Rilke at his desk.
Sunday, October 14, 2007

Letters to a Young Poet

The actual letters run to about 50 pages, while the edition I read, which is published by Norton, is padded out with a chronology and some other matter.

I think my earliest knowledge of Rilke was back in high school when I read A Perfect Day for Bananafish, and heard e. e. cummings non-lectures on the now defunct Caedmon label. Cummings quotes Rilke’s comments about the inadequacy of criticism, and how love alone is able to fairly judge them. How do I, as a failed academic, respond to that comment?

I think that Rilke was right. What you get in most criticism, is something other than act of love to the work in question. In some cases you get the imposition of the critic’s agenda upon the work. Some years ago there was an article in the PMLA in which somebody, a woman I think, wrote about a scene in Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff uses a fireplace poker to warn off some snarling dogs. She termed this an act of “phallic aggression.” One thing that comes to mind is that she knows nothing about fireplaces. The poker has its elongated (phallic) shape because it is used to move around coals in the fireplace. Another thing is that she knows nothing about dogs. When a dog is snarling, that is usually taken as a sign of menace, so the thing to do is to use whatever is handy, in this case a fireplace poker, to warn of the snarling dogs. I’ve heard academics claim that Emily Dickinson is full of clitoral imagery (at the most infamous MLA panel ever held, “The Muse of Masturbation,”) and prance around in ecstasy over Billy Budd’s non-ejaculation upon being hung (at the same panel), or ponder about sexuality in Jane Austen (again the same panel). What does any of this scheiss have to do with the work in question? What takes place in cases like this is that the critic seeks to impose his values upon the work in question. This seems to me illegitimate.

This leads to another question. Have I, as a formerly aspiring academic, tried to subordinate myself to the works in question so that I treated them with love? I think so. I went into academic work because I loved Blake, Donne, Shaw, and others. I thought they taught me something, and I wanted to share that with others. Of course, having said that, it is also true that other motives were involved, none of them sordid, i. e., not to seduce young girls or boys, but not all of them highfalutin ideals.

In some of the other letters Rilke seems to anticipate some of D. H. Lawrence, maybe he was an influence on Lawrence, I have no idea. The passages about sex seem to anticipate some of Lawrence’s comments in Lady Chatterly and other works.

He also seems to be somewhat dismissive of the young poet towards the end. He’s still polite, but seems less interested, and then with the tenth and final letter abruptly ends the correspondence.

Next up, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. This is a return to the St. John’s list. There are four more readings for the Freshman year. After that I may break for some Faulkner, and will start with Soldier’s Pay.