letters to a young poet (rilke)

in a small second-hand bookstore just outside hattiesburg, which literally had books wall to wall and floor to ceiling, i found this slim little volume:


rainer maria rilke’s letters to a young poet. these letters being not quite as personal, i have less qualms about reading someone else’s correspondence unasked than i did with charlotte stieglitz’s personal letters to her husband (right here). rilke himself advises the reader of his letter to study another author’s letters, diary and fragments (28) and so i guess he won’t mind me reading his. 🙂


above: part of a letter written by rilke to his ‘grand ami’ rodin (yes, that rodin!), for the whole letter go to the website of the musee rodin. turns out rilke’s handwriting is much easier to read in french than in german, at least for me… 🙂 here, he is saying,

my dear friend, you should see the beautiful building and the room i live in since this morning. the three windows open to an abandoned garden where, from time to time, you can see innocent rabbits jumping through the trellises like in an old painting.

turns out my 7 years of french in school were not completely in vain… anyways. i thought it would be nice to show rilke’s handwriting.

the letters. where to start?!

the letters are addressed to franz xaver kappus, a young man who, hearing that rilke was an alumni of his college, decided to bare his soul to this — at that time — complete stranger in search for advice about his future. kappus was trying to decide whether to become a professional writer or pursue a military career. in his ten letters, which are spread over a period of 5 years, rilke shares his thoughts on poetry as well as on faith, coping with life, and love. recurring words (and concepts) are patience, solitude, difficulty, and (again) love.

"lovers" by rene magritte

“lovers” by rene magritte

there are many passages i marked as i was reading. i was surprised — pleasantly — at rilke’s ideas about love and gender: “some day there will be girls and women whose name will no longer signify merely an opposite of the masculine, but something in itself, something that makes one think, not of any complement and limit, but only of life and existence” (59).

i know simone de beauvoir would have approved — the idea of defining woman outside the fairly arbitrary binary of man and woman, the idea of defining woman as in and of herself, not in any relation to man, is what she and countless other feminists would campaign for decades later.

"kissing coppers" by banksy

“kissing coppers” by banksy

the following passage, about love, is simply beautiful:

this advance will […] change the love-experience, which is now full of error, will alter it from the ground up, reshape it into a relation that is meant to be of one human being to another, no longer of man to woman. and this more human love (that will fulfill itself, infinitely considerate and gentle, and kind and clear in binding and releasing) will resemble that which we are preparing with struggle and toil, the love that consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other. (59)

"blue lovers" by marc chagall

“blue lovers” by marc chagall

of course, rilke also shares thoughts about writing:

you ask whether your verses are good. you ask me. you have asked others before. you send them to magazines. you compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. now (since you have allowed me to advise you) i beg you to give up all that. you are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. nobody can counsel and help you. nobody. […] this above all — ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must  i write? (18-9)

to rilke, writing is not a profession in the sense of paying work, it is more a profession in the sense of professing the urge, the insatiable to keep writing. it is not so much a skill to master as a long, life-long process, for which we must have patience. in his last letter, he makes it very clear that he does not think highly of literary criticism or any scholarly profession that claims to be close to art. art cannot be found in theory, only in the raw reality of every-day life:

art too is only a way of living […] in all that is real one is closer to it and more nearly neighbored than in the unreal, half-artistic professions, which, while they pretend proximity to some art, in practice belie and assail the existence of all art, as for instance the whole of journalism does and almost all criticism and three-quarters of what is called and wants to be called literature. i am glad […] you are somewhere in a rough reality being solitary and courageous. (78)

rilke also encourages kappus to practice what in mindfulness / zen buddhism is called ‘radical acceptance’ — to go into himself and explore the dark corners and the shadows: “we have no reason to mistrust our [inner] world, for it is not against us. has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them” (69).

as poets, as artists, we cannot be like most people who “learn to know only a corner of their [inner world], a place by the window, a strip of floor on which they walk up and down” in order to feel secure (68). as writers, we must keep ourselves wide open: “we must assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can; everything, even the unheard-of, must be possible in it. that is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter” (67). i like the idea that ‘anything could happen’ — i might have to put that on a post-it note on my mirror so i see it every morning.


“carnation, lily, lily, rose” by john singer sargent

in rilke’s mind, our goal should be

to be solitary, the way one was as a child, when the grownups went around involved with things that seemed important and big because they themselves looked so busy and because one comprehended nothing of their doing. and when one day one perceives that their occupations are paltry, their professions petrified and no longer linked with living, why not then continue to look as a child upon it all as upon something unfamiliar […] why want to exchange a child’s wise incomprehension for defensiveness and disdain (46)

rilke also points out that the sense of a loss faith because of a loss of innocence is a misunderstanding — he argues that children cannot have full faith, a full grasp of what God is, because of their innocence and inexperience, and so we cannot actually lose our knowledge of God. we cannot lose what we haven’t got. we are constantly learning — or we can be. again, he points to the idea of life as a constant process, a life-long development, and how important it is to have patience.

this short book (the letters take up only abut 62 pages) was a real joy to read. i’ve always felt drawn to some of rilke’s work, and reading these letters i had the feeling that this is a kindred spirit. while some of his poems — for my taste — are a little too gloomy, and some a little too stilted, the ideas behind them are beautifully human.  i am glad i picked up this book — two dollars very well spent! — and i do recommend it for anyone interested in poetry or poets or being a poet.

there is much more in these letters than i can touch on in this post, so if any of this sounds interesting, go to your local library, or go online, or to your local bookstore and get your hands on a copy of this.

About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

One comment

  1. Pingback: New York in Hattiesburg: Notes from the 2014 Moorman Symposium | Outside of a Cat

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