Letter to a Young Poet
Rainer Maria Rilke begins his Letters to a Young Poet, the one who had first written to him for advice, with the words:
I want to thank you for the great confidence you have placed in me. That is all I can do. I cannot discuss your verses; for any attempt at criticism would be foreign to me. Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings.
He then writes the poet nine long letters, chiefly about the poetic condition and the necessity of an appropriate inner life.
I can’t do that. You haven’t yet placed any confidence in me and even if you did I would not presume to advise you in such matters.
Instead, like all good egotists – and poets are mostly to be found, dear hypocrite lecteur, along the egotist spectrum – I will begin with myself and leave you to see if you recognise anything.
I began as a poet in rather unlikely circumstances. I was taking a variety of science A levels in school and doing rather badly when a friend stopped me in a corridor and showed me a slip of paper with a poem handwritten by a mutual acquaintance. No one had ever showed me a handwritten poem before and if anyone had it would probably not have been this particular friend.
He asked me what I thought. I muttered something non-committal but inside me I knew it was not good. By what standards did I know it? I might have thought it over dramatic, even melodramatic, and therefore…. Therefore what? What followed from that? That it was a lie of some sort? But if the poem was untrue to something, truth of a kind might also possible. A poem was, I must clearly have felt, a vehicle for truth.
Truth to what? I would not have been capable of answering that then, and I am far from sure I can answer it now. Truth to experience, I suppose, or imagination working on experience. It would be something like that. The poem I had just read took truth to be simple and, as I realised, probably for the first time at that moment, truth was complex. Truth was complex: complexity was truth.
Whatever I exactly thought or felt then, for the first time in my life I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a poet and to pursue the kind of truth implicit in poems. Poems, I felt, must be essentially short, should not rely on generalised statements, and would probably resolve themselves into lines that would strike me as right.
That was when I resolved – and I really did resolve – to be a poet.
Brevity, particularity, and detachment from the expectations of prose seemed to be the salient qualities. I had read hardly any poetry, had given up Eng Lit at fifteen and had no critical language for an essentially intuitive sense of what a poem might be.
I now wonder what the foremost quality was among the three, and I suspect it was the sense of lineation, the process that most obviously distinguished itself from prose. Poems just looked different. Did they therefore sound different? There seemed to be a peculiar logic, something not entirely logical at any rate, about the way one line stopped and another began. I knew nothing about meter. Later, when I got on to iambic pentameters and other measures, I had to count the syllables on my fingers to get them into my head and body. I was not born into the English language: I acquired it at the age of eight so my confidence was low in all technical matters, but I wasn’t thinking technically: I was – as you may be – working on instinct. Instinct seemed to be the most important thing. I was – as you may be – feeling my way towards something that felt necessary. Lines as rhythm, lines as music, lines as cadence, and units, or partial units, of sense were something I groped my way to.
Nevertheless my poems, like most people’s I suppose, including yours, began with a line, the notion of a line at least.
Where would that line have come from? Where do poems begin? As Michael Longley once said, “If I knew where poems came from I’d go there.” The trouble is the source of a poem is not like a shop that stays on the same street. The question Rilke first asks the young poet may be more useful. The important thing for Rilke is why the young poet writes. Is it necessary for him to write?
That is a very hard question and we may not know the answer, but it may begin something like this:
Some feeling that is partly a thought hangs around your mind or descends on you almost abruptly. Let’s call it a condition. That condition may have a specific subject as such. You may want to write about an event, a place, an encounter of some sort, but you know – and this is your ‘truth-sense’ at work – that whatever it is will not be circumscribed by description or statement, that its nature is not quite concrete, not quite static, and that it is as much the context from which it emerges, and the contexts it hints at, that are the material. That feeling or thought forms itself into a line, a something you can feel in your nerves and mouth. Or think you do, because you can’t be certain of anything at this stage. That line is a gift or a dud but you have to take the risk and follow it with a second and a third and so on.
But lines are made of language, and language is not a thing ‘out there’, not a system you can detach yourself from, because it is inside you. You follow the poem through language because you know that your own condition, the point where you started, is also a condition of language. Your sense of things seeks words: words produce a sense of things. Words are agents as much as media. Once you have used a word you have introduced an agent and you have to listen intently not just to your own line of thought or feeling but to that produced by the words.
