“In one creative thought a thousand forgotten nights of love revive, filling it with sublimity and exaltation. And those who come together in the night and are entwined in rocking delight do an earnest work and gather sweet nesses, gather depth and strength for the song of some coming poet. who will arise to speak of ecstasies beyond telling” (29).
-Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (1954)
“We have no reason to mistrust our 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. And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful” (52).
-Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (1954)
In September last year, I launched “Become a Better Writer + Write Better” series on my blog because –
Well, writing is an important component of what I do for a living. Not surprisingly, I also love – and I mean love- talking and reading about writing. “What better way to start new conversations about the various processes through which we make meaning of our writing practice?” I thought. And so it began.
I’m glad it did.
European poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) pursued a life of meaning through his writing. He studied with the greatest minds of the 20th century, from Rodin to Lou Andreas-Salomé, not only to learn how to write better, but to learn how to think, feel, and live like an artist.
Rilke was born in Prague to a German-speaking family and spent his life traveling around Europe in search of wisdom. He was recognized in literary circles at the time; however, he would posthumously become one of the most brilliant poets of the 20th century.
Where others have found a unifying principle for themselves in religion or morality or the search for truth, Rilke found his in the search for impressions and the hope these could be turned into poetry… For him Art was what mattered most in life.
Rainer Maria Rilke; Aspects of His Mind and Poetry (1970)
During his first trip to Paris, on a mission to write about Auguste Rodin who’d later become his mentor, Rilke received a letter from an aspiring poet and a military school student, Franz Xaver Kappus. Kappus sent some of his writing to Rilke, seeking advice on poetry, writing, and creativity.
The two young poets never met but kept up a steady correspondence starting in 1903.
Rilke had penned ten letters when in 1908 the correspondence, as Kappus (1954) explained, “gradually petered out because life drove me off into those very regions from which the poet’s warm, tender and touching concern had sought to keep me” (12).
Although Rilke stresses several times that he doesn’t have much to offer, he gives Kappus both practical and spiritual advice on writing throughout his letters. And here are some of my favorites.
Reflect on Why You Write
In his first letter to Rilke, Kappus asks Rilke to read and critique his poems. In response, Rilke encourages him to question whether his opinion matters, after all.
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. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.
According to Rilke, turning inward throughout an artist’s whole development is crucial, since:
You cannot disturb it more rudely than by looking outward and expecting from outside replies to questions that only your inmost feeling in your most hushed hour can perhaps answer.
Paris, February 17th. 1903 | Letters to a Young Poet (1954), pgs. 16-18.
Avoid Clichés & Find the Extraordinary in the Ordinary
If you take the time to slow down and go inward, Rilke suggests, you will inch closer to finding your unique voice as a writer:
…save yourself from these general themes [e.g.love poems] and seek those 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.
If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place. And even if you were in some prison the walls of which let none of the sounds of the world come to your senses-would you not then still have your childhood, that precious, kingly possession, that treasure-house of memories? Turn your attention thither. Try to raise the submerged sensations of that ample past; your personality will grow more firm, your solitude will widen and will become a dusky dwelling past which the noise of others goes by far away.
Paris, February 17th. 1903 | Letters to a Young Poet (1954), pgs. 16-17.
Ask Questions & Be Patient
The process of absorption into one’s own world is surely arduous and requires patience, Rilke stresses.
You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within yourself the possibility of shaping and forming as a particularly happy and pure way of living; train yourself to it-but take whatever comes with great trust, and if only it comes out of your own will, out of some need of your inmost being, take it upon yourself and hate nothing.
Worpswede, near Bremen, July 16th. 1903 | Letters to a Young Poet (1954), pg. 27.
Seek & Cherish Solitude
In his letters, Kappus often lamented his decision to have entered military school and complained about the lonely and high-pressure life he led in the military. Rilke certainly knew what Kappus meant; he’d been pressured by his parents to go to military school in Sankt Pölten, Austria, from 1886 until 1891. He was able to leave due to recurring illness, but his response to Kappus reveals some of the ways in which the solitary lifestyle helped him become a better writer:
Love your solitude and bear with sweet sounding lamentation the suffering it causes you. For those who are near you are far, you say, and that shows it is beginning to grow wide about you. And when what is near you is far, then your distance is already among the stars and very large; rejoice in your growth, in which you naturally can take no one with you, and be kind to those who remain behind, and be sure and calm before them and do not torment them with your doubts and do not frighten them with your confidence or joy, which they could not understand. Seek yourself some sort of simple and loyal community with them, which need not necessarily change as you yourself become different and again different; love in them life in an unfamiliar form and be considerate of aging people, who fear that being-alone in which you trust.
Worpswede, near Bremen, July 16th. 1903 | Letters to a Young Poet (1954), pg. 30.
