Truly invaluable wisdom from a poet to an artist

Truly invaluable wisdom from a poet to an artist

Letters to a young poet Review

IN LATE AUTUMN, 1902, a nineteen-year-old Austrian officer cadet named Franz Xaver Kappus found himself under a chestnut tree, reading a letter he received whose contents, he hoped, would teach him how to creatively express himself.

“The envelope,” he later wrote, “bore a blue seal and a Paris postmark, weighed heavy in my hand, and presented the same clear, beautiful, confident handwriting on the envelope as the letter itself had from first line to last.” 1

Kappus enclosed some verses of his own and asking for advice as he wanted to know if his own poems were any good; he wanted to know what to write and how to be. Never had he ever, as in his own words, revealed himself to another person as openly and unreservedly as in that first letter to the renowned poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

However, the self-doubt that had led Kappus, months earlier, to write to that man was not rewarded with a letter that would give him a roadmap to success.

Rilke, at this stage, was only 28 years old and had scant reputation of his own except among the cognoscenti. And what happened in his reply was downright exciting. The intent behind it may have been “please don’t write to me again, ever”, but as piss-off letters go it is exquisite: thoughtful, candid, insightful, and useful, and a blueprint for every subsequent encouraging communication that the more experienced are obliged to deliver to those who seek their advice.

“Nobody can advise you and help you,” wrote Rilke, “nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself. Examine the reason that bids you to write […] ask yourself in your night’s quietest hour: must I write?”

— Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, p. 8-9.

Rilke’s approach to the nature of advice itself strikes a cord I deeply subscribe to. There is beauty in encouraging the aspiring poet to embrace the challenges of the creative process and to turn inward for self-discovery, instead of critiquing the work.

For nearly a century, these profound and timeless letters have resonated with artists and writers from all across the globe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes

  • Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke. Pages 4-5 & 8-9

 

Find Letters to a Young Poet on My Bookshelf, or purchase through Waterstones, Bol, or Amazon. For more books that I read, head over to the full list of book recommendations. Leave a book review yourself, or check out what others have said about this book.

 

 

 

 

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