Sunday, September 7, 2008

To Ripen Like a Tree -- Maureen Scott Harris

_Letters to a Young Poet_; Rilke, Rainer Maria

In the fall of 1961, I'm seventeen years old and have just started university. There I’ve discovered the huge continent of non-fiction – history, travel writing, letters, essays, autobiography and memoir – provinces I never dreamed existed as I read my way steadily through Zane Grey and Luke Short, with occasional detours to L.M. Montgomery and Rider Haggard. The life of books, and conversations about them, that I’m leading now – in class, sprawled on campus lawns, sitting around cafeteria tables – is my idea of paradise. Here anything seems possible, even the possibility I scarcely allow myself to think: that I might one day be a writer.

I read voraciously, ravished in turn by Andre Gide’s Fruits of the Earth and R. H. Blyth’s introduction to haiku, enlightened and excited by Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination, giddy with the French symbolist poets, stricken by T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. None of these are works I’m studying; I’ve gleaned them by chance or from talk with other students.

Some time that fall, I meet an awkward young man whose father is a professor in the German department. I don’t remember our conversations, but through him I find myself one winter morning holding a copy of his father’s translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I’ve pulled it out of my bag as I sit down on the bus that will carry me to the University of Manitoba. I begin to read and am instantly entranced. “Explore the reason that bids you write," Rilke suggests, "find out if it has spread out its roots in the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die, if writing should be denied to you. Above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night, ‘Must I write?’. . .” My heart creases with longing and delight – that someone might write such a thing – that such a thing might be possible.

Suddenly I realize the bus isn’t moving. The driver is speaking to me, telling me we’ve reached the campus. I look up and see I’m the only passenger still on board. But I haven’t finished reading. I tell the driver I’m not getting off, and he shrugs as I settle into my seat and keep reading. I ride all the way downtown again, finishing the letters. I remember they left me dazed, but filled with exultation. I don’t remember if I then rode back out to the university and my classes.

What I held in my hand that morning was not a book but a slender pamphlet of forty-six pages, bound in chaste grey cardboard, the author’s name and title printed in a black sans serif font on its front cover. I have it still. On the fly-leaf, in a round hand that bears only a faint resemblance to my current handwriting, are my name and the date, October 23, 1961. I stare at the date and lean into my memory, filled with doubt.

I think it was winter when I sat reading on that bus – the air outside it snappingly cold and clear, snow-covered streets glittering under bright blue sky and winter sun, bus windows frosted over, but not blocking out the brightness. But perhaps it wasn’t snow reflecting sunlight into the bus. Perhaps the light I remember sprang from the pages I was reading. When I return to myself looking down at those pages, light streams up from between the words, making me squint with the brilliance.

Must I write? That question haunts me, even now inducing a mixture of exultation and fear. As it did then, it suggests writing is possible, offering a kind of permission. But I recognize that it also stirs my secret conviction that if I turn and look into myself I will discover that in fact I will not die if I don’t write. I am also haunted by these later words from the letters: “. . .the feeling that one could live without writing is enough to prove that one should not write at all.” At that first reading I kept my fear buried, not admitting that I doubted I could write. But it was there, and grew stronger over the years. It is the case that I have lived without writing for intervals of several years at a time, and that I often write sporadically. My intermittent practice has seemed to me faithlessness, evidence that I’m not really a writer.

Over the more than forty years since I first read Letters to a Young Poet on that bus, I’ve read other translations, and indeed turned to it for reassurance, in spite of its hard question. I’ve also felt as ambivalent about it as I have about writing itself. For several years I decided, somewhat condescendingly, it was a work pitch-perfect for adolescence – when after all, one is ready to die rather than live a life without depth and feeling – but of scant help after that tumultuous time. Today, I want to retract that rather defensive judgment.

When I decided to write about it, I reread my original grey-covered copy of the Letters. Holding it in my hands and staring down at its slightly old-fashioned font, I felt reconnected to my initial excitement. I have been startled to discover how deeply it struck into me. In that first reading, Rilke’s words sounded a note I’d not heard before, a note that drew me slowly towards what has become central in my life: poetry, the reading and the writing of it. His conviction that a life dedicated to poetry was worthy, not irresponsible or foolish; his suggestion that you must learn to listen to your own heart and mind; and his insistence on ignoring the external world and its demands to attend to the inner world of longing and loneliness, seem again true to me, and I feel profoundly lucky to have found this manual of encouragement and belief.

In my rereading I’ve received another gift, a new way of considering that vexed question, "Must I write?" For I see that if I’ve been willing to let go of writing, writing has refused to let go of me. Again and again it has called me back to it, as I write and pause, write and pause, for varying lengths of time. Rilke told me about this, too, if I’d been paying full attention: “To be an artist is this: not to count or to reckon: to ripen like a tree which does not force its sap. . .”

Rainer Maria Rilke
Letters to a Young Poet
Translated by K.W. Maurer
Winnipeg Printing & Eng. Co. Ltd.
St. James, Canada
Second edition, December, 1958.

(Translation done in 1943.)

Maureen Scott Harris is a poet and essayist. She has published two collections of poetry-- A Possible Landscape (Brick Books, 1993) and Drowning Lessons (Pedlar Press, 2004), and two chapbooks, "The World Speaks" (Junction Books, 2003) and "The Raven and the Writing Desk: Haiku Variations" (JackPine Press, 2007). In 2005, Drowning Lessons received the Trillium Book Award for Poetry from the Ontario Ministry of Culture. Her essay, “Opening the Griefcase” won first prize in Prairie Fire’s creative non-fiction contest, in 2007. She has been cathected to books since before she learned to read. Harris was born in Prince Rupert, BC, grew up in Winnipeg, and has lived in Toronto for many years. She has worked as a librarian, bookseller, freelance writer and editor, and is currently Production Manager for Brick Books.

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