Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The other pen

Rilke had two pens: one for writing letters and paying bills, and one for his "real work" of poetry and novels. Guess which one got used the most? (Hint: Rilke penned an estimated 11,000 letters, about 7,000 of which are in print, mostly in German and French.)*

Before he died, he did realize that his letters had become an essential part of his life's work and gave permission for them to be published. But it got me wondering.

Which of our words written with "the other pen" are more powerful than we ever guess?

I'm thinking of an appreciation letter I wrote to my son's first grade teacher, which she later told me stayed on her refrigerator all year.

I'm thinking of the notes my mother wrote in the margins of a paperback copy of A Circle of Quiet.

I'm thinking of the message someone handed my daughter at school on 9/11/2001, letting her know that her dad had survived the attack on the Pentagon.

Rilke filled his pens with ink. We charge our laptops.
He wrote letters. We write email and blog posts.
He wrote novels and poetry. Some of us do that, too.
Everyday we ink and tap and send out words.
After that, who knows?

For as Rilke wrote in one of his "other pen" letters, "...our life is vast, and can accommodate as much future as we are able to carry."

*From the introduction to "The Poet's Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke" edited and translated by Ulrich Baer.


  1. It's so true. Remember when Eisha and I announced that "be-brave" project? My brave moments, I find, are sometimes things like speaking up to tell someone something nice. Isn't it weird that I have to work up courage for that? (I guess sometimes shyness just takes over.) I had to work up the courage to tell the folks at Publix that they were so kind to me when I got locked out of my car once. It took me MONTHS, but I finally told a manager. Those are powerful words for good, like the note to your son's teacher and the note passed to your daughter, so I should never hesitate, shyness or no.

    (And then I feel silly, since people all over the world have challenges that are truly life-threatening and I sometimes have to work up the courage to say something nice. Yeesh.)

    Anyway, thanks for this. I love any post about Rilke. Have you ever read a biography of him? I think you'd like it.

    P.S. I hate that paying-bills pen. Takes too much time away from the other one.

  2. I love your be-brave project. And think of those words about being brave that you and Eisha put out there---what bravery are they inspiring?

    I need a good bio of Rilke. The intro to this book has a short one, and it refutes some of the popular perceptions of the poet. But I confess I don't know much about his life because I keep getting distracted by his mind-blowing thoughts. (I can't say I agree with all his philosophy and there are definitely sections I just do not understand. But the reach he had! He was not afraid to be OUT, OUT, OUT THERE.)

  3. What a lovely post.

    Any pen that writes even the smallest note of appreciation, gratitude, or kindness is a good pen. In this age of email, I miss that pen and the sight of handwriting.

  4. I may be 42 and single... but I most definitely have some love letters saved. Penned by me and or others. Cliche, maybe, but...well...it's amazing how carefully crafted some of those little buggers are.

  5. Yes, jama, the sight of handwriting can make my heart jump too.

    Bill, I have TONS of letters saved. I can't claim they were carefully crafted--more like leaps off the cliff---but they still affect me, years later.

  6. This is a lovely question, Sara.
    I know that email isn't the same tangible human thing as a handwritten word but honestly, a note of gratitude or compliment or grace is still a note of gratitude or compliment or grace. I have been sent to my knees by emails before, and I do hope the notes I've "penned" to people have lifted or touched where necessary...
    It's good to remember how much they matter. The message your daughter got on 9/11? Oh, mercy...

  7. My husband and I started dating 15 years ago and then he moved across the country a week later. Our relationship started in letters.

    I wonder sometimes now how much human history we are losing because of email; nobody's going to find my old laptop in an attic someday and re-read all my correspondence...


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