For The Sake of A Single Verse
A friend and I were talking recently about the cult of youth, in the art world and in general. Being in my thirties now, and having made it more or less intact through a series of character-sculpting personal traumas, I can honestly say I do not envy those who are just starting out. I am of the opinion that while young artists are often capable of striking insights, there are other truths which are hidden from those who have not yet suffered through a certain amount of life.
Anyway, this discussion reminded me of the following passage from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke’s only novel, which I mainly know via the portfolio of lithographs created by Ben Shahn to accompany the text in 1968.
I think I ought to begin to do some work, now that I am learning to see. I am twenty-eight years old, and almost nothing has been done. To recapitulate I have written a study on Carpaccio which is bad, a drama entitled ‘Marriage,’ which sets out to demonstrate something false by equivocal means, and some verses. Ah! but verses amount to so little when one writes them young. One ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness a whole life long and a long life, if possible, and then, quite at the end, one night perhaps be able to write ten lines that were good. For verses are not, as people imagine, simply feelings (those one has early enough)–they are experiences.
For the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities, men, and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the little flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings one had long seen coming; to days of childhood that are still unexplained, to parents whom one had to hurt when they brought one some joy and did not grasp it (it was a joy for someone else); to childhood illnesses that so strangely begin with such a number of profound and grave transformations, to days in rooms withdrawn and quiet and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along on high and flew with all the stars—and it is not yet enough if one may think of all this. One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others, of the screams of women in labor, and of light, white, sleeping women in childbed, closing again. But one must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful noises. And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again.
For it is not yet the memories themselves. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance, and gesture, nameless, and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
-Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1910.