What Things are You Close To?

There are various dialogues in epistolary form addressed to specific professionals—the most famous is “Letters to a Young Poet” with the much more contemporary “Letters to a Young Novelist” as an honorable mention. At some point, this literary concept broadened its audience from literary to social concerns as in Letter to a Young Latina College Freshwoman Attending a Historically White University. But what are the implications of this shift? It seems to me that it’s all good–the other day, I heard a journalist on the radio say that the college-educated Latina is among the fastest growing demographic groups.

You most likely know that in “Letter to a Young Poet,” poet Rainer Maria Rilke responds to the fears and hopes of a poetry-writing cadet, Franz Kappus. Of the 10 letters, Letter Six is my favorite because the letter’s theme is solitude as a need. To excite myself further as readers do, I imagine Rilke’s solitude as if it is a commodity (a tank of gas instead of a dinner date)—something to be attained even as it competes with bonding rituals and pure fun activities, which Rilke refers to as “sociability.”

You most likely don’t know that the coveting of solitude is also discussed in the letter to a young Latina that @BlancaVNYC writes on her blog Race-work, Race-love: Reflections of a Race-Woman. In the single letter, a Latina who is a doctoral candidate coaches a college-bound Latina on the solitude that cultural inscriptions create for the young woman. My favorite anecdote is the women’s dual observation that their White peers were happy to leave home and they weren’t. For this and a host of other reasons, they didn’t fit in. They longed for their families and their families worried about that their Spanish might vanish. But too, they simply did not know what to expect as first-generation college students.

The poet’s letter and the Latina’s letter intrigue me because community is usually the self-prescribed heartbeat of both writers and ethnic groups. Yet solitude, and truly a challenge for that great grade-school skill—sharing—is questioned, if not damned for its sociability underpinnings. Indeed, Rilke surmises, “if there is nothing you can share with other people, try to be close to Things.”

Since language is a thing (it’s not a person or place, at least), I sense that Spanish for that young Latina was the ultimate conundrum: it was sociability at home with family, but solitude at college with others. Sometimes I wonder what kind of poet person I would be if I spoke my people’s native language in addition to English? Who are my people? How much closer would I be to the thing of language if I knew them?