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Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke

06 Apr

RilcomeBorn in 1875, the great German lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke published his first collection of poems in 1898 and went on to become renowned for his delicate depiction of the workings of the human heart. Drawn by some sympathetic note in his poems, young people often wrote to Rilke with their problems and hopes. From 1903 to 1908 Rilke wrote a series of remarkable responses to a young, would-be poet on poetry and on surviving as a sensitive observer in a harsh world. Those letters, still a fresh source of inspiration and insight, are accompanied here by a chronicle of Rilke’s life that shows what he was experiencing in his own relationship to life and work when he wrote them.

Letter writing is a dying format and being a prolific emailer, I daily lament the lack of horrible tasting stamps to lick.  It was for that reason that for a few seconds I was tempted to write this review in the style of a letter to Rilke but then sense came back to me and I saved myself from at least one cliché the post.

After reviewing Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian a month or two back, it’s only right that I review the book that set the template for the ‘Letters to a Young…’ series.  Like the aforementioned work, this is also a slim book, focused solely on the letters of Rilke himself.  That we do not get to see the letters sent by young poet Franz Kappus  doesn’t detract from the book at all and could arguably have lessened the impact of this wonderful collection.

Fittingly for a poet, Rilke’s writing is very lyrical and precise but it’s his humble and caring attitude that makes his words more compelling from the off.   His is the voice of experience, not jealously guarding his poetic territory but a supportive man from the start whose encouragement grows stronger and intimacy deeper the more they correspond.  Modest, encouraging, gracious and self-effacing almost to the point of no return is his way and .this connection transcends the original person it was aimed at and speaks to us all.

Rilke’s letters show a vast appreciation of nature, of love, memory and experience, without which poetry for him would not have been possible. He is at pains to highlight – in a wonderfully exact, bordering on the romantic – way the challenge of poetry, of looking into your own self to find the words and not looking to others for recognition that you are at the top of your chosen art.  At all times there is an underlining of how difficult and long the road to greatness is.

I believe that this is a book for every writer to appreciate and cherish, a required read not just for the instruction but also for the way it is written.  Rilke gives you the keys to the world, underlines the importance and need for solitude as well of the dangers of said solitude familiar to a lot of us I would imagine.  His belief in searching childhood memories for inspiration as well as understanding love and loss, then writing it from the heart is a powerful bit of direction for any writer yet one that seems curiously unheeded in so many.

The final part of the book is a look at the poet’s life up to and whilst he was writing the letters, this focus on his background gives context to each letter but also a grounding to his hard childhood where so many of his thoughts are garnered from.  I have to say although this section was interesting to read, the letters appealed more, especially the earlier ones which are more focussed on the writing aspect, having said that though this is an exceptional piece of writing as a whole.

For all those overly long books about writing and motivation that clog up the bookshelves, this is the perfect antidote.  It is a challenge to read just one letter but I managed to spread them out for a whole day and it gave me more information and encouragement than a whole slew of those other books would.  It’s literate, will benefit anybody who rereads it often and it’s feeling of being personal, yet universal is pitched perfectly.  The famous poet talking to his fans, seems like a world away and whilst he professes to know nothing, Rilke’s wisdom shines through on every page and a special thanks to Mr Kappus for sharing with us what he could have so jealously guarded himself..

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49 Comments

Posted by on 06/04/2016 in Essays, Poetry

 

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49 responses to “Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke

  1. Liz

    06/04/2016 at 11:40

    Beautifully put and, as ever, inspires me to get this back off the shelf. I first came to this as a result of Maria Popova waxing lyrical on her fabulous Brain Pickings site and have been thankful for it ever since https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/03/10/rilke-letters-to-a-young-poet-sadness/

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    • Ste J

      06/04/2016 at 11:52

      You’d devour it quickly despite reading slowly, but if you are getting it off the shelf then you know that already. Thanks for the link that is a fascinating read, I think I need to up my writing game!

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • Liz

        06/04/2016 at 11:54

        You are up there with the best, my friend. Meanwhile, I am trying to move my shelf-reaching arm in slow-motion….

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        • Ste J

          06/04/2016 at 11:56

          Don’t tell me things like that, I’ll start smoking cigars and writing all sloppy like, lol. I have a long way to go but I will get there one day. Don’t have your arm in to slow motion otherwise other books will distract you.

