Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Letters to A Young Poet, Letters to a Ghost

I was fourteen years old when my mother, somehow recognizing my writerly inclinations in a way I could not, put into my hands a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. It was a thin, feather-light edition of Stephen Mitchell’s marvelous English translation. I didn’t like the cover with its bright colors and gaudy font, but upon opening to the first letter of February 1903 I promptly experienced what nearly three generations of readers had experienced before me: the unshakable sense that this missive was addressed directly to me. Come twilight I’d finished the book, and already I wanted to learn more about this letter-writer from ninety years past who seemed to know so much about me and the counsel I so desperately needed in my current day. I could not have known what a lasting presence this literary specter would become in my life, nor how he would haunt my decision to become a writer.

Now, fourteen years and several thousands of travel-miles later, I find I’m the author of a novel about Rainer Maria Rilke’s troubled, triumphant life. Lost Son depicts Rilke in the drive of his all-consuming art as it carries him back and forth across western Europe over the course of fifteen intensely restless years. Perhaps more than any poet of the western world, Rilke was incapable of living one life as a man, another as a poet. Here was a soul who completely lacked the useful mechanism most of us employ to close ourselves off from certain experiences or stimuli for our own well-being. Uncontrollably, every impression penetrated him to his core and became an almost physical vibration within him. It’s as if he was genetically predisposed to poetry--to those profound resonances of which poetry is made. But this resulted in an extreme, at times incapacitating vulnerability to the outer world, and Rilke soon discovered that his sole method of self-preservation would be to control his environment and withdraw into his work as much as possible. Rilke's need to live and breathe his art rendered his loyalties to family and friends extremely complex, and kept him perpetually unprotected, homeless, and poor. It gave him, however, his best poetic works—not a few of which are held to be among the greatest in the world today.

Rilke’s writings, in their powerful and pungent synthesis of mystery, terror, and praise, hold a resonance like no other literary work I know of. The life behind the work tells its own strange, troubling and inspiring story of long sacrifice and sudden moments of transcendence. Rilke’s figure continues to haunt me. Lost Son is the novel I felt I most needed to write in these initial years of my own life as an artist. The book is in many ways the result of a long conversation with a master, a ghost. A reply, perhaps, to those letters I first read at fourteen and felt to be written to me across the span of a century. And hopefully Lost Son is a story of deep, multidimensional humanity.

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