That, I think, is the key perception for any poet: it is the prime intuition that is your starting kit. Accept no substitutes. Seek it. Yours will not be mine. It will, with luck, be distinctly yours.
Listening is the key art and listening is an art you can learn. You learn it by reading, reading widely and at depth. Try to hear what is going on in a poem. Feel its surfaces and edges. Enact it by saying it and running it through your mouth. You need your mouth to produce the sound. It is a physical process. It begins as a deep body response. Watch a baby and the way its body expresses its state of mind. We never quite lose that and the sounds we articulate into words, phrases, cadences and lines, enact themselves. The great open vowels of A or I, the closed, almost whistling vowel of U, the breath of O, the squeeze of E and all those consonants, the spitting ones, the guttural ones, the flowing ones, the bursting ones, all those are parts of the great mouth and body music of the poem.
But poems are not only music, they are also sense in that they carry meaning in exactly the same way as prose does, like phrases spoken in a shop, in a street, at a party, in a kitchen or bedroom, or in a grand hall and countless other contexts. Written phrases have similar yet subtly different meanings to spoken ones. Words are signficances. A word spoken in one context will signify something subtly different in another.
This can sound overwhelmingly difficult, far too much to be constantly aware of. But it’s not. At a basic level it is what we do all the time. It was what we have heard, read and learned all our lives. This is just listening harder, more constantly. This too can be learned and not from scratch. We have already learned enough to get on with our lives, more or less.
I can’t emphasise reading enough, and not just your contemporaries. You can learn a lot from someone who lived at quite a different time, in utterly different circumstances, someone like the great 18th century satirist, Alexander Pope for instance. There are extraordinary keen lessons to be learned from him and someone quite different like, say, Emily Dickinson. Not on account of her life or his life or their opinions and personalities, but because they are both great virtuosi of soul and mouth music. Listen to the music.
That music does not exist in a vacuum. In writing we are playing instruments that have been played from the beginning of time. We play against patterns long established, long broken, long found and modified, and re-found and re-modified. We did not invent language or feeling or poetry. Mimi Khalvati, the Iranian-born poet, once remarked that all poetry was repetition. That might seem a little crazy, but think of verse and refrain as models, and the repetition of sound patterns, the regular pulse, and improvisations around the regular pulse, of rhythm. That is what all that very dry-sounding conversation about pattern, about, say, iambic pentameter is really about. Music is not about metronomes: it is about what the ghost of the metronome supports. That is the repetition Khalvati means. Regularity and repetition are one aspect of what separates poetry from prose.
This is not an argument about traditional versus modern, it is about the ways we have of finding structure, any structure, in poetry which, you will remember, is generally briefer than prose and is organised into lines that signify something by simply being lines.
It is worth specifying this because the sense of the poetic spreads far beyond the scope of what we think of as a poem. A specific movement, a particular light, the colour of a leaf or the sound of rain can all be poetic experiences in that they touch complex chords in us. There are, of course, the poetics of the usual suspects like visual art, dance and music, but there are poetics of walking, of carpentry, of football (‘Sheer poetry!’ the commentator will cry, never ‘Sheer prose!’).
That sense of the poetic is what we find in poems. Some novelists have told me that they think of their novels as poems. I nod because I think I understand what they mean, but is there a principle as such? And, if there is, does it mean that the poetic principle is infinitely extendable?
Maybe it is but that is why I am sometimes tempted to talk about verse rather than poetry, and would do so more often if the word ‘verse’ did not conjure something lesser, more tinny, more mechanical, almost trivial.
What I mean by verse is simply the stuff we write in lines because lines are what come to us. It is probably what you write too. It is easier to consider the difference between verse and prose than between poetry and prose, because prose poetry certainly exists and I myself have written it. Verse is what can be learned: poetry is what we perceive and can broadly describe without quite getting hold of it. Verse is tangible but what it produces is less so.
I started out with a feeling about truth as a complex condition of language, its sound and sense, and, to put it grandly, as our notion of the condition of the world. Back then, at that moment, in the school corridor, it struck me that that is what poetry really is, and that that was what I really wanted to do in all the ways it seemed possible to do it, from tightly rhymed quatrains and sonnets through to the more tumbling forms of something close to free jazz.