Solitude and turning inward is, after all, deeply linked. He underlines the importance of solitude again in a Christmas letter he writes from Italy:
The necessary thing is after all but this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going-into-oneself and for hours meeting no one–this one must be able to attain. To be solitary, the way one was solitary 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 doings.
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 like a child upon it all as upon something unfamiliar, from out of the depth of one’s own world, out of the expanse of one’s own solitude, which is itself work and status and vocation?
Rome, December 32rd, 1903 | Letters to a Young Poet (1954), pgs. 35-36.
He acknowledges the suffering solitude may inflict on a person, but difficulty can be a writer’s best friend. That solitude is difficult, he highlights, must be a reason the more for us to pursue it. He concludes his letter by reminding Kappus that his solitude “will be a hold and home for you even amid very unfamiliar conditions and from there you will find all your ways” (31).
It is thus crucial, Rilke suggests, to have the mental, emotional, and physical space when one is sad and/or encounters life’s challenges because:
…the apparently uneventful and stark moment at which our future sets foot in us is so much closer to life than that other noisy and fortuitous point of time at which it happens to us as if from outside. The more still, more patient and more open we are when we are sad, so much the deeper and so much the more unswervingly does the new go into us, so much the better do we make it ours, so much the more will it be our destiny, and when on some later day it “happens” (that is, steps forth out of us to others), we shall feel in our inmost selves akin and near to it. And that is necessary. It is necessary–and toward this our development will move gradually–that nothing strange should befall us, but only that which has long belonged to us.
Borgeby gard, Fliidie, Sweden, August 12th, 1904 | Letters to a Young Poet(1954), pg 49.
Through this openness, we can “assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can; everything, even the unheard-of, must be possible in it.”
He explains further:
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. That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm; the experiences that are called “visions,” the whole so-called “spirit-world,” death, all those things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are atrophied. To say nothing of God. But fear of the inexplicable has not alone impoverished the existence of the individual; the relationship between one human being and another has also been cramped by it, as though it had been lifted out of the riverbed of endless possibilities and set down in a fallow spot on the bank, to which nothing happens.
For it is not inertia alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and unrenewed; it is shyness before any sort of new, unforeseeable experience with which one does not think oneself able to cope. But only someone who is ready for everything, who excludes nothing, not even the most enigmatical, will live the relation to another as something alive and will himself draw exhaustively from his own existence.
Borgeby gard, Fliidie, Sweden, August 12th, 1904 | Letters to a Young Poet(1954), pg 49.
Speaking of challenges, love, too, works in this context. He explains:
For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.
For this reason young people, who are beginners in everything, cannot yet know love: they have to learn it. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered close about their lonely, timid, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and so loving, for a long while ahead and far on into life is solitude, intensified and deepened loneness for him who loves.
Love is at first not anything that means merging, giving over, and uniting with another (for what would a union be of something unclarified and unfinished, still subordinate–?), it is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world for himself for another’s sake, it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things.
Rome, May 14th, 1904 | Letters to a Young Poet (1954), pgs. 41-42.
In 1908, Rilke was working on his only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, “that difficult, difficult book” (90), and as his correspondence with Kappus dwindled, he wrote him his last note. “Art too is only a way of living,” he concludes, “and, however one lives, one can, unwittingly, prepare oneself for it 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, in a word, that you have surmounted the danger of falling into this sort of thing and are somewhere in a rough reality being solitary and courageous. May the year that is at hand uphold and strengthen you in that.
Paris, the day after Christmas, 1908 | Letters to a Young Poet (1954), pg. 58
Rilke’s advice was addressed to an aspiring artist who pursued poetry, but his suggestions are invaluable to anyone who is interested in creative work of any kind.
We should, of course, be grateful to Kappus who decided to compile and publish the letters in 1929, a few years after Rilke’s death. The letters, originally written in German, were then translated into English by M.D.Herter Norton in 1935. In his introduction to a revised edition of the collection, American writer Kent Nerburn writes:
How is it that such a slim book, written so many years ago in a time so very different from own, still speaks to us with such authority today? It is easy to point to Rilke’s personal genius. And, to be sure, that plays a part. But if we look past this obvious source, we see that these letters are also the result of a unique conjunction of circumstances that created an almost magical alchemy of thought and feeling. And it is in this magical alchemy that their enduring significance lies.
Letters to a Young Poet, 2000, xii.
The magical alchemy of life and death, thinking and feeling, as well as of form and content is evident in all ten letters; Rilke’s suggestions on how to write are raw, honest, and multifaceted.
As Kappus (1929) emphasized in his reflection on the letters: “I unreservedly laid bare my heart as never before and never since to any second human being.”
It would be safe to state that Rilke did the same.