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          • Liz

            06/04/2016 at 12:06

            Haha – I can just imagine you in a velvet jacket and silk slippers lol

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            • Ste J

              06/04/2016 at 12:14

              That is my overall ambition in life, to be kitted out to read properly, it may draw some funny looks when I’m out and about reading though.

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              • Liz

                06/04/2016 at 12:16

                Go for it, I say – someone needs to lead the way….

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                • Ste J

                  06/04/2016 at 12:22

                  I’ve always been looked to for the latest fashions, my nickname is actually ‘trailblazer’ but that is because my blazer has a long back (for some reason that only the logic of this false anecdote deems logical) and I drag it around the floor as I walk.

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                  • Liz

                    06/04/2016 at 12:46

                    I can see how such a garment would be quite handy – you could put your shopping on it and avoid the 5p charge for a bag, for example….

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                    • Ste J

                      06/04/2016 at 13:01

                      I like that idea, I could get people to sit on it and run around the place like those rickshaws!

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                    • Liz

                      06/04/2016 at 13:21

                      Just think of all the extra pennies you could earn to spend on books!

                      Liked by 1 person

                       
  2. Jill Weatherholt

    06/04/2016 at 12:11

    “His belief in searching childhood memories for inspiration as well as understanding love and loss, then writing it from the heart is a powerful bit of direction for any writer yet one that seems curiously unheeded in so many.” I couldn’t agree more with this, Ste J.

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    • Ste J

      06/04/2016 at 12:20

      Those who create fully fleshed out characters will always have the advantage over plot driven books when it comes to emotionally gripping the reader and that should speak volumes to writers. Write from the heart and you will not only write better and readers will appreciate it and respond more.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  3. Alastair Savage

    06/04/2016 at 12:23

    If you had written a letter to him, you’d have had to do in German, nicht wahr?

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    • Ste J

      06/04/2016 at 12:58

      That’s where I come unstuck, I know four German words, choos, funfe, zwei and bier, as well as plenty about the football. Interestingly when we were over there I asked for bier and got two bottles with blank labels on and bier written in black, my mate goes up and asks for bier and gets the proper real make stuff. Alas it was all generic stuff, beloved of people who don’t dabble in all the guest ales.

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      • Alastair Savage

        06/04/2016 at 14:06

        I remember going to those Bierhallen in Germany where they have a house beer and they just serve it to you without asking. They also had this cool tradition where they marked how many you had had with a pencil on a beer mat, and totted it up at the end. I wonder if they still do that?
        >>sigh<<your post was all about higher things, and my comments are all about booze…

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        • Ste J

          06/04/2016 at 16:24

          Well from booze usually comes insight in some form or other. Stacking up the beers to pay for later is always a good excuse to be forgetful and have one more.

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  4. shadowoperator

    06/04/2016 at 13:54

    I don’t know how I would be fixed poetically speaking, to take Rilke’s advice about mining even the territory from childhood on. I’ve always more or less disdained or discarded or suppressed experience once it’s old (and usually painful). That is, I’m writing always while the experience is still fresh in my mind, before my “disdain mechanism” gets a chance to suppress it, and then later I do revise to make it more artistic, but at that point, I’m usually no longer emotionally attached to it anyway. I guess in terms of looking back at the past, I always see so many stupid choices in my past that I can’t regard them as fodder for poetry. Prose is another matter, because there I can make fun of myself and others, and maybe give someone else a laugh too. I wonder what Rilke would have made of Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility” as a formula for poetry….With me, recollecting my own stupid former emotions doesn’t lead to tranquility, or at least ends tranquility, which is presumably when Wordsworth meant the composing to go on.

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    • Ste J

      06/04/2016 at 16:42

      Rilke’s childhood was a tough one and he managed to channel that into his writing but by doing so he recalled the good and bad and that is not always something people want to do for various reasons. I agree with you on the suppression to a certain point of most of childhood, it seems inane and wouldn’t be cathartic in the least. Prose is always easier, there is always a funny story in my adventures and again like you the emotional attachment does wane somewhat. Wordsworth had it right, sit outside for a bit and cash in on it, I bet he was secretly right cynical about it all hehe.

