Dear Phyllis: Letter to a Young Poet

Dear Phyllis: Letter to a Young Poet Air Date: April 27, 2009

In the early part of the 20th century, a young man named Franz Kappus wrote to the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, asking for advice on getting started writing poetry. Their correspondence continued for several years, resulting in one of the most important books in the history of poetry. The following is my modern version of a letter to a young poet.

Dear Phyllis: Letter to a Young Poet

Dear Phyllis,

I’ll call you Phyllis because the name means foliage, and you’ve got those laurel leaves on your head. I know, sometimes they feel like a permanently embedded crown of thorns—especially since in a few short years, you’ve acquired a perfectly good husband, two children presently watching a video in the next room, and here you are, at the kitchen desk, your laptop waving its Windows flag at you again. The scary thing is, Rilke’s admonition to ask yourself, “Must I write,” has been answered in the affirmative before by a great number of mediocre poets who stay at it year after year as they wither inside the little houses of their meager talent.

But it could be said of all of us, Phyllis, that we bump into the walls of our own limitations. And we do it alone. Writing is ghastly lonely, but loneliness—including the loneliness of facing our inadequacies—is, I suspect, the main thing about us, the deepest. Proust said that poetry begins in a room “shuttered and sealed against all traffic with the outer world, the poet’s soul.” So you stay home and shut the door. This will be your bravery, and you will never know if it pays off. You may win a Pulitzer, you may be asked to lecture before hundreds, and sit for hours signing autographs, but you will never know if the gods think your poems are good. It will feel to you as if you stumble every day into a new room where all the questions are different. You’ll go along, word by word, dragging out of yourself whatever you can muster, which you have to feel with all your being, not just with your mind. It will grate and rub.

All this bleakness! But you already know the joy. There’s no more to say than to acknowledge, between us, its existence: joy made out of words, but wordless. As if, is the closest one can get. As if, for example “Butterflies, off Banks of Noon/ leap plashless, as they swim.”

Since you can never measure or control the amount of “talent” you have, since you must stumble along in the dark, the main thing you need is character. Poems can only be as capacious as the character of the poet. Be good. I mean be as full of your whole self as possible. Sit down to dinner with both your virtues and your sins. Don’t be indifferent to them: sit quietly and let them possess you. When you scare yourself, search for the door to your fear and hold onto its knob for dear life. After it has shaken and stormed, it will open quietly, and inside will be the image you wanted, the one for the poem.

I go on about images and feeling, but of course T.S. Eliot said that poetry isn’t a turning loose of emotions but an escape from them; it isn’t the expression of personality, but an escape from it. But—and this is what Eliot and I want to say to you, Phyllis—it requires a great deal of personality and of emotion to be able to escape from them. “The emotion of art,” Eliot says, “is impersonal.” It is, but those of us who station ourselves seemingly like robots in front of our screens, not playing video games but driving mechanically, impersonally, toward the next line, know that we’re headed directly into the unknown of our emotions, that sheer accumulation of lines increases the pressure for a revelation to occur.

I need to warn you of the demons that will appear to you as you approach the unknown. Their scheme is to divert you onto an easier side-road. It’s not difficult to spot them: one wears the mitres and masks of general principles, ideals, religions. When you start to write God, democracy, love, sorrow, oppression, and the like, you must sit longer, until the sheer weight of your body begins to break through the crust and find out what particulars those words are made of. Another demon is robed like a prophet. When you start out confident that you have something you want to say, something the world needs to hear, try saying the opposite until your heart begins to loosen up and allow itself to be wrong. Do you want to save the world? Join the Peace Corps. Or, try to write poems that, like music, don’t allow any refuge, that just keep on, note after note, finding things out. When you’re hanging on by your real fingernails to a real cliff, when you fall, you’ll very likely fall into the interwoven vines of the sublime.

A third demon looks like a librarian. When you think you’ve told the true story, when you believe that you’ve researched and gotten all the facts right, then it’s time to make something up, change some crucial fact. This is only a strategy, though. The point is, you want to break the umbilical connection between yourself and your poem. Let it grow up, beyond you. Then it can begin to be art, which, as Oscar Wilde said, is “a veil, rather than a mirror.” Cut off, partial, broken, your story can begin to speak for more than itself.

