15 November 2009

Letters to a Young Poet
& The Possibility of Being

by Rainer Maria Rilke
Joan M. Burnham, translator
I first read these letters when I was in college and wanting oh-so-desperately to write but thinking I had nothing to say and no one interested in listening. I asked the same question every writer asks, particularly when they're just beginning--Am I any good?

Rilke's correspondent, Franz Xaver Kappus, was a student with artistic inclinations who felt out of place at the same military school that had ill-suited Rilke years earlier. The two were relatively close in age--Kappus 19 and Rilke 27 when the correspondence began in 1902.That may have been the connection that kept the author answering through 1908. I daresay that most aspiring writers today would need a much more intimate connection to get one reply, let alone a full-blown correspondence.

The question Kappus asked Rilke was the same as mine--Am I any good?--and the poet was kind enough to tell him he needed to redirect his outlook from without to within. In fact, he offered him precious little commentary on the quality of his work and told him to ignore traditional criticism and concentrate instead on continuing to live and write. More than a century later, it's still good advice.

Unfortunately, we do not have Kappus' letters or his poems to line up against Rilke's responses, but nonetheless, the half that is left to us is a treasure and an inspiration to anyone who has ever wanted to write. Rilke wisely advises anyone who seeks a career as a writer to first ask themselves "Must I write?" and if the answer is an emphatic yes, only then to build a life accordingly, making everything else a servant to that desire. I think many people embark on that course without counting the costs, and there are many. It has to be something you feel you are called to.

With the question answered and answered in the affirmative, Rilke then recommends aspiring writers draw close to nature and write on themes of everyday life, including one's sorrows, wishes, passing thoughts, belief in anything beautiful, the scenes of dreams, and the subjects of memory. "Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose," he says.

Patience is a virtue Rilke bids Kappus--and anyone who wants to write--to develop. Every impression and germ of feeling involves a carrying to term, he explains, a waiting. In the interim, "Try to love the questions themselves," he advises, "like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day."

This seemed poetically beautiful to me as a college student, and altogether reasonable in some ethereal way, but it made me impatient, too. Thirty years later--well, it makes a lot of sense. A writer needs to never get ahead of herself but be present in each moment of the life she's living and make that moment real in her writing. I missed a lot of moments worrying about the past and the future, trying to write about things I knew nothing about, unaware I had a front-row seat on the present moment in my very own life.

Rilke also encourages Kappus to pay particular attention to his sadnesses rather than his joys. "The seemingly uneventful moment, when our future really enters in, is very much closer to reality than that other loud and fortuitous point in time, when it happens as if coming from the outside," he writes. "The quieter and more patient, the more open we are when we are sad, the more resolutely does that something new enter into us, the deeper it is absorbed in us, the more certain we are to secure it, and the certain it is to become our personal destiny."

Ultimately, Kappus did not follow the writer's path. But thankfully, within a few years of Rilke's death he collected these magnificent letters together and published them so that other writers could look to them for understanding and solace.

This particular edition of the letters is two books in one. You have the 10 letters in their entirety--through page 95--then a selection of Rilke's poems--an additional 120 pages. Selections include some of his most well-known poems, including Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. That seemed like a good deal, in theory, but the translations of the poems from the German seems stiff and lacks the grace of others I've read. That's why I've included a stand-alone version of the letters in the "to buy" links below. Look for translations of the poems by Galway Kinnell or Robert Bly instead.

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