WORDS OF ADVICE FOR YOUNG (AND OLD) POETS

 

I stumbled upon the poems and writings of Rainer Maria Rilke shortly after my release from high school. I kept seeing his name mentioned in books by other writers. There were also a few appearances in anthologies. Being half German, I was happy to discover a great German poet besides Goethe. One book I happened upon early was Letters to a Young Poet. This is a thin volume that features ten letters written to a young poet named Franz Xaver Kappus. 

 

Kappus was a student at a military academy that Rilke had attended years earlier. He discovered a book of Rilke's poetry and learned that Rilke also attended this academy. It was the parson who remembered Rilke as a student. Kappus learned about Rilke and became interested. That inspired him to write a letter to Rilke seeking advice on becoming a poet. This would begin an ongoing relationship through letters.

 

Kappus saved these letters and eventually published them as a thin book. There are only ten letters but there is also a chronicle at the end that provides background information on the circumstances of the letters. This will help the reader gain an understanding of Rilke and how he worked as poet and letter writer. This helps trace his steps as he moved about Europe.

 

The first letter is probably the most evocative of letters. Here Rilke implores Kappus to go into himself and question whether or not he truly needs to write. This will determine whether or not he should pursue poetry. Rilke held the belief that a poet must feel the poetry in their soul. If this intense level of dedication was not there then the person should not bother with writing.

 

 I have to admit that these words had a lot of impact on me when I first read them over twenty years ago. They inspired me and provoked a lot of impassioned writing. I have to also admit that I see a bit of naivety when I read the letter recently. I guess I have become older and far more jaded. I could still appreciate the passion of the words but much of my own intensity was diminished.

 

Rilke also writes a lot of encouragement on dealing with the solitary aspect of being a poet. A great writer or poet will require solitude to be a great poet. This is not always easy but a true poet makes the sacrifice. Rilke talks of the simple wonder of reliving one's childhood through memories. This can be an endless source of inspiration for a poet.

 

The ten letters build on the themes Rilke views as important. He also makes a few literary recommendations such as the Danish writer J.P. Jacobsen. He cites a couple works that should interest Kappus. In a later letter, he expresses joy that Kappus enjoyed the works. He also suggests a German writer named Richard Dehmel. This is another writer/poet who greatly influenced Rilke. I am unfamiliar with Jacobsen and Dehmel but Rilke's high praise makes me feel I should seek out some of their works.

 

It was neat to relive this little book. I am a lot more jaded now so it didn't have the impact it originally had but I still found the advice to be of value for an aspiring poet or writer. Rilke seems to enjoy taking on the role of mentor and counselor although he is often slow at responding to letters. He seems to be apologizing for late responses on most of the letters.

 

The letters themselves only account for about 70 pages. The Chronicle at the end is also very helpful. Here I would like to note that there are several versions of this book in print. A couple publishers only publish the letters. I have the Norton & Co edition which includes the chronicle. Fans and students of Rilke will enjoy this extra bit.

 

This is a book that will mainly appeal to poets and people who enjoy poetry. Those interested in trying to figure out how the creative mind functions might also find some value in this book. I don't think the average reader will really want to read this book. I will highly recommend it for the poets and Rilke fans out there who want a quick but intriguing read.

Author's Notes/Comments: 

Not a volume of poetry but words of advice from a fine poet. A review of Letters to a Young Poet.

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