Sunday, August 30, 2009
"...you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change..."- Rainer Maria Rilke
I read "Letters to a Young Poet" the summer after my freshman year at college. I was reeling from my first year living in New York, working with professional actors who had such cynicism and experience backing up their talent, hazy from the tumultuous end of my first serious relationship, and back under my parents' heavy wings. (Heavy from love and decade-old rulebooks, but mostly love.) Truthfully, I'd been assigned the book at the beginning of the year, bought it, and hadn't read it. When I finally did read it nine months later, it was if the world halted and started rotating in a different direction. It had all been written for me, somehow. I read and reread the letters as I sat outside the district library in my neon-pink summer concert series Staff t-shirt where I worked for minimum wage. I copied whole paragraphs down in my journal in flowing lettering and doodles of stars. I felt really connected to that dead German guy, and very included in the adult world.
The second time "Letters to a Young Poet" crossed my path was two years later. I was in the early days of my second very serious relationship, and living the half-crazed life of the actor-in-training. Everything in my life was about art, except the part about living, which was about stress and panic. Perhaps feeling that same angsty pull all twenty-year olds feel, a dear friend of mine became very, very sick, and couldn't see the next steps in her path. I packed her off one weekend to see her grandmother, and slipped her one of my most cherished snippets from Rainer Maria.
"So you mustn't be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall."
She said it saved her. I don't know if the written word can save anyone, but I suppose it must have for someone at some point, so it very well have done the same for her.
Over the years, I've trucked my copy of "Letters to a Young Poet" all over the country. I don't always open it, but it's a comfort knowing it's there, with my underlinings and highlights in my 18-year old handwriting, stained and bent from years of prayerful readings. I don't particularly love Rilke's poetry, it's a little too pious and rambling for me, but so are his letters. Maybe what touches me is that these are letters to a young person, so familiarly lost and hopeful to please and confused, and it came two hundred years before my own bumblings through my artistic life. Rilke's advice applies to my own plight just as much as it does to Mr. Kappus'. And beyond the similarities of our paths, there is also the extraordinary honor of a correspondence between an amateur and his hero; furthermore, the wholly special joy it must have been to receive life lessons and advice from Rilke, and not just critiques to his work. I would've killed to have had a mentor. I still would. A good one, I mean. No use committing murder for a crappy mentor.
I didn't mean to write a post about a book we've all been assigned to read at some point. It's just, when I'm worried, or unsure of how I've come to a particular crossroads and even more uncertain of where to go next, years of reading and rereading Rilke has ingrained itself in my brain. His words flash through my brain, and I'm reminded I've felt this all before, and so have long-gone Europeans, and words and letters probably can save you.
I could go on, and delve into my cheesier feelings towards Mr. Rilke, but I won't, because he always ended his letters rather abruptly after a long and winding shpeil about life and art and bla bla bla and sometimes it's better just to leave it at that.