letters to a young poet

The universal and timeless nature of the human condition blows my mind, and there is nothing that reminds me of this more than when I hear a song or read words written years ago, that absolutely capture the thoughts and emotions going through my head.  In those moments, songs and words transcend simple entertainment or beauty.  They are a link, a ladder, a ghost standing behind me comforting and encouraging me.

I am sitting here on my disheveled bed, my dog oddly resting against/on top of of my left leg, killing time by reading “Letters to a Young Poet”, a translated compilation of letters from Rainer Maria Rilke.  My writing instructor recommended the book to me a few weeks ago and it has been collecting dust at the foot of my bed since then.

Any attempts to describe the sense of excitement and comfort I felt as I read over his letters would be inartful and inaccurate.  I simply lack the skill and verbal facilities to it justice.  But I sit here, at 12:48am on the verge of laughter and tears, feeling as though an old friend sat beside me, listened quietly to my questions, my fears, my insecurities, and offered the following words of advice:

“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…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?  Dive into yourself for a deep answer.  And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet the 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.”  — Letter #1

“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. — And if out of this turning inward, out of this absorption into your own world verses come, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses.. Nor will you try to interest magazines in your poems: for you will see in them your fond natural possession, a fragment and a voice of your life.  A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity.  In this nature of its origin lies the judgment of it: there is no other….  I do only want to advise you to keep growing quietly and seriously throughout your whole development; 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.”  — Letter #1

“Everything is gestation and then bringing forth.  To let each impression and germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity.  That alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating….  Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the 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.”  — Letter #3

“If you will cling to Nature, to the simple in Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and you can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring; if you have this love of inconsiderable things and seek quite simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you, not in your intellect, perhaps, which lags marveling behind, but in your inmost consciousness, waking and cognizance.  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 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…. Therefore, dear sir, love your solitude and bear with the 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 grown, 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.” — Letter #4

Good stuff.  Thanks, Rainer.  Oh, and he gave the young poet a book, which makes my whole drunken Jen Knapp incident a bit less embarrassing.

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2 responses to “letters to a young poet

  1. That book has been one of my favorites for about 10 years. You quoted the part that touched me most: “And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. “

    • I had never read it! And now I’m sad that I spent 32 years living my life without Rainer’s sage advice.

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