Rilke and the Tension between Individuality and Tradition

I recently decided to re-read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. It’s been a long time since I first read this work. At that time it was “required reading,” so you can guess how well that went over. Nowadays, I am a lot more interested in the wisdom that Rilke had to share about writing poetry.

The first letter speaks of the importance of cultivating an “individual style,” by looking inward rather than outward. Remaining true to the depths of your own soul, stresses Rilke, is more important than gaining approval from your peers, the public, magazine editors, or the keepers of literary tradition.

After I finished (re-)reading the first letter, I was inspired to write a poem about the almost palpable tension that exists for many writers who are caught between a desire to be experimental or innovative (developing a unique style) and a desire to be appropriately and relevantly situated upon the solid ground that was first foraged by those we recognize as great (even “canonical,” dare I say it) poets.

Here is the result of that inspiration:


between worlds
fingers, collapsing bridges
reach for solid ground
by tapping on the shoulders
of the living

deaf to husky voices
and the play of Shadows
old men hum their obituaries
free to release
and too humbled to resist

they brush boney hands aside
snapping puppet’s strings
careless in the chasm
between themselves
and evolution

manipulation misinterpreted
negatively, defines nothing
but a foolhardy Geppetto
and the mistakes of a puppet boy
whose freedom apes rebellion

© Lisa Mulrooney

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