The Pendragon Papers (4): Rilke & Roethke, Teachers of Poetry

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Rainer Maria Rilke – what can I say about this poet. Well, for me, he’s the most accessible, the most poetic, of all the German poets. Wandering about the literary battlefield between Symbolists & Naturalists, he basically did his own thing, with his ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’ among the most sublime & majestic creations ever to emerge from the Elysian fields. Of Rilke’s poetry, Rudolf Kassner (1873-1959) wrote, ‘seen in a large perspective, he is the consummation of that marvellous Narcissus-like lyricism that began in England with Keats.’ I would say Keats & Rimbaud myself, as throughout Rilke’s oeuvre there is a regular flow of such seductive effusions as;

Graue Liebesschlangen hab ich aus deinen
achselhohlen gescheucht. Wie auf heisen Steinen
liegen sie jetz auf mir und verdauen

Grey love-snakes I drove out of your
armpits. As on hot stones
they lie on top of me now, digesting
great lumps of satisfied lust

So, to my essay, the fifth of this series, & only a day after the last – it is sunny on Arran, which always rouses my poeticality. Fell View is rising like a dragon’s tooth thro’ the only unblinded window of my conservatory studio, the eighteenth hole of the golf course empty for now. My essay’s title, the shortest so far, is self-explanatory, for Rilke was not only a poet, but also a teacher – & a teacher of poetry at that. I shall now give two periods of the didactic Rilke, lets say, the first, & the famous period in which he & a young poet call’d Frank Cappus exchang’d a series of letters in which, from Rilke’s side, a great understanding of poetry was recorded or universal posterity. But I also mention the name Roethke, that is to say Theodore Roethke, another early 20th century poet with keen assimilatory & explanative powers. In 1947 he took residence at the University of Washington, in Seattle, where the young Richard Hugo was studying. A fine poet himself, he would leave a record of the tutelage in an essay entitl’d, ‘Stray Thoughts on Roethke & Teaching.’

Rilke: From ‘Letters to a Young Poet’

It was in the late autumn of 1902—I was sitting under some century-old chestnut trees in the park of the Military Academy in Wiener-Neustadt reading a book. I was so engrossed in my reading that I hardly noticed that the only one of our masters who was not an officer, the learned kindly chaplain of the Academy, Horaček, had joined me. He took the volume out of my hand, considered the binding, and shook his head. “Rainer Maria Rilke’s Poems”? he asked thoughtfully. Then he turned over the leaves here and there, scanned a few verses, looked thoughtfully into the distance, and finally nodded. “So young René Rilke has become a poet.”

And I heard about the small, pale boy, whom his parents had sent more than fifteen years before to the military Unterrealschule in Sankt-Pölten, intending that he should afterwards become an officer. At that time Horaček had been working there as chaplain of the establishment, and he still remembered the boy of those days perfectly. He painted him as a quiet, earnest, extremely clever young fellow, who liked keeping to himself, put up patiently with the discipline of the boarding school and after his fourth year passed on with the others to the military Oberrealschule, which was in Mährisch-Weisskirchen. Then his constitution showed itself definitely not to be strong enough, so that his parents removed him from the school and let him continue his studies at home in Prague. Horaček could tell me nothing more of the course which his outward life had taken since then.

After all that, I think it is easy to understand that I decided at that very moment to send my efforts in poetry to Rainer Maria Rilke and to ask him for his verdict. I was not yet twenty years old and I was just on the threshold of a career which I felt to be directly opposed to my inclinations. From the author of “Mir zur Feier,” if from anyone at all, I hoped for sympathetic understanding. And though I had not so intended, I came to write a letter with my verses, in which I opened my heart without reticence, as never before or since to another human being.

Many weeks passed before an answer came. The blue, sealed letter had a Paris post-mark and felt heavy in my hands; the envelope bore the same beautiful, clear handwriting as that in which the whole text from the first lines to the last had been written. That was the beginning of my regular correspondence with Rainer Marie Rilke, which continued till 1908 and then gradually came to an end, because my life drove me into the very paths from which the poet’s warm, affectionate and moving concern had wished to preserve me.

But that is of no importance. Alone important are the ten letters which follow, important for the knowledge of the world, in which Rainer Maria Rilke lived and created, and to many human beings of to-day and to-morrow, who are growing and coming into being. When a great and exceptional man speaks, the insignificant must be silent.

FRANZ XAVER KAPPUS. Berlin, June 1929.

Most inexpressible of all are works of art, existences full of secrets whose life continues alongside ours, whilst ours is transitory.

There is only one way. Withdraw into yourself. Explore the reason that bids you write, find out if it has spread out its roots in the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die, if writing should be denied to you. Above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night, “Must I write?” Dig deep into yourself for an answer. And if this answer should be in the affirmative, if you can meet this solemn question with a simple strong “I must,” then build up your life according to this necessity. Your life right down to its most indifferent and unimportant hour must be a token and a witness to this compulsion.

