Monday, October 11, 2010

Letters to a Young Poet

Rainer Maria Rilke
translation by M. D. Herter Norton

First I just have to admit that "Letters to a Young Poet" reminds me of the "Sister Act" movies because in "Sister Act II" Sister Mary Clarence tells Lauren Hill's character to read this book.

Also this book makes me wish people wrote letters more often. And was Rilke naturally that eloquent? Or did he cross words out and go through several drafts? His writing is beautiful and personal, which makes me think, Well, Duh! These were personal letters he wrote. But I have to say I have never received an email that can measure up to what Rilke wrote to Kappus.

"Letters to a Young Poet" is the book for aspiring artists. It's one I'd been meaning to read, but would move on, read other things and completely forget about it. But a friend of mine mentioned this book the other day and I said to myself, "Self. I am going to read this book. Don't forget to find it when you go to work tomorrow." And now here I am.

This is one of those books that I am hesitant to pass judgement on because it was never intended to be published for public consumption. These are simply letter Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to a young, confused aspiring poet who asked him for guidance. It's personal and yet universal; or as Franz Xaver Kappus writes in his introduction, "important too for many growing and evolving spirits of today and tomorrow. And where a great and unique man speaks, small men should keep silence." In this case, I feel like a small man who should keep silent. Plus, Rilke speaks somewhat harshly of critics in his first letter: "With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings." Yet, in his ninth letter, he says "doubt may become a  good quality in you if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become critical." Though, this refers to one becoming their own personal critic. However, here I embrace my inner critic and put down my own opinions on Rilke.

Rilke puts so much of himself and so much compassion into each letter, it is full of gems that will speak to each person who reads them individually, so take my own opinions with a grain of salt.

Rilke is quite the Romantic in the literary sense, with his advice to cling to nature and to "go into" oneself. And I agree. There is a lot to be said for solitude and reflection, especially if you are of the creative persuasion. However, I also wholeheartedly believe that regular human contact is a necessity. The trick is to find a balance between the two and know when your mind and soul requires which state: solitude or community.

I like Rilke's assertions about love, that one must know oneself before falling in love so as not to lose oneself in the other person. His response to first love is very interesting: "I believe that that love remains so strong and powerful in your memory because it was your first deep being-alone and the first inward work you did on your life." That certainly rings true. Who doesn't remember their first love?

I found it interesting that Rilke is almost envious of "the feminine human being": "Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully and more confidently, must surely have become fundamentally riper, more human people." Is this because we are less burdened by the trying things in life (in Rilke's time and opinion" and have more time for the necessary solitude to already understand what Rilke is trying to explain to Kappus? I think I am a mixture of offended and flattered.

At times I find Rilke too Romantic and maybe even a little sappy, but he lays out these simple and yet profound observations of, well, growing up. There is so much I could quote from these ten short letters, but I'll leave you with just a few that ring especially true for me at this point in my life.

"[...] 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."
"[...] 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."

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