I seem to have spent a good part of my working life discussing verse by which I mean the mechanics of how poems are produced and out of that discussion I arrived at certain propositions that I used to hand out for discussion. They are propositions not rules or principles. Some of them will be useful at some times and not at others. I’ll finish with these. Here are ten of them. There could be more.
Proposition 1: ENACTING
A poem does not explain, preach or even describe: it enacts. It makes the experience to which it refers available in words.
Proposition 2: ECONOMY
A poem cannot be shortened, elaborated or paraphrased. It contains the bare minimum of words appropriate to its coming into existence. Drafts for poems can, of course, become longer as well as shorter in the process of achieving this.
Proposition 3: IMAGERY
Most poems prosper in proportion to their ability to convey images. Metaphor lies at the heart of the poem. Avoid telling the reader how you feel: make the reader feel it by providing appropriate situations in words. Imagery can be conveyed by tone and association as well as by word pictures. Trust your images. Follow them and see where they lead.
Proposition 4: AMBIGUITY
Poems and puns are close allied. The poem is not a series of propositions like this. Words singly and in combination carry various, inexhaustible, possibilities of meaning. Enjoy playing with words or you don’t get anywhere.
Proposition 5: ECHO and SYMBOL
Poems may talk about one experience but they attain power by suggesting others. Ghosts haunt poems with powerful feelings, powerful drives and desires. Usually, they work best by remaining ghosts. Nevertheless one should feel their presence. Words and phrases are your spirit guides.
Proposition 6: DRAMATISING
Poems are tiny dramas, tragic or comic, detached or involved. They therefore need dramatic force and dramatic shape. Don’t spend ages setting the scene. Beginnings are vital, so are endings – plunge in and be ruthless with anything that slackens dramatic tension. Enter firmly: step off lightly.
Proposition 7: VOICES AND MASKS
The speaker of a poem is a voice within a poem, a dramatic character. It is not necessarily you as you. Characters may speak as versions of you by taking clear individual dramatic roles. The truth of your experience is not that of a questionnaire: it is one found by different identities, different voices which take on appropriate weight and colour. The world of mythology may be of some help in the last three propositions, though it can also be a pain in the neck.
Proposition 8: FORM, CONSTRAINT AND LATENCY
There are many previously used forms, all of which carry histories, values, associations. To write in any form well requires craft. While there is no specific virtue in rhyme or regular metre, in form as form, grappling with the difficulty of a form can strengthen your work. Constraints, like deadlines, can be very productive. Constraints push you to invent and discover feelings you did not realise were latent. Always listen to a poem and its latency: say it aloud to yourself. Hear its rhythms, its pauses, its changes of pitch and mood. Feel the energy of its mode of saying. Constrained form can release latency.
Proposition 9: OBSCURITY
Sometimes you will find yourself by being obscure. You don’t aim for obscurity (on the contrary, you aim for blinding clarity), but words and images may take on their own life, which can be liberating, beyond what you intended. That liberation will be evident in the electricity of the poem. A poem isn’t a complex ways of saying a simple thing: it is the simplest way of saying a complex thing.
Proposition 10: SUBJECT
There are no poetic subjects as such, though a lot of poems have been written about love, the moon, death and nature and fewer about indigestion, embarassment, cheese and life on the factory floor. One might do well to think about reasons for this. Major themes often move mysteriously through minor themes: macrocosms through microcosms.
George Szirtes’s first book of poems, The Slant Door (1979 ) was joint-winner of the Faber Prize. He has published many since then,with his collection, Reel, winning the T S Eliot Prize in 2004, a prize for which he has since been shortlisted twice. His latest is Mapping the Delta (Bloodaxe 2016). His memoir of his mother, The Photographer at Sixteen, was published by MacLehose in February 2019 and won the East Anglian Book Prize for Memoir and Biography and was shortlisted for two other prizes. His many translations from Hungarian include László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango. Krasznahorkai won the Man Booker International in 2015 for which Szirtes shared the translator’s prize with Ottilie Mulzet. Married to artist Clarissa Upchurch, he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the English Association. He retired from the UEA in 2013.