Tag: criticism

Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet

17 February 1903

My dear sir,

Your letter reached me just a few days ago. I want to thank you for the deep and loving trust it revealed. I can do no more. I cannot comment on the style of your verses; critical intent is too far removed from my nature. There is nothing that manages to influence a work of art less than critical words. They always result in more or less unfortunate misunderstandings. Things are not as easily understood nor as expressible as people usually would like us to believe. Most happenings are beyond expression; they exist where a word has never intruded. Even more inexpressible are works of art; mysterious entities they are, whose lives, compared to our fleeting ones, endure.

Having said these things at the outset, I now dare tell you only this: that your verses do not as yet have an individual style. Yet they possess a quiet and hidden inclination to reveal something personal. I felt that very thing most notably in the last poem, “My Soul.” There, something of your inner self wants to rise to expression. And in the beautiful poem “To Leopardi” something akin to greatness and bordering on uniqueness is sprouting out toward fulfillment. However, the poems cannot yet stand on their own merit, are not yet independent, not even the last one to Leopardi, not yet. In your kind letter accompanying them, you do not fail to admit to and to analyze some shortcomings, which I could sense while reading your verses, but could not directly put into words.

You ask whether your poems are good. You send them to publishers; you compare them with other poems; you are disturbed when certain publishers reject your attempts. Well now, since you have given me permission to advise you, I suggest that you give all that up. You are looking outward and, above all else, that you must not do now. No one can advise and help you, no one.

There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.

Then draw near to nature. Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose. Do not write love poems, at least at first; they present the greatest challenge. It requires great, fully ripened power to produce something personal, something unique, when there are so many good and sometimes even brilliant renditions in great numbers. Beware of general themes. Cling to those that your every- day life offers you. Write about your sorrows, your wishes, your passing thoughts, your belief in anything beautiful. Describe all that with fervent, quiet, and humble sincerity. In order to express yourself, use things in your surroundings, the scenes of your dreams, and the subjects of your memory.

If your everyday life appears to be unworthy subject matter, do not complain to life. Complain to yourself. Lament that you are not poet enough to call up its wealth. For the creative artist there is no poverty—nothing is insignificant or unimportant. Even if you were in a prison whose walls would shut out from your senses the sounds of the outer world, would you not then still have your childhood, this precious wealth, this treasure house of memories? Direct your attention to that. Attempt to resurrect these sunken sensations of a distant past. You will gain assuredness. Your aloneness will expand and will become your home, greeting you like the quiet dawn. Outer tumult will pass it by from afar.

If, as a result of this turning inward, of this sinking into your own world, poetry should emerge, you will not think to ask someone whether it is good poetry. And you will not try to interest publishers of magazines in these works. For you will hear in them your own voice; you will see in them a piece of your life, a natural possession of yours. A piece of art is good if it is born of necessity. This, its source, is its criterion; there is no other.

Therefore, my dear friend, I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth. At its source you will find the answer to the question, whether you must write. Accept it, however it sounds to you, without analyzing. Perhaps it will become apparent to you that you are indeed called to be a writer. Then accept that fate; bear its burden, and its grandeur, without asking for the reward, which might possibly come from without. For the creative artist must be a world of his own and must find everything within himself and in nature, to which he has betrothed himself.

It is possible that, even after your descent into your inner self and into your secret place of solitude, you might find that you must give up becoming a poet. As I have said, to feel that one could live without writing is enough indication that, in fact, one should not. Even then this process of turning inward, upon which I beg you to embark, will not have been in vain. Your life will no doubt from then on find its own paths. That they will be good ones and rich and expansive—that I wish for you more than I can say.

What else shall I tell you? It seems to me everything has been said, with just the right emphasis. I wanted only to advise you to progress quietly and seriously in your evolvement. You could greatly interfere with that process if you look outward and expect to obtain answers from the outside—answers which only your innermost feeling in your quietest hour can perhaps give you.

