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Letter to a Young Writer

by Maxine Kumin

"Letter to a Young Writer" was originally published in Teachers & Writers, 33, no. 4 (March/April 2002), and was reprinted in The Roots of Things: Essays by Maxine Kumin (Northwestern University Press, 2010). Posted on with permission of the author. Do not reprint or re-post without permission of the author.

As you are now, so once was I, for starters. And I, too, devoured Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, so hungry for scraps of encouragement and solace that I committed whole paragraphs to memory. I still carry around with me "works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism" and "await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity." Letters is a kind of breviary to be borne in your backpack and taken out from time to time when the hopelessness of it all assails you.

What do I mean by hopelessness? The inability of the poet ever to express to his or her satisfaction what is taking place on the worksheet. The finished poem is found wanting by its creator; it never quite fulfills the writer's expectation, even though it goes out in the world, perhaps gets chosen for inclusion in an important anthology, ends up being studied by undergraduates who must then writer a paper about it, and so on.

Pay no attention to the siren song of some would-be poets who claim they write only for themselves. Be honest. Does a composer write a sonata only for himself or herself? Is it a sonata truly until it is played? Of course you want your poems to be published, you will move heaven and earth with your multiple submissions to see your work on the sanctioned printed page.

The main thing is to follow your star. While you are working on your own sheaf, keep an open mind. Broaden your framework by reading outside the single constellation of poetry; read fiction, geology, medical dissertations, ancient history. Reread -- for surely you have a solid grounding in the poetry of past centuries -- Donne and Herbert, Blake and Smart, Hopkins , Yeats, Eliot, Auden. Set yourself the task of memorizing one poem of the masters every week. (I can't help it that there are no women on this list. There will be, in the next hundred years; and in the hundred after that, women will dominate, for they are writing the most interesting poetry at the present time.) Put these into your memory bank in case you are arrested and go to jail; they will sustain you in your miserable cell.

A.E. Housman is easy to learn by rote, as he used lockstep meters, usually iambic trimeter or tetrameter, and full rhymes to express his lovely lonely pessimism and sorrow; he will be good in prison. Yeats will be harder, but worth the struggle. Hopkins will be hardest, with his delicious quirky spring rhythm, but never mind. Once you internalize a dozen good poems, their rhythm will subtly infiltrate as you scribble furiously over the next failed poem.

Don't throw anything out. Lines that wouldn't fit, images that fell apart, may prove useful later on. Date every page and save it. You may be famous one day. If not, your progeny will pore over your worksheets and treasure the parent they find there.

Now for the hard truth. Rilke, this may we idolize, was so devoted to his work that he sequestered himself from his family for months at a time, refusing to take part in major events lest these interrupt his muse. Let's face it; he was a prime narcissist. It was a woman -- Lou Andreas-Salome -- who rescued him from the doldrums; made him change his given name, Rene, to Rainer; assigned him to a stand-up desk to improve his circulation; even ordered Quaker oatmeal from the United States to be shipped to Paris for his digestive tract.

Actually, oatmeal is not a bad idea. Courting your muse standing up is a useful ploy. I wish you all the luck in the world and I look forward to your first book. Bon courage! Sois sage.

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