Approach nature. Try to express what you see and experience and love and lose as if you were the first man alive.

Avoid those forms which are too trite and commonplace: they are the hardest, for a great and mature power is needed to give of one’s own where good and often brilliant traditions throng upon one.

Betake yourself from the usual themes to those which your everyday life offers you. Paint your sadnesses and your desires, your passing thoughts and your belief in some kind of beauty – paint all that with quiet and modest inward sincerity; and to express yourself use the things that surround you, the pictures of your dreams and the objects of your recollections.

The creative worker knows no barrenness and no poor indifferent place. And even if you were in a prison, whose walls prevented all the bustle of the world from reaching your senses, even then would you not still have your childhood, that precious, kingly wealth, that treasure-house of memories? Turn your attention towards it. Try to recall the forgotten sensations of that distant past; your personality will strengthen itself, your loneliness will extend itself and become a dusky dwelling and the noise of others will pass by it far away.

When from this turning inwards, from this retreat into your own world verses come into being… you will see in them your own loved and natural possession, a part and an expression of your life.

Retire into yourself and sound the depths in which your life has its source; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it just as it is, without trying to interpret it… take your destiny upon your shoulders and bear it with its burden and its greatness without ever asking for the reward which might come from without

A world will come over you, a happiness, a wealth, a world of inconceivable greatness. Live for awhile in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all, love them. This love will be repaid a thousandfold, and, whatever may become of your life will, I am convinced of it, run through the fabric of your being as one of the most important among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments and joys.

Now “Niels Lyhne” will disclose itself to you, a book of the things of grandeur and of depth. The more one reads it, the more it seems to contain everything from the most delicate fragrances of life to the full and grand flavours of its hardest fruits. In it there is nothing that has not been understood, grasped, experienced and recognised in the vibrating echoes of the memory; no experience has been too small, the slightest occurrence unfolds itself like a destiny. Destiny itself is like a wonderful broad web in which each thread is pulled by an infinitely tender hand and is laid by the side of another and held up and borne along by hundreds of others. You will experience the happiness of reading this book for the first time, and will pass through countless surprises, as in a new dream. But I can tell you that later, too, one always remains the same wonderer when going through these books, and that they lose nothing of the wonderful force and relinquish nothing of the fabulousness with which they overwhelm the reader the first time. The enjoyment of them and the gratitude only grows ever greater, and one’s way of looking at things becomes somehow better and simpler, one’s belief in life deeper and one’s life itself more blessed and more significant. Later you must read the wonderful book of the fate and the yearning of “Marie Grubbe,” and Jacobsen’s letters and journal and fragments, and finally his verses,

Read as few works of aesthetic criticism as possible—there are in them either partisan opinions which have become petrified and meaningless in their lifeless obduracy, or else a clever play of words, with which to-day one view finds favour and tomorrow the opposite.

Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and nothing can reach them so little as criticism. Only love can grasp them and keep hold of them and be just to them.

Always trust yourself and your own feelings as opposed to any such analysis, review or introduction; if you should be wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will lead you slowly and in time to new realisations. Allow your judgments their own quiet, undisturbed development, which like all progress must come from deep within you and cannot be forced or hastened by anything. The whole thing is to carry the full time and then give birth; to let every impression and every germ of a feeling consummate itself entirely within itself, in that which is dark, inexpressible, unconscious and unattainable by your own intelligence, and to await the hour of the delivery of a new clearness of vision. That alone is to live an artistic life, in understanding, as in creating.

There is no measuring with time; no year is of any value and ten years are as nothing. To be an artist is this: not to count or to reckon: to ripen like a tree which does not force its sap, but in the storms of spring stands confident without being afraid that afterwards no summer may come. The summer comes all right. But it only comes to the patient, to those who are there as carefree and quiet and immense, as if eternity lay before them. Daily I learn, learn it through my sufferings [to which I am grateful] that patience is everything.

It is undoubtedly a fact that artistic experience has such an inconceivably close connection with sexual experience, with its pain and its desire, that the two phenomena are actually nothing but two different forms of one and the same yearning and bliss.

His poetical power is great and strong as a primeval impulse. It has its own independent rhythms, and breaks forth from him like a stream from the mountains.

If you attach yourself to Nature, to the simple and small in her, which hardly anyone sees, but which can so unexpectedly turn into the great and the immeasurable, if you have this love for what is slight and try quite simply as a servant to win the confidence of what appears to you poor, then everything will become easier for you, more uniform and somehow more reconciling, not perhaps in the understanding, which holds back in amazement, but in your innermost consciousness, watchfulness and knowledge.

