For a long time, I have been a lover of Rilke’s poetry and prose. I started with The Duino Elegies, and it wasn’t long before I tumbled headfirst into his intense poetry, sparkling with romantic images and those glorious, indifferent angels. As I dove into his words, I found what has become a classic work of literature as well as a timeless book of advice for writers: Letters to a Young Poet.
My edition features a foreword by Stephen Mitchell (who did the best translation of Rilke’s work, in my opinion). In it, he describes how this book was his first introduction to Rilke, and how he “felt, as many readers have felt, that the letters were written for [him].” (vi) It’s a universal feeling. The “young poet” of the title was a nineteen-year-old aspiring poet named Franz Xaver Kappus. When I first read this book I was also nineteen, a college student consumed with classes yet cherishing a desire to be a fully-fledged writer. I place myself within a chorus of like-minded individuals, Mitchell included, by feeling like this book was written for me.
As a person, I don’t really believe in self-help books. As an aspiring writer, I also don’t believe in how-to-write books. How can you tell anyone how to write, as if there were only one way to create art? Luckily, Letters to a Young Poet is a different beast altogether. Rilke speaks more to the soul of the writer than to the activity of writing itself. There is no “how-to.” At the risk of sounding like Yoda, Rilke seems to say, “do or do not.” He agrees that “no one can advise or help you–no one.” Just write. It’s that simple. And that difficult.
Rilke begins his book of “advice,” even though the content directly rejects that category, with a question posed directly to Kappus and to us:
Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of the night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. (6)
Seriously, I think I should start carrying around this little book the same way I carry my wallet and keys: it is a complete necessity. Rilke makes it clear that it is not criticism, constructive or not, that a writer needs to write well. There is no way of Rilke to determine whether Kappus’s work is “good” or not, as Kappus asks him. The only way Rilke can judge his work is if it had “arisen out of necessity,” out of the riches of his life. Artists are able to make art out of anything, even a seemingly boring life. To be an artist is a “calling,” says Rilke, a burden and a destiny.
This book carries with it a strange mystique, a sense that it is alive, and it always manages to inspire creative energy within me. After reading it I always feel a bit calmer, a bit happier, a little more confident in my ability to write. After reading, I manage to shed a bit of my outer life and exist more wholly within, in a place where the desire to write takes over, and it becomes easier. Maybe it’s the fear of failing that Rilke’s words dissipate. In any case, Letters to a Young Poet is, as I’ve said, a complete necessity for any artist, not exclusively writers.
Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
Apart from Rilke’s words to Kappus and to all writers, this book is a treasure because it offers glimpses into Rilke’s life and trials, in such a way that makes me feel a little closer to one of my favorite poets. He describes in 1905 how he has been afflicted with influenza, and how he sought respite from his illness in southern Italy. I love reading about these small instances of Rilke’s physical being in the world, dated as they are. Letters are incredibly personal. It feels timeless, as if Rilke is still operating after his death. Yeah, it’s weird, but I love it. It’s the same feeling that he somehow is still speaking to writers, to anyone who cracks open the cover of this slim collection.
Rilke, R.M. and Stephen Mitchell. Letters to a Young Poet. 1984. New York, NY: Random House.