All over the world, teaching and learning have become something that happens between the student and a teacher talking from a screen. Like teachers across the globe, after the pandemic struck I taught the remainder of the spring semester online, and while my students tried to make the best of their new circumstances, and some seemed unfazed in the new digital classroom, others seemed to fade. Throughout my whole career as a teacher, I have relied on walking into a classroom and being charismatic, holding my students’ attention by putting on a show. While I think we all did our best to make our spring class engaging, it was clear something important had been lost. I feared it was the depth of connection to the work at hand, to the enterprise of figuring out difficult texts together, which has been one of the central joys of my career as a teacher of literature and writing. I found myself wondering if any of this was working and if my students were learning. Rather than feeling energized after leaving a classroom, after finishing a digital class I felt enervated and low.
When I proposed teaching a seminar on the poetry and prose of Rainer Maria Rilke to my undergraduate students at Bennington College, more than a year ago, I’d anticipated coming to a leafy, autumnal campus in the Green Mountains of Vermont and teaching a course on a favorite poet to a room full of college students. But, in March, as the disease spread and colleges and universities began to empty, I was told by the college administration to prepare to teach the rest of my class online, and not to return to campus until further notice. I remember tossing books and papers into a tote bag and tossing it into the trunk of my car, hurrying home in what felt like an evacuation.
When given the option to teach my fall courses remotely, instead of video conferencing, I decided to do something radical; I chose to forgo video and return to an older, slower technology—the US Postal Service. I grew up in a time when people wrote letters to each other—before email, before mobile phones—and I have missed the intimacy of letter-writing, which used to be a mainstay of my life. When I went to college in the 1980’s, I was expected to call home once a week and not more, as long distance calls were expensive. I saved quarters to feed the payphone in the hall. My grandmother sent a stack of pre-stamped and addressed postcards with me, and instructed me to send her one when I thought of her. I wrote letters to friends and family, to pen pals in Germany. We waited for the mail to arrive in our pigeonhole mailboxes at school—our connection to the world outside.
As I thought about Rilke’s work, I thought too about the letters he wrote—thousands of them over a lifetime—and I began to conceive of a class that was entirely an exchange of letters. I wanted to rely on the postal service and its element of surprise, but also its inherent sweetness. The letters we would exchange would be unique, individual documents notable for their idiosyncrasies and mistakes, marked and individuated by the students’ own handwriting. Once sent in the mail, a letter cannot be unsent, it cannot be deleted or shared or altered; as a physical object in the world, it could be transformed into ash, torn up and destroyed, but it could not be reproduced in its exact form ever again. These letters would be unique, made only for this class. I wanted my students to have something to look forward to, to have something good come to them in the mail, and to give them the chance to read a letter, consider it, before responding thoughtfully and with care.
The low-residency graduate writing program I direct has used the model of a correspondence course since its founding 25 years ago. Each month students in that program prepare a packet of creative and critical work and send it to their teacher. The teacher has ten days to respond in the form of a letter. The sustained, intense, individual attention that comes from a careful and considered response has worked for the mature writers in our program for many years. While this exchange now happens electronically, the idea of an exchange of letters is at the center of that program. I wanted to see if it would work for undergraduates, so I began to draw up the plan.
I took inspiration from Rilke himself. Much of his life was peripatetic. He lived a number of years in Paris, but at the outbreak of the First World War, he was visiting friends in Leipzig. As an Austrian, he risked arrest and internment if he returned to France. In the years of exile from his home there, his library, his letters and papers—all his worldly possessions—were sold or disposed of in his absence, and he was conscripted into military service. (Friends managed to assemble a box of a few possessions, including a daguerreotype of his father, which was returned to him after the war). Separated from his family and his friends, from the life he thought he would lead, he wrote hundreds of letters in an attempt to stay connected to his friends, and also to himself. It is in his letters to a young Franz Xaver Kappus that he begins to work out his ideas of an ideal relationship being “two neighboring solitudes,” that support, and see and protect one another, and in imagining a course in correspondence, I have thought often of that phrase.
During this pandemic, I have often felt lonely. Sometimes I have despaired. As the world slowed, drew inward, as people sickened and died, I think we all had to recognize that the life we may have planned for ourselves might not come to pass. While I am enormously fortunate to live in a house in the countryside, I live alone, and at times during the past seven months I have been profoundly lonely; and though I have also been surprisingly productive—writing almost every day, finishing the last details of a new book of poems, starting a new virtual writing program, etc.—the isolation and feeling of disconnectedness from people has dampened the excitement that might have come from those accomplishments. I miss my friends, and my colleagues. I want to visit my mother who is in her 80’s and lives alone in my rural hometown in Wisconsin. I want to travel, and go to museums and concerts and restaurants. I did not need more time looking at a screen; instead I wanted to concentrate, to achieve depth, to connect not with a pixelated simulacrum of my students’ faces, but with their minds and (yes I’ll say it) with their souls. I wanted to bridge our individual solitudes with an exchange that might be memorable and profound.
