Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Letters, to a Young Poet

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Letters, to a Young Poet

Article excerpt

A special issue of The Midwest Quarterly.

"Letters, to a Young Poet" used as the title page for this issue is by Scott Helmes.

In the early part of the 20th century, Franz X. Kappus, a young man who was trying to get started as a poet, wrote to Rainer Maria Rilke asking him for advice. Their correspondence continued over a period of several years. Kappus never became a poet of note, but two decades or so after their exchange of letters ended, he published one of the more important books in the history of poetry, a slim volume containing Rilke's remarkable letters to him. This book over the past eighty years has become a touchstone, a foundation, an inspiration to all serious writers of poetry as the most elegant and profound statement of what they aspire to in their art, as well as a model of kindness and generosity in mentoring the next generation of poets.

A little over a year ago, I began to think it might be interesting to see what contemporary poets would come up with if challenged with the task of writing their own letters to a young poet in the shadow of Rilke. So, I issued an invitation to poets who have published work in The Midwest Quarterly during my editorship, some six hundred of them. Nearly a hundred poets responded. The result was astounding. The letters range from mystical to practical, from serious to irreverent, from compassionate to sarcastic. Most letters are written in prose, but several are poems. The shortest is four words, the longest, ten pages, single-spaced! Unfortunately, I did not have room to accommodate them all and even had to edit for length many of those I did accept. My apologies both to those I had to turn down and to those I tampered with without so much as a "by your leave."

Dear friend,

I want to thank you for your letter and apologize ahead of time for being a poor messenger. I have decided that I will take a risk and give up my anonymity (which is what this involves when giving up the truth of something that has woven its very fiber through your body and spirit). But, you should understand that I offer only the fragments of what I have been able to grasp. This, you will learn, is the only way that you can write. It is always a reach for the meaning that you intended.

If you are to understand anything of writing, and especially the writing of poetry, you'll need to turn to science and someone who quietly made her way into the heart of history. Einstein considered her the one and only person on the planet who was "unspoiled," unselfish and caring. I'm speaking of Mafia Curie. She spent her last years caring for the sick, even while she knowingly and willingly sacrificed her own health. She grew up in a home where her mother refused her personal warmth, where she never felt her mother's touch.

And why, why should any of this matter? Remember this: Each morning she woke with the fire of radium burning in her fingertips. Her passion and her vision forced her to handle what could be, and most assuredly was dangerous. I'm speaking now of our "language," and how we stand at such a terrible and wonderful place--and with so much at stake. This is your beginning, the first touch of its power and how its power makes its place with you. If that restless mix of clarity and lack of clarity burns in you, if it wakes you from your sleep and draws you into its compulsive dialogue, then you have found a beginning. Your fingers will bleed with what they handle. They will ache because you will feel that you have made an inadequate attempt at letting them speak, at letting them make of themselves what you can only partially grasp. And yet, again and again, you will rinse your mind through its raw pitchblend, opening your once closed world view to the "'new," to the mystery of what can see through the veil of flesh and tap at the bone of every beginning.

But, of course, there always will be a "veil" that hides the secrets of your dialogue, the "letting go" of your language as it mixes in the ongoing dynamics of history. …

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