I was very happy to find in your writing the name of Professor Horaˇcek. I harbor the highest regard for this kindest of scholars and owe him lasting gratitude. Would you please pass my sentiments on to him. It is very kind of him to think of me still, and I appreciate it.

I am returning the verses with which you entrusted me. I thank you again for your unconditional and sincere trust. I am overwhelmed with it, and therefore have tried, to the best of my ability, to make myself a little more worthy than I, as a stranger to you, really am.

With my sincerest interest and devotion,


An Invitation to Meet My Cats

Serkalem Fasil
℅ The Individuals at Risk Program
Amnesty International USA
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE 5th Floor
Washington, DC 20003

Dear Eskinder Nega, via your wife Serkalem Fasil,

I hope this letter finds you reasonably well, given that you have been imprisoned by your government. What has happened to you could happen to any citizen in the world, if individual protections of free speech are not written into the law and enforced by strong and just courts, and supported by humane governments. It is too bad that governments do not realize that they are stronger—not weaker—when they protect these basic rights of free speech for all citizens.

I am an American who has been dwelling in Mexico for some years, where I live and write (sometimes paint, as well) with my partner Dianne. If it would reach you, I would send you a copy of my novel Playing for Pancho Villa, which people say is a good yarn, albeit both sweet and sad—a love story set in 1916 revolutionary Mexico.

It is hard for me to imagine how your government, or any government, can justify putting you in prison—for voicing your opinions about it.

I hope that you are released soon, along with any of your countrymen who have also been imprisoned for voicing dissent. And that you can get up in the morning, have your coffee, talk to your cat, and hold your wife’s hand and watch the sun come up together—with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I hope I get to meet you when you leave prison. Maybe you will come to Mexico and give a talk in my small colonial city Guanajuato, and have some Mexican food with us, at our house, with your wife, and talk to my two cats—who I am sure would be very interested to meet a writer from Ethiopia. As I would.

Best Wishes,

Sterling Bennett

Ute Lemper Sings Cabaret in Guanajuato, Mexico

A Fictional Interview with the German cabaret singer Ute Lemper, Guanajuato, Mexico, October 2013

Ute Lemper performed here in Guanajuato a few nights ago, for the Festival Cervantino. She will go on to the Belles Artes in Mexico City next. Here, she was a great hit with nearly everyone. This is how my fictional interview with her went.

Ute: You represent which newspaper again?

SB: Bennetts Blog—a highly influential voice on matters of artistic importance, read by thousands…

U: (A look of skepticism) Forgive me, but I don’t have a lot of time. Could you be as brief as possible?

SB: The audience loved you here in Guanajuato. That must feel good. I’m sure you are received with great applause wherever you go.

U: Not always. It depends on many factors—age, experience in the world, their knowledge of history, a concern for the voices of the past.

SB: It cannot be easy keeping up song and content for nearly two hours—one woman. That takes enormous courage, in my opinion…not to mention strength.

U: But? I hear a but coming…

SB: Not really—but it must be difficult to be the center of everything, one could even say self-referential—and at the same time honor the voices of great cabaret artists that came before you. Do you find that difficult?

U: Self-referential has a harsh edge to it. But I have been accused of that before…What did you say your name was again?

SB: Bennett…

U: Well, Mr. Bennett, you run risks yourself of being the typical critic, who puts nothing into my work, but after a few strokes at the keyboard begins to make observations surely headed toward fault-finding. Remember that no work of art is perfect, without flaws, that there are no works of art that are not open to correction—unhappily, often by those who have never attempted anything on a stage or anywhere else, certainly never faced an audience for two hours. Or who grew up in the culture I did.

SB: I admire your courage, I truly do. And I know it is easy to be the comfortable critic that always knows better what the artist should have done on stage.

U: Thank you….

SB: But…if you will permit me, may I return to my original question about the risk of being self-referential…?

U: Only if I can just insert, as I said earlier, that we are all self-referential. You are being self-referential when you presume to enter my world to tell me how to perform my art better than I do. Isn’t that true? I may have the patience to listen to your opinions—for a short while, I remind you—but I have as much right to tell you to mind your own business—whatever it is—and not to presume that you can press your adjectives on me when they probably apply just as well to you—as if dishing out criticism were going to be a one-sided.

