I’ve said it many times on this blog, but I’m a sucker for “self-help” poetry books. I’ve heard great things about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and finally got around to purchasing my own copy. Before I started reading, I knew nothing about Rilke, and was reading simply because of the book’s reputation. The book is a collection of ten letters that Ranier Maria Rilke wrote in response to Franz Kappus, a young man seeking encouragement, advice, and feedback on his poetry. Kappus had written to Rilke discouraged because he had received so many rejections. In the first letter, Rilke addresses literary critics, Kappus’ own work, and the need for writing. Rilke doesn’t pull any punches with his new correspondent, as he tells Kappus that his poems have “no individual style. . .[and] are not yet anything on their own account, nothing independent” (15). Rilke of course tells Kappus that a couple of the poems have potential, but still have severe shortcomings. Rilke expresses his disappointment that Kappus is more intent on getting published than he is writing good poems. Isn’t this the way of it? For young writers (not necessarily young people) there is a thrill in being published, in growing your audience, in notoriety, in being acknowledged. Rilke challenges Kappus to take a little personal inventory on his reason for writing:
Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all–ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? (16)
I think this can be a tough pill to swallow for those of us born and raised in capitalism. Why write if I can’t make money? Be famous? Be somebody? Somewhere along the line of growing up and old, we lose sight of that simple core of humanity: creation. I love watching art classes in elementary schools. Kids are ecstatic to have a much of color amoeba’s on their paper, telling mom and dad with pride that they drew a peacock. But the mere joy and satisfaction is good enough as we grow older. We’re told that we have to make a buck, that our work doesn’t matter if someone else doesn’t think it matters–whether this voice is internal or external depends on each artist’s situation and experience, but it’s still there. And Rilke says that to the poet, nothing should matter but your desire to create art. He tells Kappus to
seek those [themes] which your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty–describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity, and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory. . . To the creator, there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place . . . A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. . . for the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself. (16-17)
Rilke spends the rest of his letters–published here anyways–defining artistic creation, beauty, and meaning. In Rilke’s mind, writing poetry is a lifestyle, a life-long pursuit of developing skills, spending time in nature, and finding meaning in your life and in the objects and lives around you. Writing poetry isn’t about getting published, it’s about creating–taking something, whether it’s internal or external, and weaving it through your own loom, making it physical and meaningful for you the poet. If there is no meaning or beauty in it for the poet, how can one expect others to give a rip about it?
And this sentiment of writing because you have to is extremely difficult, because nobody notices. And we want to be noticed, we want to be somebody. And it’s a difficult road developing your writing skills to the point of your creation being worth somebody else’s time. To this difficulty, Rilke states:
People have. . . oriented all their solutions toward the easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must hold to what is difficult; everything alive holds to it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must hold to what is difficult is a certainty that will not forsake us. . .that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it. (41)
The journey of a poet is indeed a difficult one. Learning to make your thoughts and experiences understandable (and bearable) for readers is difficult. It’s very easy to get distracted and lose sight of the actual art of poetry. Rilke’s letters provide excellent encouragement to focus on what matters: life and its meaning/expressions. I think that it’s also interesting to note that Rilke claimed to always have two books by his side: the Bible and a prose work by his favorite author. Rilke seems to have exercised his search for meaning in light of his spiritual beliefs, not in spite of them. I’m also shocked that his favorite writer would be a novelist and not a poet. Obviously, in order to produce good writing writers must consume and digest good writing. Sorry for the disgusting metaphor, but once we consume and digest, we are inspired to move that influx of information into our own expression. To be a good writer we must continually work on becoming masters of our craft and language. How can we learn either if aren’t reading something?
Rilke’s short collection of letters has a permanent place on my bookshelf due to his wisdom of life and creativity. I really appreciate his stance that improving and developing is a life-long journey, and being a poet is a way of life.