Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet”

rilke 2It’s possible, if you’re a high school-aged writer, that no one has yet recommended Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet,” but you really should read it sofort–immediately–to use Rilke’s native German. Rilke (left) wrote the letters between 1902 and 1908 to a 19 year-old man named Franz Kappus who was trying to decide between pursuing a literary career and enlisting in the Austro-Hungarian army.

The correspondence began when Kappus sent some of his poems to Rilke, then 27, for critique. Rilke offered very little in the way of critique–if only Kappus could have attended an MFA program!–but a great deal of profound advice on how to cultivate one’s inner life and grow one’s art. A few examples to whet your appetite: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue”; “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 your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a Letters-to-a-Young-Poet-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.”

Sagely, no? We can’t leave out this bold declaration about the writer’s relationship with time: “There is here no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree that does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!”