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SAMPLE WRITING BY ULRICH BAER
It had been Amadou’s idea to chip in and commission a photographer for a picture of the four of them at a studio. But it had been the girls who had run with it, getting the boys to chip in their share before Friday night rolled around and they would spend their pay, run with it to Aminata’s auntie who stitched together the dresses from the fish-patterned fabric in one evening, the large fish all swimming up along the long seams toward their pretty faces and the coils atop their heads like swirls in a river just before the falls. They worked on it the way they had done school projects together, Fatou and Aminata, choosing necklaces and fitting the dresses and giggling as if they were back in grade school when Ms. Diarra would banish them to different sides of the classroom to keep the laughter down.
They walked hand in hand to the studio that afternoon, Aminata’s head high and ignoring even her cousin’s greeting as if she was an important lady. Amadou has arrived earlier in his light-colored suit and wore a set of glasses they had never seen, chatting with the photographer. Fatou laughed at him but Amadou was all business, listening intently to skinny Mr. Keïta give directions. The photographer handed Issa a black coat and white shirt and gave Fatou and Aminata the once-over, the way nobody had looked at them since their headmistress had looked them over years ago at school to check whether their uniforms were clean.
Fatou turned on her heel and stood before the curtain lit by clamped-on lamps to adjust her necklace. She didn’t need anyone to tell her she looked good. While Issa changed into the shirt and suit, she adjusted Aminata’s necklace and gently fixed her hair. It was a bit like looking in a mirror come to life, with Aminata in the matching dress, same hairstyle, same style earrings, and same necklace. The thought that Aminata was prettier rose hot in Fatou’s mind but it stopped just as abruptly, like a mosquito that stopped buzzing before sinking its proboscis into her skin. She quickly touched the choker around her neck as if to swat the thought away, and then Issa was ready.
Mr. Keïta pushed them closer together. He pulled Fatou’s arm forward, sharpened the crease in her dress, and draped Issa’s arm around Fatou’s neck. It was as if he had known their stories all along: the fact that Issa and Aminata were going steady for over a year, while Amadou and she had just begun to be serious. He placed Amadou’s foot forward as if pulling a donkey’s leg to check the hoof, mumbling something about “owning the space.” Amadou didn’t protest, the way he usually ran his mouth in the market, or even with the French officers who were his superiors in the government office where he worked. For a moment Keïta stood before them and looked at the foursome like a father beholding his brood, or like God The Almighty Beholding His Creation. They didn’t budge, feeling a sense of togetherness that flowed through them like a mild electric charge.
Then Keïta lifted the camera to his face and click! he had them on film.
“How good you look!” cried Aminata the next day when they picked up the print.
“You look so elegant, and Amadou so handsome in his suit and glasses!” Fatou beamed at the compliment. Amadou grabbed the picture and held it practically to his nose, studying every aspect like a treasure map.
“It’s a good shot,” Mr. Keïta said formally, as if they had won a contest. They craned their necks to see themselves looking good, urbane, and cool. They were going places, headed for fun. The picture declared that they belonged together, a four-some that nobody would tear apart.
Fatou leaned into Amadou when he paid, and when they left the studio he whispered in her ear what she would recount to her daughters many years later as the beginning of their courtship: that she was the most beautiful girl in all of Mali.
Translation of the first of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet
Your letter reached me only a few days ago. I want to thank you for the great and precious faith you place in me. I can do little more than that. There is no way for me to comment on the manner of your poems, for it is far from me to offer any kind of criticism. Nothing can touch a work of art as little as words of criticism: such efforts always result in more or less fortuitous misunderstandings. Things are not as easy to understand or express as we are mostly led to believe; most of what happens cannot be put into words and takes place in a realm which no word has ever entered. Even more inexpressible than anything else are works of art, those altogether secretive beings whose lives outlast our life, which will inevitably cease to be.
Having said that, I only wish to add that your poems are not distinctive in any way, but that they contain quiet and hidden germs of something personal. I feel this most concretely in the last poem, “My Soul.” There something unique to you struggles to be heard in and as a poem. And in the beautiful poem “To Leopardi,” a kind of affinity seems to emerge with this part of you that is great and solitary. And yet these poems are still not anything in and of themselves, nothing independent, including the last one and the one to Leopardi. Your kind letter does not fail to explain the nature of some of these flaws to me, which I had sensed in reading your verses without being able to name it precisely.
