“In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Every writer, whether they come to their work young, or after many years, at some point asks the inevitable question that Rilke speaks of, ‘Must I write?’ And note that Rilke does not say, ‘should,’ or ‘can’; he admits that the need to write is already there. The journey for the writer is to get to ‘I must.’ It is a long travel for most. As a poet and teacher who came to writing and teaching later in life, my perspective is always twofold: that of what I was given to get me where I am, but also what I can give back, now that I have attained them.
In my life, I can directly attest that I came to writing by reading. I can remember distinctly, watching, and listening to my father read — constantly; every morning, often before dawn, I would wake early, hear him turning pages of whatever book he had a small amount of hours to read before work. This image inspired one of my first poems, many years later. But that first experience of my father’s deep commitment to books was an impetus to do the same. And I did; as I grew, I would have conversations with him about what he read, why he read. What authors he enjoyed most (as a Merchant Marine during the war, he loved naval, military history, and travel, novels, biographies: Herman Wouk, Shelby Foote, James Clavell, James Michener). These books deeply engaged him. And it was that engagement that so compelled me — even when I knew my reading tastes would not be his. Yet, I also had an older sister, who also read deeply and more widely. It was she who brought me to the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, the Classics, the novels of Henry James, James Baldwin, Faulkner, the plays of Tennessee Williams, Jean Rhys, Edith Wharton, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath. She opened up reading as a vast possibility for me that was more than just the art of it, but the goal to think about developing writing as well. Those possibilities, that over many years, would find a place in my life, as a writer and teacher.
Those two early mentors — cicerones in the best sense — gave me a foundation that I have built upon since. The only other singular time in my life of such mentorship was during my study at Fordham University, where I found another mentor, Dr. Eva Stadler, while studying a class called ‘The Novel.’ It was she, who deepened even more my love of reading and spurred my interest in teaching, in a way that to this day, I call upon as a teacher, poet, and editor myself. To this day, I can feel the chill up my spine at the last paragraphs of ‘Middlemarch’ and ‘The Dead.’ I still have Welleck and Warren’s ‘Theory of Literature,’ the first critical study she introduced me to. Suddenly, reading became three-dimensional, and not just a mirror — a new door. And as Emily Dickinson said, “The Soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience . . . “.
And I think of these things — mentorship, attention, acknowledgment — I know how important they were to me as I was starting to seriously write poetry. Before my first collection was published, I was already teaching at City College, pursuing an M.F.A in Creative Writing. And so I was both student and instructor, needing to learn, as well as needing to give back what I learned. In the confluence of both I have come to learn that a young writer, an emerging poet, needs, above all, attention. The attention that is specific to that writer alone, unlike any other. Someone who will say, “I understand what you see,” as well as ”I will help you become who you want to be. I see you and will give you the tools to become that poet.” I am reminded of the student in one of my technical writing classes who ‘secretly’ wrote poems in the back of the room. When I asked him to show me some of his work, I was astounded at his talent. Being a Biology major, he had never pursued this ‘play,’ seriously, in his word for it.
More than at any other time, writing of every genre, but especially poetry, has prodigally expanded — a young writer has vast opportunities to submit work, develop their art, and network among colleagues, if they take the chance to do so. Encouragement is needed, but finding a community is integral. The problem is how to separate the many choices one now has, to find the single few voices most relevant to one. Any young writer must be a truant at some point: to wend away from the crowd that is following the same paths, and begin listening to themselves. It is the crux of Rilke’s words of how solitude engenders a consciousness to oneself, and therefore an honesty of truth in their work. They need to find the tools of context, deep reading, and the understanding of elemental skills that must develop their writing: Form, structure, imagery, idea. But above all, they must have someone who believes in their work and is constant in encouragement — of sustaining wonder. I needed, and thankfully found, those things, that person. I can give that back now, and I do. Because I continue to have gratitude for those very things even as I continue to develop as a writer and poet.
Without question, with all the ease and access to opportunity that young writers now have, all the communities that can instill inspiration and compel first chances, this is a time that can seem limitless. Yet, it is a time when we cannot forget those ‘secret’ writers in the back of the room, simply looking for someone to notice their singularity among the many others doing the same thing. The journey of a writer, especially young writers, is to grow toward that ecstatic experience, but also toward trust — that singular trust in themselves that will enable them to create with a freedom that comes only after acknowledging and accepting who they are as an individual, with a unique voice, and with the tools they’ve learned that enable them to let that voice be not only heard but recognized. It is a metamorphosis, a final becoming. It is more than mentorship, it is a constancy of reinforcement of the gift to begin with: that in showing the many roads one can travel, a writer can also engender self-affirmation. At any stage of one’s art, we learn — or, thankfully, are shown — that we get to those very words ‘I must write.’ “The main thing is this,” Grace Paley wrote in 1989, “when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.”
Philip F. Clark is the author of The Carnival of Affection (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017), and a Poetry Editor at The Night Heron Barks, and A&U Magazine. He currently teaches at City College, New York, where he received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing in 2016. His work has been published in Lambda Literary, Vox Populi, (RE) An Ideas Journal, and Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White By the Book (ITNA Press, 2019). His most recent poetry has been published by Tiferet Journal, and was nominated for a 2021 Pushcart Prize.