SB: I agree, but let me try to characterize my remarks a little differently. You evoke Marlene Dietrich but without, I thought, telling us much about the real woman: who sided with the allies and not the Nazis, who reinvented herself over and over, a bi-sexual woman who—as powerful seductress—at her death had accumulated a long list of very famous persons who were her lovers. She often dressed as a man, which gave her an air of androgyny. Certain critics with psychiatric training, I think, chided her for the “fetishistic manipulation of the female image.” You clearly imitate Marlene with great accuracy. And, I repeat, it cannot be easy to evoke that woman and still be your own woman who attracts us largely by the force of her own personality.

U: Well, that’s a mouthful. But you have hit on something that I worry about: imitating Marlene and other others like Edith Piaf without becoming epigonic—without being the inferior imitator. Fetishistic? You mean wearing the top hat, showing leg, posing with one arm extended over my head Marilyn Monroe style, writhing as I slink across the stage? Where do you think all that came from? It comes from the need to please men. Prostitutes and cabaret singers recognized a niche market. Men were the ones who got excited by the androgyny, the slit in the dress that shows the leg, at a time when the leg was not supposed to be shown—along with the rest of the woman’s body. Have you ever seen a woman walk that is wearing a corset? Well, I haven’t either. But those men saw it all the time and paid to see a woman slinking. So, Mr. Bennett, who is it exactly that makes a fetish of the female body?

SB: Who are those big guys at the door that stare at me all the time?

U: Those are my bodyguards….

SB: I don’t want to upset them.

U: What about me?

SB: Sorry…could I mention, you didn’t have a lot of help from the technical staff. The volume was too high and your words got mushed. As you pointed out, singing and speaking in four or five different languages, there should have been translations on the usual screen over the stage. Plus, it was hot and the chemical stage mist made it hard to breath.

U: How do you think we feel with all those conditions? We try to get it right before we start, but local  “professionals” often think they know better, and they screw it up.

SB: It would help me if you smiled at your bodyguards.

U: It would help me if you smiled at all once in a while…and you have about thirty seconds left.

SB: Let’s see, you follow a long tradition of setting someone else’s words to music—like Shubert setting Goethe’s poems to music: “Der Erlenkönig.” In your case, Neruda’s poems and the woman Ilse Weber who wrote “Wenn ich wandere durch Theresienstadt….”

U: You speak German?

SB: Yes.

U: I’ll give you an extra minute.

SB: Ilse Weber apparently was a night nurse in the children’s infirmary in the concentration camp Theresienstadt. When her husband was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, she volunteered join him with her son Tommy, to keep the family together. I am sure she arrived at Auschwitz believing they would be reunited. On arrival, she and Tommy were sent straight to the gas chamber. Please don’t call your guards, but if you leave all that out and just sing a song because it was written in a concentration camp, it seems—at least to me—like you’re only giving token recognition to the horror of that time. Almost trivializing it. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.

U: Let’s clear something up. We Germans have been chewing on the holocaust for nearly seventy years. Half of France was anti-semitic. Perhaps. Maybe still is. Your country has splattered blood all over Viet Nam, Irak and Afghanistan and countless other peoples since 1945, and called it “collateral damage”—always with a presumption of your own innocence and rectitude. Always larded with an insufferable air of triumphalism. Have any of your singers ever bothered to sing a children’s song composed by a woman who was then slaughtered at Wounded Knee?

SB: I suppose Buffy Sainte Marie…but the fact is, I don’t really know. I’m simply suggesting that cabaret and sentimentality may be like oil and water…

U: That’s it. I’ll think about it—but you’re time is up. Good-bye.

SB: (standing, possibly out of politeness)…I think you should at least know that, as you were singing the Theresienstadt song, that awful artificial mist was billowing out from stage right and was far too closely suggestive of what you were talking about….and maybe you should try to prevent that next….

Bodyguards: Sir, please step back….