Thursday, May 27, 2010

Letters to A Young Poet Obsessed with Aspidistras

Keep the Aspidistra Flying (Harvest Book)I rarely read more than one book at a time.  I tend to lose focus if I do.  But, for some reason, I was reading two books this past week that met in some fortuitous way to help one another.  The two books in question: Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke and Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell.  Both are books about or to poets.  Both deal with the pain and struggle poets must go through to produce art.

You know how when you find a distasteful character in a work of fiction, you find yourself wanting to fix them, wanting to have a conversation with them, to set them on the right track?  OK, maybe it's just me.  Well, instead of wanting to fix the main character in Orwell's book, I wanted to introduce him to Rilke.  I wanted so badly for the letters Rilke wrote to Mr. Kappus to be written to Gordon Comstock.  Because, like Kappus, Gordon needed some direction.  He needed to figure it out.  I mean the man is 30 years old and still hung up on money and himself, so much so that he keeps himself from the things he desires most.

Gordon's problems are numerous.  He is obsessed with money, having declared war against the "money-god" without realizing he bows down to his altar on an almost constant basis.  He is obsessed with as-yet-unrealized physical intimacy with his girlfriend of two years.  He has a dead-end job.  He has been working on one poem for two years and each day whittles it down, instead of adding to it.  He sees everything as a class warfare thing.  But with him it starts and ends with money.  Thankfully, Rilke had something to say on these topics.  I think it would go a little something like this.

Gordon on successful poetry: You were a made man once you had had a poem in [the Primrose Quarterly].  In his heart Gordon knew that the Primrose Quarterly would never print his poems.  He wasn't up to their standard.  Still, miracles sometimes happen; or, if not miracles, accidents.

Letters Of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1892-1910Rilke: You ask whether your verses are good...You send them to magazines.  You compare them with other poems, you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts.  Now...I beg you to give up on all that.  You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now.  Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody.  There is only one single way.  Go into yourself.  Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.

Gordon on fruitless days: The ticking of the alarm clock on the mantelpiece became audible to Gordon again, bringing with it the consciousness of the sinister passage of time.  He looked about him.  Another evening wasted.  Hours, days, years slipping by.  Night after night, always the same.  The lonely room, the womanless bed; dust, cigarette ash, the aspidistra leaves.  And he was thirty, nearly.

Rilke: seek [themes] which your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty - describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity, and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory.  If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.

Gordon on employment:  He went to Ravelston and asked his help.  He told him that he wanted some kind of job; not a "good" job, but a job that would keep his body without wholly buying his soul.

Rilke: I can only advise you to consider whether all professions are not like that, full of demands, full of enmity against the individual, saturated as it were with the hatred of those who have found themselves mute and sullen in a hum-drum duty.

With these bits of advice from another poet, Gordon's story would be the same, but his attitude could have been different.  It is the attitude and the words stemming from it, that make Gordon such a distasteful character, that alienate him from all those who love him. 

But, all is not lost in Orwell's story.  This is only the character sketch of Gordon that takes up the first six (tedious) chapters of the book.  Then, in the final six chapters of the book, we find character development through actual events (praise for actual events in a novel, how necessary they are).   We see, finally, the development of boy into man at the ripe age of thirty.  So it is a bildungsroman, a coming of age novel.  It is a shame Gordon had to become complete at such an old age (middle-age, for the time).  It stands in contrast to the letters to Mr. Kappus, a boy of nineteen developing into a man a full decade before Gordon.

Also, in the last couple of chapters we find the explanation for aspidistras being a central device in the novel.  I will not reveal it here because if anything is a mystery throughout this novel, it is the meaning of aspidistras. 

Ratings: Keep the Aspidistra Flying: 2 of 7 (The plot is non-existent until the last of the book, I need some plot, please!)
Letters to a Young Poet: 6 of 7 (will return to this one regularly, thanks for the recommendation, Dad)



  1. Wow! Now I want to read both of these books! Did you make up those conversation pieces or are they quotes? I want to write down the 'if your daily life is poor, do not blame it, blame yourself' one.

  2. Those are quotes from each book. You will definitely enjoy Letters to a Young Poet. It is a fast read, but one you can revisist over and over because there are so many great things he said. I too love the one about daily life. There is a long one about sex that I didn't include, but it is amazing (as sex quotes go, I guess).