You are so young, all beginning is so far in front of you, and I should like to beg you earnestly to have patience with all unsolved problems in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, or books that are written in a foreign tongue. Do not search now for the answers, which cannot be given you, because you could not live them. That is the point, to live everything. Now you must live your problems. And perhaps gradually, without noticing it, you will live your way into the answer some distant day.

In one thought of a creative worker a thousand forgotten nights of love come to life again and fill it with loftiness and sublimity. And those, who come together in the night and are twined in quivering pleasure, are performing a serious work and are heaping up sweetness, depth and force for the song of some coming poet, who will arise to express inexpressible ecstasies.

Do not be led astray by the surface of things; in the depths everything becomes law.

The beauty of the young virgin woman, a being who, as you so beautifully put it, has not yet performed her task, is motherhood, which has a presentiment of itself and prepares itself, is anxious and yearns. The mother’s beauty is serving motherhood, and in the old woman it is a mighty recollection. And I think that there is motherhood in man too, bodily and spiritual motherhood; his begetting is a kind of bearing, too, and bearing it is, when he creates out of his innermost abundance. Perhaps the sexes are more related to each other than is supposed, and the great renovation of the world will perhaps consist in this, that men and women, freed from all confused feelings and aversion, will seek each other out not as contrasts but as brothers and sisters and as neighbours, and will work together as human beings to bear seriously and patiently in common this heavy burden of sex which has been laid upon them.

Love your solitude, and bear the pain which it causes you with euphonious lament. For you say that those who are near to you are far away, and that shows that your outlook is beginning to be wide. And if your foreground is far from you, then your horizon is already beneath the stars and very great. Rejoice in your growth, into which you can take no one with you, and be good to those who remain behind. Be assured and peaceful in their presence, do not torture them with your doubts and do not frighten them with your confidence or your joy, which they could not comprehend. Seek some kind of simple, true communion with them, which need not change as you yourself become ever different.

Avoid adding new material to that strained drama which- is ever played between parents and children. It uses up much of the children’s strength and consumes the love of the parents, which is always active and warm, even if it does not understand. Do not ask them for any advice and reckon on no understanding from them, but believe in a love which is stored up for you as a heritage, and have confidence that in this love there is a force and a blessedness, which you need never leave behind even in your furthest journeys.

Be attentive to that which rises up within you, and place it above everything that you see around you. The events of your innermost self are worthy of your whole love. You must somehow work at them and not lose too much time or too much spirit in elucidating your position with regard to mankind.

You see, I have copied out your sonnet, because I considered it to be beautiful and simple and born in the form in which it runs with so much quiet grace. It is the best of your verses that I have been permitted to read. And now I give you that copy, because I know that it is important and makes for new experience to find one’s own work again in someone else’s hand-writing. Read the verses as if they were someone else’s, and you will feel in your innermost being how utterly they are your own.

And you must not be led astray in your loneliness, because there is something in you that desires to come out of you. If you think of it quietly and use it as an instrument, this very desire will help you to extend your loneliness over the broad lands.

It is good to be lonely, for loneliness is difficult. The fact that a thing is difficult must be for us the more reason for doing it.

Art, too, is only a form of life, and by living in no matter what way one can be unconsciously preparing oneself for it; in every real career one is nearer to art and more its neighbour than in those unreal half-artistic careers, which pretend to be near to art, but in practice deny and attack the existence of all art

Theodore Roethke

Roethke: From ‘Stray Thoughts on Roethke & Teaching’

It was important to some of us in Seattle that he came when he did. It was just great luck. The English Department at the University of Washington in 1947 was in a rut. Vernon Louis Parrington was dead but his influence was not. The approach to literature was Parrington’s and little else. Many of the teachers had taken their Ph.D.s right there years before. They had been friends of Parrington, and while many were able teachers, they taught literature as a reflection of historical and sociological patterns of its time. Writers who didn’t fit the method were usually ignored—Poe, Henry James.

On the first day of class in the fall quarter of 1947 he shambled into the classroom, and the awkward, almost self-degrading way he moved made me think he was dressed in “rags and rotting clothes,” when actually he was probably in an expensive tailor-made suit. His addiction to bourgeois values, his compulsive need to be loved by all, but most of all the rich, was of course the obverse of the way he felt about himself. In his mind I believe he was always poor and unwashed, and he showed it when he walked.

His tenderness toward students often showed through. He was probably the best poetry-writing teacher ever. That’s impossible to prove and silly, but I had to say it just once in print.

I believe he so loved the music of language that his complicated emotional responses to poems interfered with his attempts to verbalize meaning. When he read his favorites aloud, Yeats, Hopkins, Auden, Thomas, Kunitz, Bogan, poets with “good ears,” something happened that happens all too infrequently in a classroom. If a student wasn’t a complete auditory clod, he could feel himself falling in love with the sounds of words. To Roethke, that was the heart and soul of poetry. And that was his strength as a teacher: he gave students a love of the sound of language. His classes were clinics. He performed therapy on the ear.

