Monday, January 1, 2024

Insights from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet

Of all my books just a few are indispensable to me, and two even are always among my things wherever I am. They are about me here too: the Bible, and the books of the great Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen. I wonder whether you know his works.
--Rainer Maria Rilke

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a series of letters to a young officer cadet, with advice about writing, love, the embrace of passion, the shadowed realms of suffering, and the nature of advice itself. The letters were later assembled and published in a book titled "Letters to a Young Poet." Though directed to one, it is rich with wisdom and advice for all who aspire to be creative spirits, especially poets.

My first brush with this small gem took place when I downloaded it to my Kindle perhaps a dozen years ago.

When speaking of creativity and the artistic life, Rilke offered these suggestions.

1) Trust your inner voice. Focus on your own unique experience and expression, not external validation or imitation.

2) Be patient and cultivate solitude. Artistic development takes time and introspection. Avoid rushing or seeking immediate recognition.

3) Observe and connect with the world. Deeply experience life, nature, and people to enrich your creative wellspring.

4) Embrace uncertainty and doubt. Artistic creation is a journey of exploration and self-discovery, not a pursuit of definitive answers.

5) Don't compare yourself to others. Each artist has a unique path, and comparisons can be paralyzing. Trust your own trajectory.

As I read these, I can imagine a young Bob Dylan internalizing these pearls from the experienced pen of a master poet.

Rilke had much to say about other topics beyond writing, including love, relationships, life and existence. What makes these letters thought-provoking and potent is their candor. They are filled with observations drawn from experience. Here is an excerpt:

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. There is only one single way. 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? Delve into yourself for a deep answer.

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Related Links I discovered Rilke later in life via the amazing 1990 film Awakenings, starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams. (Better late than never.) Here is a link to that first encounter. And here is a link to another favorite Rilke poem.

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