LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET
Rainier Maria Rilke
Translated by M.D. Herter Norton
W.W. Norton & Company
Paper, 90 pages, $9.95
The general references to Rilke s Letters to a Young Poet are many, the specific few. Lesser still is the actual practice of writers to respond to those who strain to write to them. It is likely easier to obtain a response from a publisher with an overwhelming slush pile than to receive a reply from an established writer. Of course a writer could spend much of his creative juices in correspondence with those he has never met and make what little profitable time he has unprofitable. But for one young, desperate poet, Rilke responded differently. He wrote long thoughtful letters over the course of almost six years, and did so brilliantly, with the deepest insights into the nature of a poet s soul, the struggle to overcome the hurdles we all strive to overcome, the courage and strength needed to face what we all must face. Consider this response to the young poet s question on the worth of his work:
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.
For the simple answer of yes, Rilke suggests the poet draw near to Nature. For this he means the specific experience of everyday life.
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.
In so doing, Rilke urged the young poet to regard the natural growth of his inner life, to allow each feeling and impression to 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.
For this, Rilke said, there could be no measuring of time, and ten years are nothing, for an artist ripens like a tree and does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. Tu Fu, of course, found the lack of summer, and he died with the belief he was a failure, though today we know differently, and Rexroth has called him the greatest lyric poet of all time.
The concepts of Blake can also be found in Rilke. To the young poet s complaint about his stultifying profession (read day job ), Rilke replied that all professions are full of enmity against the individual, saturated as it were with the hatred of those who have found themselves mute and sullen in a humdrum duty.
[W]hy 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 . . . ?
Rilke does not mean to say that a child-like wonder allows an easy road, but instead We know little and if we can only arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now seems to us most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. To drive the point home, Rilke turns to the myth of a dragon blossoming into a princess:
[P]erhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.
The magic and mystery of writing, reading, and listening to poetry has been set down by many others in many ways. But few masters of the art have taught what Rilke took the time to teach to a young poet he never met and never knew except through correspondence. What he did, and what so few have ever done, might best be described by Mary Oliver:
For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, and something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.