You ask whether your poems are good. You are asking me. You have asked others before. You are sending your poems to magazines. You compare them to other poems and worry when certain editors reject your efforts. Well (since you permit me to give you advice), I ask you to stop all of that right now. You are looking toward the outside, and that above all is the one thing you should not do at this moment. Nobody can give you advice and help you. Nobody. There’s only one way. Go within yourself. Explore the cause that compels you to write; examine whether it plunges its roots into the deepest part of your heart. Admit to yourself whether you would have to die if you were kept from writing. Above all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: “do I absolutely have to write?” Dig within yourself for a deep answer. And if the answer is affirmative, if you can counter this grave question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this need. Even during its most indifferent and emptiest hour your life must become a sign and proof of this urge. In this way you will come closer to nature. Then try, like the first human being, to express in words everything you see and experience and love and lose. Do not write love poems; in the beginning avoid all overly familiar and common forms. They are the most difficult to write since a poet must have tremendous and fully matured strength to contribute something original where good and occasionally brilliant traditions abound. Take refuge from these common themes by turning your attention to those themes found in your daily life. Describe exactly your sorrows and your desires, your fleeting thoughts and your sudden faith in some random beauty – find the proper words for all of this with intimate, quiet, humble sincerity. To express yourself make use of the things in your environment, the images of your dreams, and the objects of your memory. If your daily life seems poor and miserable, do not find fault with it. Find fault with yourself for not being enough of a poet to summon its riches. For a creative person there exists no poverty, no place is poor and indifferent. Even if you were trapped in a prison whose walls blocked all of the world’s noises from your senses – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, this marvelous and majestic fortune, this treasure trove of memories? Turn your attention there. Try to dredge up the sunken sensations of this expansive past. Your personality will be strengthened, and your solitude will expand into a twilit abode at some distance from the noise of other people. And when out of this inward turn, out of this immersion into your own world verses are born, then you will not dream of asking whether these verses are good.
You won’t even make the attempt to interest magazines in these works because you will value them as your natural property, as a part and a voice of your life. A work of art is good when it was created out of necessity. This kind of origin is how it is judged: there is no other. For this reason, dear sir, I could only give the advice for you to go deep within yourself and to probe the depths from which your life springs forth. At its source you will find the answer to the question whether you absolutely must create. Accept this answer, listen to its sound, but do not guess at its meaning. Perhaps it is the case that you are called upon to be an artist. Then accept this fate. Bear its burden and its greatness without ever looking for rewards that the outside world could give you. A creative person has to be a world unto himself, and find everything within himself and in nature to which he attaches himself.
But perhaps after this descent into yourself, into that lonely part of yourself, you have to renounce becoming a poet (it is enough, as I said, to feel that you could live without writing not to be permitted to do it at all). But even then, this return to yourself which I ask you to undertake, will not have been in vain. Starting with that moment your life will definitely chart its own paths, and I wish you in more ways than I can say that these paths may be good, rich and wide.
What else should I tell you? I think I’ve emphasized everything according to its relative importance. Finally, I had only wanted to tell you to grow through your development quietly and seriously. You couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outward, and expecting answers from the outside for questions that only your most intimate feeling may perhaps be able to answer in your quietest hour.
I was happy to read the name of Herr Professor Horacek in your letter. After all of these years I continue to admire and remain deeply grateful to this charming scholar. Could you please convey these sentiments to him; it is very kind of him to remember me, and I very much appreciate it.
I am returning the poems that you kindly entrusted to me. And I thank you again for the great and heartfelt faith you place in me. I hope that my sincere answer, given on the basis of what my own knowledge, has rendered me a bit more worthy of this trust that I, as a stranger, truly don’t deserve.
I am most faithfully with you,
Rainer Maria Rilke
From Remnants of Song: Trauma and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan
If Celan’s recourse to French constitutes the double gesture of at once amending Valéry’s estimation of Baudelaire and skirting Heidegger’s notion of the poet as the founder of the sacred word and a nation’s historical destiny, then Celan hopes to avoid on the levels of both theme and language, the gesture of authority and imposition that drives the tradition from within. He does not suggest that the poetry of his time, and thus his own poetry, is more imposing than the work of his precursors. A poetry of exposition does not inaugurate, institute or found— it does not impose— a new tradition or genre. Rather, it sets out and exposes itself in a way that leaves the effects of this exposition radically open and suspended. To belong to a poetry of exposition, a poem must expose itself also to the possibility that it may cease being poetry; become external, or other, to poetry; stop making sense; and no longer be either poetry or exposition at all. The gesture of the poem must be disruptive and break with existing traditions, genres, and histories. In order to be such a beginning and an exposition, every poem must open itself to the possibility that it will no longer be a poem, or that nothing at all will follow, or that the poem will so radically expose and unground itself as to suspend the possibility of its comprehension and its historicization. “To expose” may mean, “to abandon,” as someone in need may be abandoned. But to expose may also transcend this negative valence and signify an act of revelation. The very word “expose,” in fact, seems to renounce any claim to a single unified meaning and surrender itself to a kind of centrifugal semantics. Celan’s poetry, which is the poetry of his and our time, is inescapable because it exposes, and abandons us to, an openness— or reveals an already existing openness to us— that demands response. As poetry of exposition, Celan’s poetry seems to suspend the distinction between the openness of an abyss and the openness of existence. (162-163)
Talks: “Many Worlds in the World-Photography’s Ways of Seeing” (pdf file)
Ulrich Baer’s New York University page.
Ulrich Baer’s talk, “Reflections on Hannah Arendt’s ‘Reflections on Little Rock'” and Q&A session, at Standford’s Europe Center Workshop: “Hannah Arendt and the Humanities: On the Relevance of Her Work Beyond the Realm of Politics.”