As I write this, the course has begun, and I have written three long letters to my students, and in the last days, their first letters to me have begun to arrive, and they are more than I could have hoped for. The students are sincere, engaged, and I have begun to respond to their letters individually. With one or two exceptions, I have not met these students in person, and so we are strangers to each other, but their letters to me have already struck a tone that is both formal (a number of them have elected to address me as “Professor,” rather than by my first name which is more typical), but they have also chosen to write with what I’ll call a discreet intimacy, a sincerity, and they take as their subject the intersection of their lives with literature. I don’t know what the outcome of this class will be, but I do know that my students and I will have tried a new way of learning and connecting.
Letters to a Young Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke
Catskill, NY 12414
There are none. Please address all questions or concerns in letter form, and mail it to me. If there is an emergency of some sort, please do email me through my college email address.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Translated by M.D. Herter. WW Norton, 1993.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, a bilingual edition. Translated by Edward Snow, North Point Press, 2001.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke: Bilingual Edition. Translated by Stephen Mitchell, Vintage, 1989.
- Don Paterson, Orpheus: A version of Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus, Faber & Faber, 2006.
- The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Any English language edition will do.
I will also share a long bibliography of books by and about Rilke which you can peruse.
This course will be a study of the early 20th century German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875- 1926). We will read much of his poetry, spending considerable time on his two poetry masterworks, The Duino Elegies, and the Sonnets to Orpheus. We will also read some of his letters, prose and his one novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. In addition to his poetry and prose, we will also consider the context in which his work was created—the late period of Austria-Hungary, the first World War and its aftermath, leading to the time of Rilke’s death in 1926. You will write both creatively and critically about the work we read together.
How the course will work:
This course will be conducted completely through the postal mail. We will write to each other, post our correspondence, and wait for responses to be delivered to us. We will not use video conferencing, and I want you to refrain from using email as much as possible. If you have a question, write to me and I will answer you by mail.
Each week of this seven-week-long term, I will write a letter about your reading assignment. You might think of these essays as taking the place of an in-class lecture or discussion. With each of these letters you will receive a written assignment, and after receipt of my letter to you, you will have five days to complete the assignment. I will respond to your assignments by mail. You will also write group letters to each other.
The success of the class depends on your regular involvement and adherence to our fairly tight schedule. That said, mail delivery is different in different parts of the country and the world, and there will be lapses and variance in delivery times. That’s the nature of sending and receiving mail, but it’s also the source of some of the joy—the excitement of the anticipation of receiving a piece of mail.
For centuries, people have written letters to each other, and entrusted those letters to the postal service. The term “post” refers to courier services in which riders were “posted” at intervals along “post roads” to allow for the uninterrupted handoff of letters and parcels. (One of the earliest commercial postal services was initiated by the Princely House of Thurn und Taxis in the 1600’s, a descendant of which would become the dedicatee of Rilke’s Duino Elegies). Until very recently, the letters of important writers and artists made up major portions of their bodies of work, and letters have given us insight into their lives and work that would otherwise have been lost. Composing letters allows us time to consider what we wish to convey, and the writing of letters offers the opportunity to reflect and strive for depth. When printed on paper and mailed, our voice and modes of expression find a physical form, and when passed from our hand to that of the mail carrier who will convey that letter to its recipient, we are reminded of the ways in which we can bridge physical distance with an object that we have held and touched. The postal service is a branch of civilization that unites us to each other, that treats us as individuals, that strives for an equality of service to all citizens, and that allows us to share our thoughts and feelings and concerns across time and space, without an electronic device interposed between us.
Rainer Maria Rilke wrote thousands of letters during his lifetime, and two collections of those letters have become important and beloved treatises on art and literature. Collected and published as Letters on Cezanne, and Letters to a Young Poet, these books have lead thousands of readers to better understand what it means to engage with art and literature. The name of this class was meant to pay homage to the remarkable letters Rilke sent, and to have them serve as a central star around which our semester will constellate.
