18 July 2011


A. Poetic success depends on the ability to draw connections between sounds which are simultaneously acoustically pleasing, grammatically acceptable, metaphorically appropriate, and linguistically unusual. Which is to say, really good poetry has the acoustic appeal of a nursery rhyme and the grammatical coherence of ordinary prose, while embellishing both of these with conceptual harmonies (usually via metaphor) and substantial subject matter (which I take to directly imply linguistic uncommonness—this point is shaky and complicated, I'll admit). And, most importantly, good poetry is true.

B. Concerning Rilke. My attitude toward the early 20th century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke has varied considerably over the past three years. At the beginning of my Sophomore year of college, Rilke was associated with a good friend from high school, who had recommended Letters to a Young Poet, and my favorite professor, who insisted that the beauty of his poetry would make mastering the German language more than worthwhile. (He was right.) On the whole, I've spent more time loving Rilke than hating him, but, as with any old friend, it has been necessary to exercise prudence in affection. Love should be ordered to right reason, and prudence requires us to beware the negative influence of our friends' vices. (...while not disowning the friend on their account.) In Rilke's case there's a lot to beware of. A cursory look at his biography shows that he was a far from honorable person. Additionally, though he uses Christian imagery and typology extensively, he frequently veers into fuzzy spiritualism, flirts (and later on much more than flirts) with a variety of nihilism, and has an overblown view of the significance of The Artist. It is for this reason that I warn all of you away from the Letters to a Young Poet. I've seen my share of "young poets" chomp down on Rilke's bait and get dragged into the grim depths of earnest inwardness and that irritating catchphrase: "openness, patience, receptivity, solitude is everything."