Letters To A Young Poet

Rilke, Rainer Maria, Letters to a Young Poet. N.Y.: Vintage, 1986.
letters to a young poet
If I could recommend any one book on what it means to be a poet, Letters To A Young Poet would be it.

This series of ten letters, written between 1902 and 1908 by the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke are addressed to a young aspiring poet named Franz Xaver Kappus. Kappus had sent Rilke his poetry asking for his evaluation. The artistic mentorship that Rilke provides to his young friend is profound, particularly considering that Rilke was only 27 at the time.

In his first letter, Rilke writes to Kappus; “You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now.” (5) Rilke advises Kappus to stop chasing external approval and examine what writing really means to him; “ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent…with a strong, simple, “I must,” then build your whole life in accordance with this necessity.” (6) Rilke is extreme in his view of what it means to be writer, stating: “if one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn’t write at all” (10). By Rilke’s definition, the hunger to write is what makes a person a writer; fittingly, his definition of “good art” is simply art that “has arisen out of necessity” (9).

Amidst all of the quality advice that Rilke gives his friend, two themes stand out; first, solitude, and second, patience. Rilke implores young Kappus: “love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you” (41). In terms of artistic development, Rilke writes:

“what is necessary…is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours…To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grownups walked around involved in matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy and because you didn’t understand a thing about what they were doing…The grownups are nothing, and their dignity has no value.” (55/59)

Patience is the key virtue. Art is an activity where there is “no measuring of time” (24). The creative life is “not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree” (24). Insight “comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them.” (24) And thus Rilke advises his eager friend; “have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…Don’t search for answers…Live the questions now.” (34)

I recommend this book to any person interested in what it means to live a life devoted to writing.

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