Book review: Letters to a Young Poet

Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke

Title: Letters to a Young Poet
Author: Rainer Maria Rilke
Translator: Charlie Louth
Publisher: Penguin Group
ISBN: 978-0-141-19232-1
Genre: Non-fiction
Pages: 117
Rating: 5/5

When I started reading Rilke, I found myself being understood, being taken seriously. He came to me as a much needed friend on lonely train rides and empty classrooms. After reading him, these spaces devoid of company didn’t deter me, but became spaces where I could be with myself completely. Each letter is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. With each letter, a knot in my stomach undid itself. For me, therefore, Letters to a Young Poet is not a book; it is a person- Rilke himself. I was completely unsure of my poetry when I started reading the book. I thought my poems didn’t mean a thing; I was doing exactly what Franz Xaver Kappus was doing- looking outside for answers.

“You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me that. You have asked others, before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you worry when certain editors turn your efforts down. Now (since you have allowed me to offer you advice) let me ask you to give up all that. You are looking outside, and that above all you should not be doing now. Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself. Examine the reason that bids you to write; check whether it reaches its roots into the deepest region of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would die if it should be denied you to write. This above all: ask yourself in your night’s quietest hour: must I write? Dig down into yourself for a deep answer. And if it should be affirmative, if it is given to you to respond to this serious question with a loud and simple, “I must”, then construct your life according to this necessity; your life right into its most inconsequential and slightest hour must become a sign and witness of this urge.”

After reading the first letter, I knew I’d found a friend- a great one; I had found a way to find myself, and deal better with writing poetry.

“And if from this turn inwards, from this submersion in your own world, there come verses, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses. Nor will you attempt to interest magazines in these bits of work: for in them you will see your beloved natural possession, a piece, and a voice, of your life. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. The verdict on it lies in this nature of its origin: there is no other. For this reason, my dear Sir, the only advice I have is this: to go into yourself and examine the depths from which your life springs; at its source you will find the answer to the question of whether you have to write. Accept this answer as it is, without seeking to interpret it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then assume this fate and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking the rewards that may come from outside. For he who creates must be a world of his own and find everything within himself and in natural world that he has elected to follow.”

He further introduced me to solitude, and how to apply it. In the first letter he merely says ‘go into yourself’, but in the letters that follow, he explains exactly how to do it. Though Rilke never meant to, he has, through his letters, sketched a way to almost live a solitary life happily– which is difficult to accomplish.

“These things cannot be measured by time, a year has no meaning, and ten years are nothing. To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap, and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. It will come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are simple there in their vast, quiet tranquility, as if eternity lay before them. It is a lesson I learn it every day amid hardships I am thankful for: patience is all!”

On being patient, he elaborates in this next letter- the passage that lured me into reading the book:

“You are so young, all still lies ahead of you, and I should like to ask you, as best as I can, to be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, like books written in a foreign tongue. Do not now strive to uncover answers: they cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future. Perhaps you do carry within yourself the possibility of forming and creating, as a particularly happy and pure way of living. School yourself for it, but take what comes in complete trust, and as long as it is a product of your will, of some kind of inner necessity, accept it and do not despise it.”

Further comes the most difficult bit- the actuality of not being understood by the ones you love the most- your parents, siblings, and at times even your partners. Instead of lamenting about the shortcomings of human existence, Rilke shares with us ways to accept it as it is, ways of dealing with things meaningfully.

“But everything which one day will perhaps be possible for many, the solitary individual can prepare for and build now with his hands which are more unerring. For this reason, love your solitude and bear the pain it causes you with melody wrought with lament. For the people who are close to you, you tell m, are far away, and that shows that you are beginning to create a wider space around you. And if what is close is far, then the space around you is wide indeed and already among the stars; take pleasure in your growth, in which no once can accompany you, and be kind-hearted towards those you leave behind, and be assured and gentle with them and do not plague them with your doubts or frighten them with your confidence or your joyfulness, which they cannot understand. Look for some kind of simple and loyal way of being together with them which does not necessarily alter however much you change; love in them a form of life different from your own and show understanding for the older ones who fear precisely the solitude in which you trust. Avoid providing material for the drama which always spans between parents and their children; it saps much of the children’s strength and consumes that parental love which works and warms even when it does not comprehend. Ask no advice of them and reckon with no understanding; but believe in a love which is stored up for you like and inheritance; and trust that in this love there is a strength and a benediction out of whose sphere you do not need to issue even if your journey is a long one.”

Rilke’s letters have the power to set people free from their self-induced limitations, to stop them from shying away from difficulties, and to constantly keep seeking newer ways of being themselves.

These are the bits I took away from the book the most. Rilke’s thoughts on the difficult topics of God, sex, criticism, etcetera are equally appealing, and anyone who enters into this conversation of his with Kappus will find himself/herself eavesdropping quite often.

 or join a library.

2 thoughts on “Book review: Letters to a Young Poet

  1. I haven’t read the entire book..gave up halfway,but the paragraph where he talks about unanswered questions that you have quoted above is one of my “favourites”! I have actually noted it down and pinned it to my bulletin board!🙂

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