comes with hard work, self-honesty, and patience.
Tapping Into Self
I feel no one illuminates this truth more uniquely than Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet. This book was published during the year of The Great Depression: 1929. Rilke, an Austrian poet and novelist, by means of words, is approached by an aspiring poet and military cadet named Franz Kappus. The latter seeks the prophetic advice of the former and sends him his poems. Instead of critiquing Kappus’s poems, he provides spiritual guidance.
It’s no question art is difficult to authenticate in our lives as a creator. In my experience, the act of writing is alone a solitary act that expresses some need to understand something of grave concern. Rilke, in his Duino Elegies (1923), opened with the first elegy:
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic
Orders? And even if one were to suddenly
take me to its heart, I would vanish into its
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.
Those lines were written in 1923, yet ring true a century away: how are we to wrestle with the importance of embracing our own demons…making a god of ourselves? There is no answer in Letters to a Young Poet. Not ironically, Rilke insists that Kappus deeply consider his aspiration for being a poet, that is, if writing is inherently of his livelihood:
“Ask yourself, in your night’s quietest moment, ‘Do I have to write?” LTYP p. 5
Find A Mentor
For a brief time, I had a spiritual and poetic mentor, a woman named Leslie, of age and of many experiences. She spoke to me about Rilke a few times, but I also didn’t understand her so well. She spoke English, but her personal idiom was mystical. However, one thing she always said about letting go of everything returns to me. And I paraphrase: we are often in our own way more than we realize.
And that is Rilke’s point in Letters to a Young Poet. Giving up everything signs us up for something else. It takes patience. However, we owe ourselves solitude and introspection, especially writers. We artists are all sensitive, but as poets, we have the power to charge words with different and rare meanings.
Said another way, and this doesn’t relegate other art forms, a painting can’t give a speech. Words can paint a picture though. Ezra Pound once said in his essay A Retrospect, “When Shakespeare talks of the ‘Dawn in russet mantle clad’ he presents something which the painter does not present.”
Poets aren’t “above” artists in any way. But the scope in which Rilke’s words of wisdom are taken by other artists e.g., Lady Gaga, Jane Fonda, Dustin Hoffman—it says a great deal that a poet influenced the minds of artists that aren’t poets.
Where poetry stands in my life at this time is perfect. I recently became a jazz musician and gained my first residency as a performer of a century-old art form (Jazz) that forever changes. Now that I have finally read Letters to a Young Poet, I can say that Leslie was right. And so was Rilke.
We deserve to dig deep into ourselves and accept whatever treasure we find. Once again: practice patience. And gold, poetically speaking, isn’t all for spending.