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      • shadowoperator

        06/04/2016 at 18:31

        Wordsworth (and his sister Dorothy, who was a key part of his life) and his collaborator, Coleridge, all had a certain amount to be cynical about, though it seems they suppressed negative emotions. For example, I was reading their diaries or letters or something, and poked fun at the number of times they ate porridge for any and all meals of the day. I happened to be talking to a serious-minded person in academia, who knew more about them than I did. She retorted with some heat on their behalf, “Well, they didn’t have the money to eat much else most of the time.” Yet, they seem to have been cheerful overall. Of course, Coleridge could probably have spared some of his laudanum money for food, but I guess we all have our priorities….!

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        • Ste J

          07/04/2016 at 08:27

          Eating porridge all the time is like the equivalent of students filling up on cheap Pot Noodles all the time, having said that we all need money for laudanum, although in my case it is books. I have gone on one meal a day several times so I can buy books, not that I am in their league or even write cheery poetry when the fancy (all too rarely) takes me.

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          • shadowoperator

            07/04/2016 at 13:18

            Speaking of which, it’s been a while since we had any poetry from Ste J….

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            • Ste J

              08/04/2016 at 08:48

              Yes, yes it is, I do have a few ideas floating around, hopefully next week will finally see some.

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  5. Jess

    06/04/2016 at 15:16

    This sounds so intriguing, added to my list!

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    • Ste J

      06/04/2016 at 16:26

      Excellent! I loved it, it has plenty to be thought about and can be read bite sized which is handy for your mad life at the moment.

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  6. Love, Life and Whatever

    06/04/2016 at 15:29

    This one I was totally unheard of. You always manage to bring a one not much known and then your reviews intrigues further to take a chance and explore the possibility in the realm of words and inspiration.

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    • Ste J

      06/04/2016 at 16:34

      That’s a lovely way of putting it. It’s a great feeling to come upon something less well known and to be able to share. That it could help inspire and encourage fellow writers is just awesome and the more I think of it, the more depth I am seeing, it’s a book that keeps on giving.

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  7. macjam47

    06/04/2016 at 20:12

    How interesting! I read Rilke’s work back in college while taking German. I remember loving it, even though I’m sure I lost some of the meaning in my translations. LOL

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    • Ste J

      07/04/2016 at 08:17

      The beauty of rereading is that you will get so much more out of it now with your wiser eyes. I imagine German was a challenge, the language is so different from ours.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  8. Resa

    06/04/2016 at 21:57

    Well, I miss licking stamps, too! Lol. I used to write many letters, including love letters, which included lots of poetry. I was such a romantic. After email, then comments boxes, I continued to write these passionate vestiges of my love, but never mailed them.
    This is a book I will put on my list, although you have reviewed so very many interesting books, that your list alone could almost be the rest of my life.
    I got in such a snit over the whole “NOT SECURE” issue that I am still engaged with WP on, that I had considered deleting all my blogs and just reading for the rest of my life. Whew! Great review Ste j!

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    • Ste J

      07/04/2016 at 08:36

      Stamps are certainly an acquired and unique taste. Perhaps love letters is a whole new blog idea, finding examples and posting them would be awesome. Love letters in particular aren’t the same over an email, no scent, no feel of the thickness of the paper, the handwriting…I would be interested in reading some of your poetry if you had anything not too personal to hand.

      My reviews are really just starting out, there are so many more brilliant books that I read years ago that I need to mention as well as trying to catch up with my eleven latest reads which are all waiting for review, it is stressful to try and keep up with everything, especially as my shelves are heaving with more.

      I have had no luck on the forums, I honestly think that it will be something minor to do with the reblog and that will be all. Noooo! Don’t delete your blogs, the rest of us bloggers would get into a sulk that cause a domino effect and bring down civilisation as we know it, although I encourage the reading!

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      • Resa

        07/04/2016 at 22:00

        Well, my old never mailed love letters… do include prose. That would mean a trip to the depths of the basement. My place is huge. I live in an old bank, probably haunted. That would have to wait at least until my current job is over. Things are heating up. Next week will be huge with running around shopping, fittings and what not. Then I’ll be shipping out to Ottawa for 8 -10 weeks. It’s going to be a fun project. Comedy always is.
        There is street art in Ottawa, although most of of it is political. This makes sense, as Ottawa is Canada’s capital city, and it’s so neat that I’ll be staying 3 blocks from the capitol buildings. I should be able to post once or twice a week…. job requirements depending.
        Now, there is something odd going on with WP. The https:// security designation has not only disappeared from my site(s), but many others. It seems if your site has a .wordpress.com in its URL the encrypted security is still there. I really investigated yesterday. I am waiting for a second response from WP support.
        WoW! I could create a domino effect… cool, but I’ll refrain.
        I’m thinking your reblog highlighted the issue, only.
        Thank you for your kind caring, and I will keep you posted on what happens.

