“Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody,” Rilke wrote in his response to a request for advice and feedback from the nineteen-year-old aspiring poet Franz Kappus. “I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps.”
Rilke’s first letter to Kappus in Letters to a Young Poet is one of the most polite and ineffective dismissals you’ll read. While it seems that he’s trying to dispatch with his young admirer, it would be the first of ten letters that he sent Kappus over a six-year period. A century has passed since their correspondence ended, but the book remains a staple in high schools and colleges, a primer on the questions that artists confront throughout their lives.
In the spirit of Rilke’s attempts (or skillful dodges) at giving advice, we asked FSG’s poets to tackle a question—or invent a new one—that lies within Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke’s letters have proven to be remarkably durable, but if poetry has changed at all, we need new answers to our questions, and new questions to answer.
Five FSG poets—Ange Mlinko, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Michael Hofmann, Carl Phillips, and Karen Solie—heeded the call, and throughout April we will be sharing their advice to the Franz Kappuses of today. We’re pleased to present Karen Solie’s piece on “Vocation.”
After an event this fall, I was asked if I could recommend any useful local workshops or writing groups to someone interested in becoming a poet. University programs wouldn’t do, as this person hadn’t yet written or even read much poetry, and anyway had no money. The arts center programs I’ve taught for are also expensive, as are workshops led by writers I know. I mentioned a few reading series and writers in residence. I recommended that this person read.
But our conversation started me thinking about what becoming a poet–outside the frameworks of university workshops and mentoring programs—might mean in addition to the writing of poems. And I’ve realized how experientially bound are my ideas on it, how lodged in temperament and context, and how provisional.
I’ve twice tried and failed to write this letter. Second thoughts and equivocations adapted like weeds to any herbicidal recipe I threw at them. When we were little on the farm in the ‘70s, my sister, brother, and I would create paths and rooms inside stands of kochia that grew feet taller than we were, and play in there for hours. In those drought years, kochia—invasive, fibrous, indestructible— was the only thing that thrived. Today I’ll try to write from in the weeds.
I identify with Kappus, worry my verses “have no individual style.” I “send them to magazines,” “compare them with other poems,” and am “disturbed when certain editors reject” my efforts. I look outward for affirmation. But I also recognize truth in Rilke’s caution that “Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody.” That final, gravely echoing “nobody”! It’s what the cursor chants. It emanates from the blank page. One’s inner Kappus trembles. Then either gets to work, or doesn’t. Do we ever fully vanquish this Kappus, troubled by our “various shortcomings”? Perhaps we shouldn’t wish to.
Rilke goes on to offer quite a lot of counsel. To work at anything for a while does usually mean accumulating a few insights, working habits—what gets called a process—which may be interesting and/or helpful to those starting out in the same work. Even if, in concert with dissimilar or conflicting advice, it indicates that there is no one way to do, or be, anything.
As many brilliant poets have written, there’s not a whole lot to recommend becoming one, practically speaking. It’s not a good plan. So there must be something else involved. Rilke bids us ask: “must I write?” If the answer is “a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of the urge and a testimony to it.” A prescription that might make some of us tired and anxious. I don’t reject or disdain the idea of poetry as a vocation. Some of the poets I most admire speak of their philosophy and practice in this way. But it’s also possible to write beautifully while believing one’s vocation lies equally, or singularly, elsewhere—in teaching, activism, the machine shop, scholarship, music, whatever. It need not mean one’s commitment to the contemplative and technical discipline poetry requires is diminished, need not mean one doesn’t (even if in a fractious, queasy, intermittent way) love it.
But belief in vocation, feeling “called to be an artist,” has also been known to present itself wreathed in a fog of quasi-religious incense, or in a thoroughly modern odor of reverence and authority that nevertheless likewise signals a presumption of, and romantic infatuation with, separateness. With the poet as, somehow, more than. I truly wish the pursuit of poetry as a “destiny” whose “burden and . . . greatness” one accepts were an idea—like hamburgers sandwiched by Krispy Kreme doughnuts—whose time has passed.
Identifying one’s art with vocation can be a mode of solidarity, of belonging in solitude, a comfort, challenge, and discipline uniting intellect and spirit. If poetry is your calling, more power to you. But to Rilke’s admonishment that “to feel that one could live without writing, then one must not attempt it at all,” my first response is I could live without it. Not without reading, no way; but without writing, probably, yes.
Does the ability to conceive of walking away make one’s writing life less genuine? Do one’s poems suffer for it? Is this just quibbling over abstractions? Maybe, given my Catholic upbringing, “vocation” and “calling” are still a little sticky with a sanctimonious coating both mystical and judgmental, and suggest a life decision whose disavowal or modification constitutes failure. Yet I treasure the example of writers whose stated vocation is a commitment to change (in several senses), to awareness of the self in context, to empathy, uncertainty, and what Fanny Howe calls “bewilderment.”
My reluctance to affirm “I must” might stem not from an ability to conceive of walking away so much as from the fact I can do it. Whether I write or not will not make much difference to anyone. My situation is not one in which being identified as a poet could see me imprisoned or killed. I won’t be put on a watch list if caught with certain books in my possession (will I?). I don’t belong to a community whose voices are suppressed or denigrated. Rilke’s question “must I write?” is of a different order in these contexts, as is the commitment and courage motivating poetry’s composition, publication, and public performance. My point is not that the response “I must” rightly belongs to some people or groups and not to others. It’s that we need to keep alive what’s at stake in these avowals, and not just for ourselves.
There isn’t one way to be a poet any more than there is one way to write a poem. To know we could live without writing does not mean we are dabblers, hacks, or amateurs. After all, it’s equally possible to sincerely live and breathe poetry—to publish, teach, critique, theorize, blog, Facebook, and tweet—and not be very good at writing it.
Reenter Kappus, poetic attempts in hand, wondering what it’s all about. Recognition from readers, peers, and mentors shouldn’t be taken for granted. But even for those of us lucky enough to experience it, I don’t think our inner Kappus is something to outgrow. Though it may mutate over time into, as Rilke writes, bouts with “an influenza-like lassitude . . . incapable of anything.” I believe the best of us work always in the midst of bewilderment, and that no poet ever graduates from becoming one.
Karen Solie was born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Her collections include The Road In is Not the Same Road Out, Short Haul Engine, Modern and Normal, Pigeon, and The Living Option. She has received the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Pat Lowther Award, and the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. The Living Option was named one of the best poetry books of 2013 by the National Post (Toronto) and The Independent (London). Solie lives in Toronto, Canada.