I’d never heard of Auden, Hopkins, Thomas, or even Yeats. Just the exposure to such poets was worth any tuition fee. But to be exposed to them by a man so passionately committed to their rhythms and tonalities was to be born.

Good poets have obsessive ears. They love certain sounds and not others. So they read aloud what they love, responding to their own obsessive needs in the poetry of others. If he is worth a damn, any poet teaching poetry writing constantly and often without knowing it is saying to the student, “Write the way I do. That’s the best sound you can make.” The student who shakes this, who goes on to his auditory obsessions and who writes the way the teacher never told him, may become a poet. Roethke, through his fierce love of kinds of verbal music, could be overly influential. David Wagoner, who was quite young when he studied under Roethke at Penn State, told me once of the long painful time he had breaking Roethke’s hold on him.

He was also playful in class, arrogant, hostile, tender, aggressive, receptive—anything that might work to bring the best out of a student. A young man might turn in a poem, read it aloud, and then wait, his heart on the block, and Roethke would say quietly, and ever so slightly sarcastically, “Gee.” It was withering.

Yet for all of Roethke’s capacity for cruelty, it was not a cruel act. Roethke knew that poetry is an art form and a difficult one and that the enthusiasm and hope of the young poet are not enough. You have to work, and you had better get used to facing disappointments and failures, a lifetime of them.

He pushed as models the seventeenth-century lyricists—Herbert, Marvell, Herrick. Whoever he pushed, whatever poems he purred or boomed aloud in class, he was always demonstrating that this, your language, is capable of power and beauty. Those of us who had always loved it found out we loved it. Some who hadn’t loved it, but had the capacity to, came to love it.

The second half of the Roethke final usually consisted of one question, a lulu like, “What should the modern poet do about his ancestors?” “Do you mean his blood ancestors or the poets who proceeded him?” I asked. “Just answer the question,” Roethke growled.

Richard Hugo

“Easter 1916” still remains a favorite of mine. I think of it as possibly as good as we have in the language, and it was Roethke’s reading of it that first prejudiced me.

Just calling attention to what the student is hearing but doesn’t know he’s hearing can be a revelation. A student may love the sound of Yeats’ “Stumbling upon the blood dark track once more” and not know that the single-syllable word with a hard consonant ending is a unit of power in English, and that’s one reason “blood dark track” goes off like rifle shots.

Then there’s that banal, tiresome question: can writing be taught? Yes it can and no it can’t. Ultimately the most important things a poet will learn about writing are from himself in the process. A good teacher can save a young poet years by simply telling him things he need not waste time on, like trying to will originality or trying to share an experience in language or trying to remain true to the facts (but that’s the way it really happened).

Despite Roethke’s love of verbal play, he could generate little enthusiasm for what passes as experimentation and should more properly be called fucking around. Real experimentation is involved in every good poem because the poet searched for ways to unlock his imagination through trial and error.

Quest for a self is fundamental to poetry. What passes for experimentation is often an elaborate method of avoiding one’s feelings at all costs. The process prohibits any chance the poet has to create surrogate feelings, a secondary kind of creativity but in most poems all the poet can settle for. The good poems say: “This is how I feel.” With luck that’s true, but usually it’s not. More often the poem is the way the poet says he feels when he can’t find out what his real feelings are. It makes little difference to the reader, since a good poem sounds meant enough to be believed.

“Each newcomer feels obliged to do something else, forgetting that if he himself is somebody he will necessarily do that something else,” said Valéry. And Roethke told students to “write like somebody else.” There are those usual people who try desperately to appear unusual and there are unusual people who try desperately to appear usual. Most poets I’ve met are from the latter and much smaller group.

Most creative writing teachers in Roethke’s day worth mentioning were formalists, and formality was an end in itself. Obligation to play “by the rules” remained paramount. As a teacher Roethke stood virtually alone at the time. For Roethke the rules were simply one way to help a poet get to the gold. Certain areas he wisely left alone. I think he instinctively knew that fool’s gold is what fools end up with, and a teacher can do nothing about that.


So, thro’ Rilke’s advice to Kappa, we can see how poetry, as outlet for ambition, can inspire both student & teacher. Thro’ Roethke & Hugo, we can see how poetry holds up an eternal mirror to life, which, as Shelley said, ‘makes beautiful that which is distorted,’ an ethereal looking glass in which the poets have clearer views of their spirits, as if they were seers in the company of ghosts. Together, I hope these two extracts will together provide an excellent in both poetry, & of course, how to train oneself as a poet, to step into a classroom of Roethke, to open a letter from Rilke, & to be a young poet in love with the art.



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