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        • Ste J

          08/04/2016 at 09:30

          As I understand it (so I could be wrong) if you self host don’t you have to do updates manually for protection? I am not sure how it works or maybe I am confusing this with a .org…having said that I have been reading about people losing all the blogs they follow. There is definitely some sort of issue with WP at the moment.

          My mind was working overtime about your place, living in a bank, I can imagine you sleeping in a vault with gold bars for your bed frame! I remember you saying you were off to Ottawa, it will give you loads of new places to discover and that is always good thing, political graff or not. I shall look forward to your posting from your exclusive neighbourhood with the high fliers!

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  9. Liz Dexter

    07/04/2016 at 09:00

    Sounds wonderful. I do like a book of letters. I still write the odd one, too – definitely have letters going with my Auntie Linda!

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    • Ste J

      07/04/2016 at 10:38

      There is something so nostalgic about them now, it’s sad that they are almost a lost art these days, having said that all those people at the centres opening cards for money does put one off sometimes.

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  10. Al

    07/04/2016 at 10:24

    Letters can give a huge insight into someone’s life as sometimes they let themselves out in small parts. I prefer the stamps as they are now – sticky back plastic versions.

    If you like letters, a friend of mine has written a book – “More Later – Lyle’s Letters From University”. It is written by someone who used to work in a Uni in a correspondence course office (like Lyle) and Lyle is a bungling accident prone worker with whom Murphy’s Law will always happen.

    He’s posting a letter a week on his blog at the moment so give it a go and see what you think.

    It’s on The Daily Graff

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    • Ste J

      07/04/2016 at 10:48

      I used to look for letters/postcards at old markets and antique shops and stuff but being a less accomplished writer I would have failed miserably to talk about them had I done so at the time. I feel the need to go and do the same again now, I’ll definitely check out the link, thank you. One can never have too many books.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • Al

        07/04/2016 at 11:44

        I was trying to think of when you could have too many books, but couldn’t think of any legitimate scenario lol

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        • Ste J

          08/04/2016 at 09:17

          It is one of those immutable laws like gravity. Newton should have turned his mind to books as well to test the theory.

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  11. clarepooley33

    08/04/2016 at 02:05

    This is one I have been meaning to read for a while. Your excellent review has encouraged me to go out and buy the book. Thanks Ste J.

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    • Ste J

      08/04/2016 at 09:09

      Normally I hang around Waterstones reading the books and making a list for the second hand shops but with this one I had to pay top whack for it due to its style. With the weather hopefully becoming sunnier soon it will be a great one to read outside, surrounded by nature.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  12. Philosophical Epiphanies

    08/04/2016 at 19:09

    Incredible!
    I started blogging this month, and it is a pleasure that I came across your blog.
    It has inspired me to start my third article.
    Thank you:)

    Like

     
    • Ste J

      09/04/2016 at 15:35

      No, thank you, it is always a pleasure to help inspire other writers, it’s the beauty of blogging.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  13. Andrea Stephenson

    09/04/2016 at 22:51

    This sounds wonderful, I’m definitely adding it to my list. It must be a while since you’ve sent a letter – you don’t have to lick stamps anymore 🙂

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    • Ste J

      10/04/2016 at 10:16

      It’s been too long, I think it was probably getting on for eight or so years now. I miss the horrible taste, at least I still have envelopes to lick and then grimace at unless they’ve been changed as well. I must send more cards too…

      Liked by 1 person

       
  14. Jilanne Hoffmann

    10/04/2016 at 07:14

    I read this a long time ago, and it’s now in a box somewhere. You remind me of how much I enjoyed it. Thank you!

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    • Ste J

      10/04/2016 at 10:21

      I like to think of my reviews as cheap birthday and Christmas presents for you guys when I remind people books they enjoyed. It’s a good excuse to buy more books too as there is always a birthday coming up.

      Liked by 1 person

       

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