Name: Jason Stoneking
Hometown: It's complicated, USA
Current city: Paris
What does poetry mean to you?
It means a freedom of the mind. An escape from the drudgery of practical discourse. A voice for the deeper sincerity, swimming in the disorganized muck of preconscious thought, that so rarely finds expression in more strictly codified forms of writing. It means custom starlight pushed through a pen into unexplored personal darkness. It means an astronautics of inner space.
What is your favorite poem? Who is your favorite poet?
My favorite poems and poets are constantly changing, between my moods, memories, and shifting perspectives, and all the new voices appearing on the scene. It feels impossible to narrow them down. I have a new favorite every week or two, and more old favorites than I can fit on the nightstand. But it wasn't always like that. At the beginning, there were the first few poets who got to me, and the first few poems that touched me deeply. The ones that opened the prison doors. For this project, I will pay homage to a prose poem that was important for me quite early, and helped to lead me onto my path: Rainer Maria Rilke's "For the Sake of a Single Poem," as translated by Stephen Mitchell.
For the sake of a single poem
by Rainer Maria Rilke
from his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, as translated by Stephen Mitchell
… Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) — they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you have long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn’t pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else — ); to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with so many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet, restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars, — and it is still not enough to be able to think of all that. You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labor, and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves — only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
Why do you like this poem?
When I first discovered Rilke, everything he had written felt magical to me. His Letters to a Young Poet hit me like they were written with me in mind. They made me want to be that young poet who received them, and then become the older poet who had written them. The Selected Poetry (Stephen Mitchell translation) had a place in my bag at a time when one bag was all I had in the world. The reason this particular piece sticks in my memory is not necessarily that it is my favorite but that it encapsulates so much of what made the whole of Rilke's work so important to me when I was young. It helped me understand that to embrace poetry was to embrace a lifestyle, a calling, a deep and meaningful sacrifice. It was not just to sit in a classroom among dozens of others, going through the same motions and processing the same lessons. It was a hunger one had to have, to give their whole life to poetry, to risk everything for it. And Rilke seemed to promise that if we embraced poetry in this way, poetry would embrace us in return. I believed him then, and I still do now. Perhaps what inspired me most about this particular poem was noticing that although it cautions us that great poetry can only result from rich lifetimes of lived experience, this piece itself was printed when Rilke was only 25. Meaning that Rilke himself did not feel ready to write his mature work, but he already felt ready to give his whole way of being over to a lifelong process toward that work. It was a leap he took, and it made me feel like he was holding my hand when I leapt too.
For the sake of a single response poem
to Rainer Maria Rilke
by Jason Stoneking
As you warned me, the poems I wrote early in my life amounted to little. But, like you, I kept writing them anyway; and I set about the gathering of sense and nonsense, sweet and sour, experience with which to infuse my all-too-common emotions. I saw many cities, lived like an animal in their streets, flew like a bird in psychedelic ecstasies, watched flowers open, then smelled them, picked them, smoked them, and planted more. I met with strangers in suspicious alleyways, lost lovers and friends in predictable ways, and sacrificed my childhood on the altar of still-unexplained mystery. I hurt and frightened my parents, made myself many kinds of ill, transformed myself in loud rooms, lacking restraint, and traversed countless seas. I still fly with the stars, and reflect on nights full of love. I have helped to deliver a child, held the hands of the dying, and traveled thousands of miles with the Dead. I have forgotten many memories by which I have since been revisited, and I have felt my past inhabit me physically, erasing the boundary between memory and being. I am now older than you were when you wrote your words of advice, and all of the hours feel rare. I wait, in the same city where you lived then, for the first word of my poem for you to arise.