Rilke, on how to avoid writing “toward the median”

Now that the holidays are over, I have time to dig into some of the books I received. Last night, I re-read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which I first read in college. What I needed to hear most was Rilke’s view on how to preserve your unique voice, despite your critics:

You ask whether your verses are good…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.

I wonder if this is why I often disliked workshops in graduate school – the feeling that by taking suggestions from so many, that I was driving my poem toward the median. Making it more palatable for everyone, rather than developing the vision that I originally had for the poem. I envision Emily Dickinson in a workshop, being asked, “What’s with all the dashes?” 🙂 At the same time, I’ve relied on other writers to help me work through issues in my poems, and most writers benefit from such feedback.

Rilke’s suggestions for developing – and keeping – one’s own voice include:

  • “Seek …[themes] …which your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty…”
  • “Draw near to Nature.”
  • “Try to raise the submerged sensations of that ample past [childhood]; your personality will grow more firm, your solitude will widen and will become a dusky dwelling past which the noise of others goes by far away.”

I especially love the last suggestion, as Rilke suggests that the traits we obtain as we get older – becoming more rigid, less apt to follow the crowd – are, for the writer, gifts.  Our voice becomes a refuge, a “dusky dwelling” that is our true home.

One thought on “Rilke, on how to avoid writing “toward the median”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s