Gelli Fach

Gelli Fach

I'm a cell, I'm fragmented, I change my form;
I'm a repository of song, I'm a dynamic state.
I love a wooded slope and a snug shelter,
and a creative poet who doesn't buy his advancement.

Wyf kell, wyf dellt, wyf datweirllet;
wyf llogell kerd, wyf lle ynnyet.
Karaf-y gorwyd a goreil clyt,
a bard a bryt ny pryn y ret.

From: Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, edited and translated by Marged Haycock

Friday, 19 February 2010

Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet

There is not as much as I should have liked about the art of writing poetry in this book but what there is well worth reading. I found it refreshing to hear Rainer Maria Rilke telling the young poet Mr Kappus:

"You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now... I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself."

Rilke goes on to counsel against writing love-poems and those forms which are too common as being the most difficult "for it takes a great, fully matured power to give something of your own where good and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity."

Rather the young poet should use the themes that come out of his everyday life and describe them, using "the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory. If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place... And if out of this turning inward, out of this absorption verses come, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses. Nor will you try to interest magazines in your poems: for you will see in them your fond natural possession, a fragment and a voice of your life. A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgment of it: there is no other."

The Welsh poet, Vernon Watkins, would have agreed with the need to look inward rather than to the outer world:

"In every genuine artist the first care is to use his gift in such a way as to satisfy his imaginative need. If the whole world applauds a work, and it does not meet this need, the work, from the point of view of the artist, is a failure."1 Yeats too thought that poems which were the best of their kind were written by "every writer of the imagination who is true to himself". 2

This turning in on oneself is vital, especially but not solely when starting to write, because one of the most important ingredients of a good poem is its ability to show a unique vision of the world, or of an object or a situation. Sylvia Plath talked of a poem being like a snow-globe turned upside down so that the world no longer looks the same; Emily Dickinson advised seeing things 'slant', in other words from a different angle.

The other requirements for a good poem, attention to rhythm and form (even free verse needs rhythm and a coherent shape) and a skilful use of words, may be studied to improve upon any natural ability. But a unique vision depends upon the poet's perception, and imagination is needed to make sense of perceptions: it is the faculty through which we build up a picture of the world. When you are reading such a poem things no longer look the same because you are looking through someone else's eyes.


Many of the other letters in the book address the problems of being ‘a sensitive observer in a harsh world’ - a common predicament for a poet. Although Rilke offers wise and comforting words, his own life was far from untroubled, even as he was writing them. He recognises this and tells his young correspondent so, in the most elegant and poignant way:

"Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness... Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find those words."
His translator, M. D. Herter Norton, comments: "Though Rilke expresses himself with a wisdom and a kindness that seem to reflect the calm of self-possession, his spirit may have been speaking out of its own need rather than from the security of ends achieved, so that his words indeed reflect desire rather than fulfillment."

Richard Bach said something similar, less elegantly but more succinctly: "We teach best what we most need to learn." Duly noted.

1 quoted by Richard Ramsbotham in the introduction to New Selected Poems
2 quoted by M. C. Flannery in Yeats and Magic

1 comment:

  1. Here's an essay about a young poet's journey through craft and the lessons learned along the way. Please read it at