Pour yourself some tea, before we go on. After the demons, it gets more complicated. You want both to look for and to avoid metaphor. I can’t tell you when to do either. Sometimes it’s enough that the poem is itself wholly metaphor—”A poem should be glass,” as Robert Francis said. Sometimes you want, as in one of Rilke’s “Duino Elegies,” a bat to “zigzag through the air, the way/ a crack runs through a teacup.” Do not focus on metaphor. You’ll forget the real direction. Do not focus on anything but what seems to follow from where you are.

But what about form? you ask. Surely one can’t be led along by the nose, following some indwelling mystical compass, if one commits to a pattern, whatever it might be, in the poem! Yes, but every line on paper is a commitment, isn’t it, formal or not? The poem consists of the line, bounded by white space, which has to hold tense within itself. It may draw pressure from the formal restrictions of rhyme or meter; it may draw pressure from the rhythms of the arrangement of its words. It’s always pressured by where you choose to hit the Enter key and drop to the next line. Read your poems line by separate line. Play the inscape (your mystical compass) against the instress (whatever other restrictions you’ve imposed). Don’t let even one line lie limp.

I know you’ve been working hard. The worst of it is, every day you read poems that seem to have been written, not by the line-by-line guys, but by the gods, that seem to have spilled out spontaneously from the heart of the universe. You read Rilke, who deftly overleaps the whole mundane world you’ve been assiduously trying to stay in, and lands immediately inside a speechless power. Sometimes you long for an opium dream. You wish you were John Ashbery, or Jorie Graham, the way they can hover just outside the rational—or maybe a combination of them, with Richard Wilbur to hold down the fort. Your poems feel petty, clunky, as if they’re trying too hard. I don’t have to tell you what to do about that. You know it for yourself. The painter Whistler said, “Work alone will efface the footsteps of work.” The evidence of industry, he said, is “a blemish, not a quality—a proof, not of achievement, but of absolutely insufficient work.” Yeats said it, too. Adam’s curse. More work.

I don’t have any brilliant ideas about how you should go about this work—which poets to read, where to sit when you write, what exercises to try, how much time to devote to writing each day. Our president would generally rather you were selling bonds, joining the army, or decorating houses. Your children would rather you’d take them to the playground. Your husband hopes you’ll pick up the cleaning. How much of a price can you pay? I’d say pay all you can afford. When it comes time to pay more than you can afford, you’ll know it. The sacrifice will have slipped up on you until it feels almost natural, almost as if you’ve been headed for it all your life.

I have to tell you, Franz Kappus never became a successful poet, in spite of Rilke’s five years worth of letters of advice. You may never publish a book. There are so few publishers, so many pretty-good poems. But whether you do or not, you should never need to ask, “Is it worth it?” Birds sing to attract a mate, but sometimes it looks as if they’re singing just for the pleasure of it. Once you’ve begun to hear the “language within the language,” as Valèry calls it, mostly you’re a crazy person for it. You get like an old woman with a basket in the woods, collecting wild mushrooms, strangely shaped sticks, watercress at the edges of streams, to see what she can make of them. She has no idea, but there’s a shape somewhere at the back of her mind, a taste…..

C.K. Williams says in Poetry and Consciousness, “The need for beauty, for the particular formal beauties of art, has to be included as one of our spiritual needs; it may even be, in our age, the most crucial.” But the old woman in the woods doesn’t think about “art.” She thinks, “What can I find here? Where do I start? What shall I put in, what leave out, to make it beautiful?” Stay with the old woman. Notice how she crouches to examine the spongy ridges of the morel mushrooms. Learn everything about morel mushrooms. Watch her brace against the trunk of the pinoak to stand, stretching against her arthritis. I can’t tell you what’s next, but she can.

—This essay is reprinted from Midwest Quarterly 44 (Summer 2003).

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry