“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 Carl Phillips “On Courting Danger.”
At one point in his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke addresses the poet’s anxiety about solitude—specifically, the way in which solitude has allowed the poet to spend more time thinking about self-doubts, life’s insecurities, and a general fear and helplessness in the face of what seems unknowable. Rilke suggests that it is precisely in these moments of fear that we, in a sense, get closest to life itself, to a reality of life that is indeed frightening, namely, that it is everywhere unpredictable, and that unpredictability, if we look at it squarely, belies the emptiness—the falseness, at least—of our desire to construct a life that consists of pattern, routine, reliability. The instinct away from insecurity—from danger, ultimately—is understandable, of course, but the belief that by creating a surface of security we have vanquished an insecurity that runs beneath our lives, always, is a false one, and maybe even a potentially dangerous one. As Rilke points out, our being aware of the insecurities in life can make us more well-equipped to handle those moments when life’s insecurity inevitably makes an appearance—even as, for example, understanding the fact of mortality does not make death especially welcome, but it does give us a context within which to make a certain sense of death, and to fold its attendant sorrows into what it means, for better and worse, to be alive as a human being equally gifted and burdened with self-consciousness.
Is this proximity to insecurity—and, by extension, danger—necessary, though, for the artist to be able to create? Rilke implies as much, and overall I agree, having written a fair amount myself on the topic of risk and restlessness, and on the need for them not just in a life of art, but in any fully lived life. I’m not advocating courting danger, though. Nor am I arguing against security where it can be found—a place to live, income, trustworthy friends, etc. But I think the making of art requires having something to butt up against, to resist—in the tension between life’s difficulties and our grappling with it come those moments when we see what we are capable of, sometimes in terms of courage, or stamina, and sometimes, for the artist, in terms of the art that gets made as a kind of enactment of and memorial to our having struggled and, for now at least, survived the encounter. “[A]ll art is pain/suffered and outlived,” says Hayden’s speaker in “The Tattooed Man,” speaking literally about the pain to be endured while receiving the art that a tattoo can be, but also speaking metaphorically, of course, about where a fair amount of art comes from: our having lived, as it were, to tell the proverbial tale.
One argument against courting danger is that there’s no need to do so—every life comes with vulnerability to all kinds of things, violence, disease, weather, despairs various . . . Rather than seeking them out, I think the artist should spend time with them when they occur, should try to use the experience not as a way to confirm fear but to understand life’s complexity a bit more; insofar as art is a manifestation of having been alive, the more we understand about life, the more accurate will be the art that we make of it. I’m not saying I’d be at ease with the pin oak in my backyard getting struck by lightning, falling onto the house, and causing the house to burn down (a fear that, strangely, routinely comes to mind)—and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to come up with my own version of Anne Bradstreet’s “Verses upon the Burning of our House.” But I like to think the experience might give me a sense of perspective about what matters in life, also about life’s randomness, and maybe I’d have a slightly different angle on the particular gratitude of having been spared the worse disaster of losing loved ones, and myself, to the fire. And somewhere in there is the potential, at least, for doing what art is supposed to do, which is to add texture to our understanding of life, to our experience of it, to allow us to see the world as ever-shifting and nowhere near as clear as we more often choose to believe. Not everyone wants to spend time thinking about those things, but the speed with which, in times of trouble, people will turn to the reading of poetry in particular suggests that people want—need, in fact—to have someone do the close wrestling with the world on their behalf, as it were. It’s consoling to know that we aren’t alone in our suffering; in reading, we find companionship, the prerequisite for empathy. It’s differently difficult (not more, necessarily) to spend time alone in that suffering and to plumb its depths for the sake of art, but someone has to. Our own understanding gets deepened, as a result—and if from that understanding we make something sharable by others, well, maybe that’s where art has its greatest usefulness.
Another argument against courting danger is that danger doesn’t guarantee an ability to make art. Plenty of people are exposed to very real danger every day, and they aren’t making art out of it—that would require the luxury of time and leisure unavailable to those trying to escape genocide or to survive famine—to name but two of the many ongoing realities in this world. Danger can literally destroy the ability to make art. Much has been written about the relationship between art and mental illness, especially when it comes to poetry, since there have been a fair number of poets who have produced lasting work while wrestling with clinical depression. But so many of those poets also committed suicide eventually. One truth about depression is that it can be fatal for the sufferer to spend extended time with the “demons” that attend it—far from being conducive to the making of art, it can lead to a despair so overwhelming that suicide seems the only right response. Or, if it doesn’t lead to suicide, it can lead to a crippling stasis, an inability to move forward, mentally, and often physically. It’s not uncommon to have poetry students who suffer from depression. And every few years I’ll have a student who wonders if staying on meds is a good idea—do the drugs dull the mind to the harder realities of life, and if we distance ourselves from those realities, aren’t we avoiding the hard wrestling from which art arises? For some people, yes—and those people aren’t likely trying to be poets, which seems a reasonable enough choice in life. For other people, I like to think that medication might provide a certain stability within which reflecting on life’s difficulties can become not only possible but perhaps useful. We don’t have to be mauled by a lion in order to consider its potential for violence, the strange beauty of pure instinct, its power to stop us, sometimes, from looking away . . .
But safety’s no more a guarantee of art than danger is. The tenure system is designed to provide for intellectual freedom—within the safety of knowing we have a job forever, the argument goes, we feel free to be productively expressive. Likewise, being in an MFA program—at least in one that offers good funding—can provide a shelter of sorts from the responsibilities of having to find a “proper” job, the potentially numbing routine of a daily work schedule, etc. But in reality, what the MFA program provides is some concentrated time for writing, a form of the leisure that I mentioned earlier as being absent from so many people’s lives—and time for making art isn’t the same as making art. Meanwhile, tenure also provides time, comparatively, but a very real danger of tenure is that, short of further promotion, there aren’t any exterior incentives for making. I’ve known many academics who produced the requisite book or two for the winning of tenure, and then never went on to write much else. Which is to say, tenure can lead to complacency. The only antidote to that complacency, as far as I know, is the ongoing commitment, not to danger, suffering, whatever we want to call it, but to the simultaneous contemplation of and resistance to suffering, a refusal to look entirely away, when to look away would be the more desirable—more comfortable—choice.
Is danger necessary to the making of art? Or is safety what’s needed, within which to reflect on danger? Maybe neither of these is quite the “right” question. Maybe what’s required is the sensibility that allows for the inextricability of danger and safety, the rippling fact of suffering in its countless manifestations and its relationship to what’s equally uncountable, the sustaining, rescuing fact of joy. A sensibility that is willing to spend meaningful time with what cannot be resolved, and which therefore produces fear, uneasiness in most of us. What Rilke directs his young poet to is a sensibility that is ultimately no different from the negative capability that Keats once wrote of, a sensibility that doesn’t seek to resolve difficult things, but to see them, to be in their presence, resistless—what would be a kind of daring, I suppose, if there were any choice in the matter. For the artist, there isn’t. Even as there’s no crafting or training toward the acquisition of such a sensibility. Those who have it have it, as I said earlier, for better and worse. Embrace it, come to know it, suggests Rilke—though his tone has always suggested to me that he’s not so sure that his would-be poet addressee will be able to heed his advice. Fair enough, I think. Not everyone’s an artist, and not everyone should be: if there were nothing in this world but artists, we’d be very lost indeed.
Carl Phillips is the author of eleven books of poetry, including Speak Low, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Double Shadow, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis and lives in St. Louis, Missouri.