The world is changing. Six months have passed since the global corona virus pandemic began, and no end is in sight. The national response here in the United States has been variable, sometimes chaotic, and sadly, politicized to the detriment of all of us. Teachers all over the world have struggled to find ways to teach and connect with their students, help students to learn and grow. Video conferencing seems like the closest approximation of an in-person experience of a classroom, and while it seems miraculous that a group of people can gather virtually to see and speak to one another, I have often found these experiences alienating and dispiriting. I miss the spontaneous opportunities of the classroom, the sense of shared purpose in a shared space, and zoom classrooms have sometimes felt like robotic simulacra of feeling and shared purpose. The power of literature has always been its ability to bridge time and space, and the written and printed word have done that spectacularly for centuries. We are going to make a momentary return to the experience of physical letters, to see how we learn from writing and receiving them, and to attempt to work in ways that require our concentration and sustained attention, instead of the fragmenting experience of a digitized world.
During this time of the pandemic with its dramatic contraction of our movement, with our isolation and the necessary recalibration of our plans and intentions, it’s my hope that we might use this time to retrain our minds and brains, so become deeper thinkers, listeners and readers, to cultivate our inner life by reading and writing, and by slowing down.
- Your weekly letter. You will receive one letter with a new essay from me, and an assignment. Please read the letter and assignment.
- Assigned reading. I have enclosed the schedule for the class. Please complete the assigned reading prior to the date listed.
- A weekly assignment. Each week you will receive a weekly writing assignment. These will be combinations of creative and critical work. You will have five days to complete the assignments and return your assignment—in letter form— to me in the mail.
- Group letters. Several group letters will be in circulation throughout the coming weeks. In these letters, I will initiate a topic for discussion, and you will each write a paragraph response, adding to the document you have received. You may hand write your response, type it with a typewriter, print and paste your paragraph onto the page, add a fresh page, etc., before mailing the entire document to the next person on the chain. Each of these chain letters will circulate throughout the group and they will form a collective document, a slow discussion about the work we are reading together. I ask that you respond to these quickly—within 24 hours of receipt of the letter—and then mail it on. (For those of you living on campus, you may pass this along through student mailboxes, or hand them off in person.
- Documentation. I will ask you to document your letters, responses and all assignments. If you write and print them, this is easy. If you handwrite or type them, photocopy or photograph them. This will help us keep track, and if a letter is mislaid (or purloined!), it won’t be lost forever.
- Your letters to me. I would like you to write a weekly letter to me to accompany your assignment. I want you to use these letters to reflect on your experience of reading Rilke’s work, and to ask me questions. Since I will be receiving 20 letters a week, it will take me some time to respond individually, but as questions emerge I will respond to questions in summary in the long letters I send to the group.
- Self-regulation, discipline and patience. I trust you all to keep to the schedule of letter exchange, and to respond according to the schedule. Since this course is condensed into seven weeks, as opposed to the usual fourteen, we must be brisk with our responses. Don’t belabor your letters and assignments. Attend to your correspondence right away and post your letters promptly, and the course will work according to the schedule. Then you must exercise patience as you wait to hear back.
You will be evaluated on the depth and originality of your written work, and for your ability to attend to the details and schedule of the course.
It is important to note that our correspondence is private. The letters I will write to the group and to you individually belong to me, and are not to be shared without permission. The original essays I will write in the coming weeks are written for you, and they are also part of a larger book project of mine, and so I ask that you not post, or share these with people outside the class. As for my individual letters to you, you are the unique recipient of that letter, and this exchange is not meant for others. I will hold your letters to the same standards of privacy.
Some notes on letter writing etiquette:
When you address a letter to me, or to each other, I ask that it include a few consistent elements. At the top of a letter, it’s important to note the date and the location from which you are writing. For example:
September 1, 2020
Catskill, Greene County, New York
After you list the date and the location, you open your letter with a salutation. The standard salutation should be “Dear ~,” and if the letter is to a friend or familiar acquaintance, you follow their name with a comma. When writing a business letter, you would follow the person’s title and name with a colon. Since we will use each other’s first names, a comma is correct. While “Dear” may sound strange or overly familiar to you, as opposed to “Hi,” or “Hey,” which you might find in an email, “Dear” is a salutation and not an endearment, and many people (mostly those my age or older) find “Hi” or “Hey” to be overly familiar and presumptuous. When you write to me, please address me as “Dear Mark,” or if you prefer more formality, you may address me as “Dear Professor,” or “Dear Professor Wunderlich.”
To close a letter, “Sincerely,” “Regards,” “With warm regards,” “Yours,” etc. are all options. I ask that you print or type your name below your signature so it is legible. Welcome to the beginning of an experiment!
Syllabiology is an occasional column in which generous scholars share their syllabi, and their thoughts related to the teaching of a single class.
Grateful thanks to Mark Wunderlich of Bennington College for inaugurating this exciting new series.