Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

All of us who labor in the arts know that it can be a lonely existence. We often find ourselves living the life of solitary dreams, disconnected from others, and driven by a vision that no one else seems to value or share. On some days, this can become overwhelming. When we thirst for a single voice of understanding that will reach into our solitary lives and reassure us that the path we have chosen is worthy, and that the rewards it offers are worth the loneliness it entails.

For almost a thousand years, the voice that has reached out to the aspiring artist with the most clarity and consolation is that of Rainer Maria Rilke. And the place where his voice speaks most is in the transcendentally insightful small volume: Letters to a Young Poet.

Widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets, Rainer Maria Rilke was a Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist.

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, … like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

Rainer Maria Rilke,
from ‘Letters to a Young Poet’

Paris
17 February 1903

My dear sir,
Your letter reached me just a few days ago. I want to thank you for the deep and loving trust it revealed. I can do no more. I cannot comment on the style of your verses; critical intent is too far removed from my nature. There is nothing that manages to influence a work of art less than critical words. They always result in more or less unfortunate misunderstandings. Things are not as easily understood nor as expressible as people would like us to believe. Most happenings are beyond expression; they exist where a world has never intruded. Even the more inexpressible are works of art; mysterious entities they are, whose lives, compared to our fleeting ones, endure.

Rilke comments on the difficulty of critiquing someone’s work of art, the unfortunate misunderstandings that are bound to arise and the difficulty of expressing one self.

You ask whether your poems are good. You send them to publishers; you compare them with other poems; you are disturbed when certain publishers rejects your attempts. Well now, since you have given me permission to advise you, I suggest that you give all that up. You are looking outward and, above all else, that you must not do now. No one can advise or help you, no one.

He emphasizes on the importance of going within and digging deep. Our hearts hold all the answers that we need. And, once we have discovered the true answers to our questions, Rilke advises us to turn to nature.

There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write. Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.

Then draw near to nature. Pretend you are the very first man and the write what you see and experience, what you love and lose. Do not write love poems, at least at first; they present the greatest challenge. It requires great, fully ripened power to produce something personal, something unique, when there are so many good and sometimes even brilliant renditions in great numbers. Beware of general themes. Cling to those that your everyday life offers you. Write about your sorrows, your wishes, your passing thoughts, your belief in anything beautiful. Describe all that with fervent, quiet, and humble sincerity. In order to express yourself, use things in your surroundings, the scenes of your dreams, and the subjects of your memory.

If, as a result of this turning inward, of this sinking into your own world, poetry should emerge, you will not think to ask someone whether it is good poetry. And you will not try to interest publishers of magazines in these works. For you will hear in them your own voice; you will see in them a piece of your life, a natural possession of yours. A piece of art is good if it born of necessity. This, its source, is its criterion; there is no other.

If, after following this process, a piece of art emerges, we do not need to question our choice or look for validity from the society.

Therefore, my dear friend, I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth. At its source, you will find the answer to its question, whether you must write. Accept it, however it sounds to you, without analyzing. Perhaps it will become apparent to you that you are indeed called to be a writer. Then accept that fate; bear its burden, and its grandeur, without asking for the reward, which might possibly come from without. For the creative artist must be a world of his own and must find everything within himself and in nature, to which he has betrothed himself.

Yours,
Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to a Young Poet (original title, in German: Briefe an einen jungen Dichter) is a collection of ten letters written by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) to Franz Xaver Kappus (1883–1966), a 19-year-old officer cadet at the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt. Rilke, the son of an Austrian army officer, had studied at the academy’s lower school at Sankt Pölten in the 1890s. Kappus corresponded with the popular poet and author from 1902 to 1908 seeking his advice as to the quality of his poetry, and in deciding between a literary career or a career as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Kappus compiled and published the letters in 1929 – three years after Rilke’s death from leukemia.

Letters to a Young Poet (original title, in German: Briefe an einen jungen Dichter) is a collection of ten letters written by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) to Franz Xaver Kappus (1883–1966), a 19-year-old officer cadet at the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt. Rilke, the son of an Austrian army officer, had studied at the academy’s lower school at Sankt Pölten in the 1890s. Kappus corresponded with the popular poet and author from 1902 to 1908 seeking his advice as to the quality of his poetry, and in deciding between a literary career or a career as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Kappus compiled and published the letters in 1929 – three years after Rilke’s death from leukemia.

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