“Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody,” Rilke wrote in his response to a request for advice and feedback from the nineteen-year-old aspiring poet Franz Kappus. “I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps.”
Rilke’s first letter to Kappus in Letters to a Young Poet is one of the most polite and ineffective dismissals you’ll read. While it seems that he’s trying to dispatch with his young admirer, it would be the first of ten letters that he sent Kappus over a six-year period. A century has passed since their correspondence ended, but the book remains a staple in high schools and colleges, a primer on the questions that artists confront throughout their lives.
In the spirit of Rilke’s attempts (or skillful dodges) at giving advice, we asked FSG’s poets to tackle a question—or invent a new one—that lies within Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke’s letters have proven to be remarkably durable, but if poetry has changed at all, we need new answers to our questions, and new questions to answer.
Five FSG poets—Ange Mlinko, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Michael Hofmann, Carl Phillips, and Karen Solie—heeded the call, and throughout April we will be sharing their advice to the Franz Kappuses of today. We’re pleased to present Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s “On the Notions of Innovation and Influence.”
Only when writing and reading become inseparable from each another, when the bounds of their membranes melt away and everything thereafter becomes a sweet and messy synesthesia of sound and sense, temperament and tempo, past and present, without beginning or end, only then can a poet truly reckon with influence.
The question typically asked of a poet is “Who are your influences?” The ubiquity of the question is more significant than any answer it may provide. To begin with, the question presumes the poet has a perfect, unleveraged sense of her or his work. Influences are not ingredients. And a poem is not a cake. Never trust poets to explain what has made them. Most answers are self-fashioning: They are poets the poet wants to be mentioned with and perhaps have read closely. Keep in mind these two situations, for one is about literary self-interestedness and the other is about willful autobiography, the forked road that leads to the same path: bad poetry.
Writing poetry well, over time, is the residue of what you have read and lived and thought. If you want your poetry to outlive you—and you should want your poetry to outlive you—then you must accept that poetry comes from poetry and exists to make more poetry. The rest is silence. This should not depress you: This should give you heart. If you love poetry, be heartened to know that your poetry, at its best, gives more poetry to the world. There is no position, esteem, or injury that outlasts a great poem. If this depresses you, perhaps your love of poetry is not what you presume it to be.
As the universe is constantly expanding and cooling after an initial explosion from an unfathomable beginning, so are our poems expanding out across a universe made of words. You can write a poem without having read other poems. You cannot write poetry without having read other poems. The difference between a poem and poetry is the difference between action and idea. The unfortunate tendency for some poets, especially young ones, is to make poetry the enemy, and a dandyish enemy at that. But a human being can cast down on herself or himself few punishments as severe as reducing the self to the mere sum of its actions. Nature surrounds us in a series of lies: the flatness of the world, that the Earth doesn’t spin, that the sky is blue. Thought frees us from living solely with the lies available to us. Reading is like this. As you read poetry, try to think of yourself as writing what is in front of you on the page. As you write poetry, try to read it with the passion of an interested reader who is not yourself. Then the shadows in the text start to move and the depths begin to really reveal themselves and your world widens. Eratosthenes, without ever leaving Egypt, measured the circumference of the Earth based on a tip about a shadow and a well.
Innovation is the red herring of poetic ambition. If innovation happens and holds up, the poets of the future will know it. But as you can’t anticipate the poets who will come after you, you shouldn’t ignore the poets who came before you. In their own way, they have already written what you want to write. And in your own way, you are presently the poet of the future. Therefore, treat the past as you would want the poets of the future to treat your poetry when it is the past.
And remember: A poet’s first and most powerful innovation is to read. The poet’s mind while reading is the great innovator. Try to write with your reading mind, which is bottomless, absent of hierarchy, and beautifully atemporal. It will keep you honest. For deep in your heart you know that all of the poems of the world have already been written. Poetry is as old as human reflex: It predates its intention.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of Heaven (FSG, 2015) and The Ground (FSG, 2012). He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, and the GLCA New Writers Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in New York City.