“Go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
Even more complex and nuanced than the question of how to be a good writer, which has elicited answers from some of humanity’s most beloved authors, is the question of why be a writer at all — why, that is, do great writers write?
Among the most memorable and invigorating answers are those sprung forth by W.H. Auden, Jennifer Egan, Pablo Neruda, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and William Faulkner. But the finest, richest, truest answer of all comes from Rainer Maria Rilke(December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) in Letters to a Young Poet (public library) — those invaluable packets of wisdom on writing and life, which Rilke bequeathed to a 19-year-old cadet and budding poet named Franz Xaver Kappus.
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A reminder that we will be reading and discussing Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Duino Elegies on November 22. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for more information.
Filed under Reminder, Study
He believed he’d found the secret key to unlock all of Shakespeare’s work. Twenty years after Hughes’s death, this is the story of the lifelong fixation he feared would destroy him
Ted Hughes, who quarried much of his life and work from myth and folklore, was hyperconscious of literary tradition. In a 1995 interview with the Paris Review, he identified his “sacred canon” as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Hopkins, Eliot and Yeats. This sombre obeisance to his lyric forebears is dignified and appropriate, but slightly misleading. Hughes had grown up with Yeats and Eliot, and was often linked with Wordsworth, but there was one writer with whom he was particularly obsessed: Shakespeare. Indeed, in the year that he died he confessed to a friend that he believed this lifelong fixation to have been fatal.
Hughes, in his 20s, never ceased reading and rereading the playwright’s work. The spell it cast over him goes back to his Cambridge days, and predates his meeting Sylvia Plath. In February 1952, he described his undergraduate routine to his sister Olwyn: “I get up at 6, and read a Shakespeare play before 9 … That early bout puts me ahead all day.” Five years later, he confided to a friend that he was “reading all Shakespeare in what I consider the order of their being written.”
Filed under Reviews, Study
She died at twenty-four, but the thrills of her insights have sparked a new generation of readers.
Murray, sick for much of her life, relished the tactile glory of the natural world.
The poems of Joan Murray, who died in 1942, at the age of twenty-four, have been lost and recovered many times over. First, Murray’s manuscript was pried, from her mother, by W. H. Auden, who wanted to publish it as his inaugural pick as judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, in 1947. The resulting book, “Poems,” received a few respectful notices but was soon forgotten. In 2003, John Ashbery, a cheerful prospector in overlooked minor poetries, published a short appreciation of Murray, “one of the poets of the forties whom I most enjoy,” whose “abrupt transitions and changes of scene” bring readers to “the brink of a momentous discovery.” The poems were discoveries in and of themselves. In 2006, the poet and editor Shanna Compton uploaded a PDF of “Poems” to her Website, where it became a much-plundered treasure. Murray now had an “underground reputation,” in Compton’s judgment: more than sixty years after her death, she was a contemporary poet.
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Read also: Minor Notes: On the rediscovery of Joan Murray and The Epic, Neglected Vision of Joan Murray.
Here We Stand before the Temporal World
By Joan Murray
Here we stand before the temporal world,
And whether we care to cast our minds
Or shiver from our words all that refutes
The clarity of thought…
Whether we wish to deflect the rudiments of source
Bare bastard brats in summing up the whole…
These things I do not know.
Words have been to me like steps
Revolving and revolving in one cell.
Perhaps others have felt the limits of the pendulum,
Looking to the vast confines of night,
And conscious only of the narrow head,
The brief skull imminent of life,
Gray granules that, like Time, run through the hours.
Caesar walked quietly in his garden.
Two scribes walked gravely by his side.
The smooth pink marble of the fluted column passed
Reminded him of warm wine from the grapes,
The glitter of a spear dropped carelessly,
And caught by a hand quicker than he could see
Its slanting fall,
Reminded him of shallow eyes that glinted
As he passed between two worlds, their own and his.
His thoughts tended toward irrelevance,
But his words cut out the veriest patterns
Of an eastern drive toward the steeples of far Babylon.
From Poems, 1947, chosen by W. H. Auden.
Filed under History, Poem, Study
The mysterious masterpiece of Portugal’s great modernist.
If ever there was a writer in flight from his name, it was Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa is the Portuguese word for “person,” and there is nothing he less wanted to be. Again and again, in both poetry and prose, Pessoa denied that he existed as any kind of distinctive individual. “I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist,” he writes in one poem. “I’m the gap between what I’d like to be and what others have made of me. . . . That’s me. Period.”
In his magnum opus, “The Book of Disquiet”—a collage of aphorisms and reflections couched in the form of a fictional diary, which he worked on for years but never finished, much less published—Pessoa returns to the same theme: “Through these deliberately unconnected impressions I am the indifferent narrator of my autobiography without events, of my history without a life. These are my Confessions and if I say nothing in them it’s because I have nothing to say.”
Filed under Reminder, Study