GUEST REVIEWER – Surly Joe
- Title: Letters to a Young Poet (Briefe an einen jungen Dichter)
- Author: Rainer Maria Rilke
- Translator: Reginald Snell
- ISBN: 0486422453 (ISBN13: 9780486422459)
- Series: Stand Alone
- Published: May 8th 2002 by Dover Publications (first published 1929)
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Genre/s: Non-Fiction/Classics
- Print Length: 80 pages
From Goodreads – In 1903, Rilke replied in a series of 10 letters to a student who had submitted some verses to the well-known Austrian poet for an assessment. Written during an important stage in Rilke’s artistic development, these letters contain many of the themes that later appeared in his best works. Essential reading for scholars, poetry lovers.
So why, in the twenty-first century, should anyone other than literature students, scholars and semi-obscure book reviewers care about a tiny volume of 100 year-old letters written by one poet to another? How could it possibly be relevant in our ultra-connected, always-frantic, constantly-distracted First World existence?
In 1902 a young and aspiring poet named Franz Kappus wrote a letter to Rainer Maria Rilke, an older established poet who he admired. Kappus was not even twenty years-old and already he was having an existential crisis. Studying at a military academy, he was, he explained, “on the verge of going into a profession which I felt was directly opposed to my true inclinations.” He needed guidance. He wanted Rilke’s opinion of his “poetic efforts”. Rilke’s response was a series of ten letters written between 1903 and 1908 and published in 1929, three years after his death from leukemia, as a small edition called Letters to a Young Poet.
Rilke’s advice centered on three themes that he felt were most important to any artist – embracing solitude, embracing difficulty, and not giving in to criticism. He wrote to Kappus, “works of art are infinitely solitary”. In order to create, “What is needed is this and this alone! Solitude, great inner loneliness!” And further, ‘love your solitude and bear the pain it causes you.” Parents, elders, friends will most likely not understand, nevertheless “ask no advice of them and reckon with no understanding”. The creative life will be difficult, however “it is good to be alone, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult should be one more reason to do it”. By the end of the tenth letter, and after a gap of four years from their previous correspondence, it appears Kappus had given up on the poetic life and accepted a military career. Rather than being disappointed, Rilke praised him for being true to himself, hoping that he was “living alone and courageous in a rough reality”.
Rilke was a masterful writer and he seemed to follow his own advice that he espoused to Kappus. He was a pure artist, traveling often, never staying anywhere long, never seeming content, never having much money. At one point, he even confesses to Kappus that he would love to buy him some copies of his books but he was too poor. But he continued on his own path, publishing several collections of poetry as well as prose, plays and nonfiction. He is considered one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets.
But to circle back to the introductory question, why should we care about Letters to a Young Poet now? Precisely because it presents us with the forgotten alternative to today’s pandemonium. We can unplug, un-Tweet, leave our Facebook “friends” for a little while just to be with our own thoughts, to cultivate the good that can come from the silence and the solitude. It will be difficult, Rilke repeats often. And that’s exactly the point.
You Who Never Arrived
You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start,
I don’t even know what songs
would please you. I have given up trying
to recognize you in the surging wave of
the next moment. All the immense
images in me — the far-off, deeply-felt
landscape, cities, towers, and bridges, and
unsuspected turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods–
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.
You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house– , and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me.
Streets that I chanced upon,–
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and,
startled, gave back my too-sudden image.
Who knows? Perhaps the same
bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening…
– Rainer Maria Rilke
- You Who Never Arrived (as translated by Stephen Mitchell) (1913-1914)
About this Author
His haunting images tend to focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety — themes that tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist poets.
He wrote in both verse and a highly lyrical prose. His two most famous verse sequences are the Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies; his two most famous prose works are the Letters to a Young Poet and the semi-autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.
He also wrote more than 400 poems in French, dedicated to his homeland of choice, the canton of Valais in Switzerland.
In his own words – Surly Joe is a moderately nondescript Toronto-based white guy who spends too much time contemplating the nature of boredom. His aspirations waver between wanting to be either a professional gambler or a Zen monk, with a touch of writing on the side. After completing university with a degree in a subject that does not readily lead to any sort of viable employment, he wandered through Europe and Northern Africa for a while collecting stories and useless trivia, Circumstance led to a career back in Toronto. He now spends his money on food, friends, wine and annual trips to Las Vegas.