Patrons & Saints

by Matthew Koslowski on December 24, 2009
in Essays

To one of my saints, my dear friend, Emily Baum, with the deepest appreciation.

In This Essay

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca (C.D.N. Costa, trans.)
Late Bloomers by Malcolm Gladwell, The Annals of Culture, The New Yorker
On Dying Young by Matthew Koslowski, Literature&Literacy
William Stafford, Poet, Wikipedia
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (Stephen Mitchell, trans.)
Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose by Rainer Maria Rilke (Stephen Mitchell, ed. and trans.)
The Second Four Books of Poems by W.S. Merwin

“Is there anything I can do to cheer you up?” she asks.

“Sure,” I say. “Just show me a writer — a poet, preferably — who did not a pickup a pen before he was 27 or 30, who amounted to anything, who history remembers.”

These conversations are common.

I expect the normal, well-intentioned platitudes. Often I begin to despair because I have not dedicated myself to my writing. I begin to think that my time is up. “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it,” Seneca whispers. “Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.” And I begin to think about how I have not invested my time well.

Rilke writes, “…if, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn’t write at all.” Haven’t I been living without writing? I have not worked on my novel in weeks. Or have I been existing and drifting? Do I really feel that I could live without writing?

“William Stafford,” she says.

“Rivers of Ink, All on Good Poems”

I had never heard of William Stafford before she mentioned him. So, I did what any self-respecting twenty-something with an Internet connection would do: I turned to Wikipedia to get a quick overview of the man’s life.

Born in 1914, his first work a prose memoir was published in 1948 called Down in My Heart, when he was 34 years old, and his first major collection of poems in 1962, when he was 48 years old. Eight years after publishing his first collection he was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.

That last honor is better known today as Poet Laureate.

And I began to think about the dualities in Rilke. He writes in his Letters to the Young Poet that one should not write unless one cannot do otherwise. Yet, in a prose excerpt that Stephen Mitchell includes under the title “[For the Sake of a Single Poem]” in Ahead of All Parting, Rilke writes:

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 a 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 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.
–Rainer Maria Rilke from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge quoted in Ahead of All Parting, page 250.

Am I wasting my investment? Or am I burying the seeds deep within the soil of my being so that at the end of summer I will find that I have a rich harvest?

Though his first poems were published when he was 48 years old, he “composed nearly 22,000 poems, of which roughly 3,000 were published.”

Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity?

This question is the subtitle of Malcolm Gladwell’s article, “Late Bloomers.”

It is a great question. When did our obsession with precocity start? Is it a simple function of our culture’s obsession with youth? An alluring thought but it is not so simple. I know yoke linking genius and youth is older. Beethoven’s father claimed that Beethoven was younger than he was so that Beethoven’s genius would be viewed as to the genius of Mozart.

John Keats died at 25 years old, leaving behind some of the most perfect poems written in English. I have written before about my own feelings of inadequacy when I think of measuring myself against Keats. But who wouldn’t feel that same inadequacy? Keats himself died thinking he was a failure.

John Keats may have been twice blessed. In addition to his talent, he had what many of the late bloomers had. A patron.

Patrons & Saints

Gladwell points out that for many artists and writers, there is a long period of experimentation and development before their fully ripened power emerges. If it were not of patronage of friends and family, Paul Cezanne may never have risen to greatness.

Keats is not the only of my favorite poets whose poetry flourished because of patronage.

Two others jump immediately to mind. Petrarch had a career in the church that had no real duties, allowing him to write while collecting a small salary. Rilke had numerous patrons who believed in his talents enough to give him lodging and food, and sometimes money, that he could write and develop his mind.

In the end, our fascination with youth and poetic inspiration may be a puff of smoke. University of Chicago economist David Galenson, interested in both poetry and painting, decided to look at the major modern poets and their major anthologized works and evaluate the idea of poetic inspiration as a young man’s game. While some poets’ early works were anthologized he found others whose later works were honored:

Forty-two per cent of [Robert] Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For [William Carlos] Williams, it’s forty-four per cent. For [Wallace] Stevens, it’s forty-nine per cent.
– Malcolm Gladwell from “Late Bloomers”

In addition, Malcolm Gladwell points out that Mark Twain was 49 when he published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe at 58.

Perhaps great art only comes when patrons are there to support artists and writers. When I was in college, one of my dearest friends, Peter, would say to me in his thick German accent, “Matthew, I wish I was rich. If I was rich, I would pay your expenses so you can write. You need to write, Matthew, and you need to publish. I will start a publishing house just to make sure your work gets out there.”


After reading about William Stafford and reading “Late Bloomers,” I think for a little while. She asks what I think of the article. But I cannot address it directly. Instead, I share with her this poem.


Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with is color.
– W.S. Merwin

When I first read “Separation” by W.S. Merwin, it came as a revelation. “Separation” is a perfect poem. With economy and dazzling imagery, W.S. Merwin captured an experience, shared it, and forever changed the way I think about loss.

We talk a little bit more. I build up my courage. I ask her if she would like to read one of my works. She says nothing would make her happier.

When you set my heart
ablaze, how did I not know
you would taste of smoke?
– Matthew Koslowski

She smiles. “I like yours better.”


One Response to “Patrons & Saints”
  1. lee marcotte says:

    and then there is the way to look at color. red, red the color of hate… You are truly a poet my dear. never think otherwise.