One of the greatest friendships in the life of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva was conducted wholly by letter during a few months of 1926 with the Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke, one of the most important German-language poets of the twentieth century, represented for Tsvetayeva the ideal poet. After Rilke died unexpectedly on December 29, 1926, Tsvetayeva’s shock and grief took the form of several works in prose and verse that reacted to his death. “New Year Letter,” written in February, 1927, is an attempt to come to terms with Rilke’s death. It also represents one side of a companionable conversation between two poets about their craft and constitutes a statement about Tsvetayeva’s philosophy of poetry.
The poem, written in the first person and addressed to Rilke, opens with the traditional Russian New Year’s greeting, S novym godom, “Happy New Year.” Tsvetayeva calls the poem “my first epistle to you in your new/place”—that is, in the afterworld—thus implying that the poem is a continuation of their previous correspondence and denying the power of death. The poem then describes how Tsvetayeva learned of Rilke’s death when an acquaintance dropped by to ask if she would write a memorial piece about him for a newspaper. Tsvetayeva, who cannot conceive that the great poet is dead, and who regards an acknowledgment of his death as a kind of betrayal, refuses; most of the remaining part of the poem is concerned with her ideas about writing as an act of immortality, and about the life of the poet as both eternal...
(The entire section is 642 words.)