Born 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..