The artist’s struggle is real. And in the great war against cliché, this struggle comes up again and again—the poet in pains, the writer in melon collie, the painter in bipolar, the musician in addiction. In many ways it is true, and maybe the artist is in more pain than others, or at least a kind particular to their life and craft. Then again, any life, ordinary or peculiar, can cast a morbid shadow, can cause a schism in the heart and at times contain such lowliness as to be too much.
It was a couple of years ago when I picked up Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of letters written by Rainer Maria Rilke. I was in flux at the time. I wrote about it. I was feeling ‘melancholic and even forlorn and a series of questions and uncertainties have been pulling at me.’ It was indeed a result of uncertainty as well as idleness: no study, no work, just my own ideas and modest undertakings. ‘I’ve begun to seriously question what it is I ought to do with the years ahead of me and I’m far from certain…’ Since then I have studied more, have improved my drumming and writing and I’ve gone travelling. But here I am again, at a crossroads, knowing the things I want but not knowing quite how to go about it, or if any of it could ever work out. I had wondered back then, ‘am I wasting my young years?’
I did find some solace in Rilke’s words, and still do. In these letters, addressed to Mr Kappus—a young poet in need of advice—Rilke talked of solitude and how necessary it may be to the creative process. It’s easy to become lonesome and depressed with one’s own thoughts but Rilke suggests harnessing the solitude. ‘Therefore, dear sir,’ Rilke wrote, ‘love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.’ Harness the pain, in other words, and furnish something good; use it to reach introspective depths; treat the solitude as something sincere and useful. I do think there’s a fine line between wallowing in one’s pain and learning from it like Rilke suggests. If anything, this takes practice, and I doubt there are any true experts.
Whatever the case, this is a return to basics. When despair sets in, maybe you’re better off facing the dark, to look into and learn from it, than to push it aside or to reel from it. Listen to it, and hear what it says to you.
These dispatches to Mr Kappus are as much a guide to art as they are to life—love, thinking, sex, society, creation. On the doubts that are bound to surface in one’s life, he again suggests the harnessing of them:
And your doubts can become a good quality if you school them. They must grow to be knowledgeable, they must learn to be critical. As soon as they begin to spoil something for you ask them why a thing is ugly, demand hard evidence, test them, and you will perhaps find them at a loss and short of an answer, or perhaps mutinous. But do not give in, request arguments, and act with this kind of attentiveness and consistency every single time, and the day will come when instead of being demolishers they will become your best workers—perhaps the canniest of all those at work on the building of your life.
Shadowy doubts can be as constructive as they are destructive, it’s up to the individual to decide what they are.
And it’s clear, things aren’t always meant to be easy:
Of your life, Mr Kappus, which I am thinking of with so many hopes and wishes. Do you remember how this life of yours longed in childhood to belong to the ‘grown-ups’? I can see that it now longs to move on from them and is drawn to those who are greater yet. This is why it does not cease to be difficult, but also why it will not cease to grow.
The difficulties one faces might not represent a malaise or entropy. We might look at those who are comfortable and be envious, but should we feel this way? A comfortable life is as much that as it is static. Might they float down the same stream for years only to beach themselves and ultimately stale? On the other hand, those bearing the brunt of difficulties are only feeling the symptoms of improvement—they are the callas to your hands, the soreness in your feet, and the ache in your muscles. Difficulties are the sign of progress and life is hard.
The more intimate parts of our lives deserve, apparently, just as much scrutiny. ‘Sex is difficult, true…’ he writes. ‘But difficult things are what we were set to do, almost everything serious is difficult, and everything is serious.’ I don’t know if everything is serious or if everything should be considered as such all the time. Still, I can’t help but interpret Rilke’s views on sexuality as not only progressive but entirely helpful:
And perhaps the sexes are more closely related than we think, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in man and woman, freed of all sense of error and disappointment, seeking one another out not as opposites but as brothers and sisters and neighbours, and they will join together as human beings, to share the heavy weight of sexuality that is laid upon them with simplicity, gravity and patience.
Our sexual lives can do without the societal demands and expectations that we know so intimately. It can be a simple coming to terms with our selves. To love one another as human beings, without being roped up and made to dance, is a good thing, to me at least.
The following words struck me hard when I read them. I had only recently put down Letters to a Young Poet when my grandfather died. I don’t believe there’s life after death, none of that stuff—there have been times when my Atheism has been firebrand and I believe the material is everything we can know. But Rilke’s words made me realise that death isn’t the total obliteration of the person, of the people we have known:
And yet they are in us, these people long since passed away, a disposition, as a load weighing on our destinies, as a murmur in the blood, and as a gesture that will rise up out of the depths of time.
I spoke those words in the eulogy I gave for his funeral the same week he died. The dead remain to touch us in other ways, as echoes and subconscious arrangements—the furniture of our minds—in objects, memories and stories, and as a part of our very selves: ‘…perhaps like the way the blood of our ancestors moves unceasingly within us,’ suggests Rilke, ‘and mingles with our own to make us the unique, not-to-be-repeated being that we are at every turn of our lives.’ Their remnants float around in us, clouds in our sky, never really going away.
I’ve strayed, but all of this bears the same relation. Even in doubt, loneliness and unhappiness, improvement is possible. Go back to basics. Reach into the heart of your anxieties and pull out something good. We’re placed down here out of no permission of our own, into a contract we had no part in signing. It cannot be annulled. So if you can, take your despair, look into it, ask why and light might be drawn. If not, do away with it—make the most of your time.
Letters to a Young Poet has been a source of encouragement for creatives for a long time. But there’s no need for exclusion. I cannot help but feel whilst reading the words of this dead poet that these humble letters of advice apply to many if not all, that the consultation of literature can be most helpful in the lowest of times. Maybe these, a poet’s consolations, can be a guide for all of us.