T.J. Beitelman's Reviews > Letters to a Young Poet

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
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Dec 07, 11

I own a copy

This one’s worth it for its sheer intensity and for its paradoxical combination of narcissism and selflessness. On the one hand, Rilke is ostensibly responding to fan mail — a series of unsolicited letters from a novice poet named Franz Xaver Kappus — by waxing philosophical about his own existence. There is the sense of journaling to this work, a certain note-to-self nature that, at times, seems to bypass Kappus and his concerns entirely.

On the other hand, how magnanimous of Rilke to engage Kappus, a neophyte-stranger in need, with the full faculties of his poetic thought, with the intense energy he otherwise guarded jealously, fearing even his own family would devour it if given half a chance.

(Or maybe it just boils down to what Gertrude Stein is supposed to have said: “I write for myself and strangers.”)

Anyway. Regardless of Rilke’s motivation, the letters are full of cross-cultural, interdisciplinary wisdom and insight. Like Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind , it’s ostensibly about being a beginner, about always being new to the world. Interestingly, that idea is not, itself, new to the world. It is as old, probably, as The Big Bang. Certainly as old as (and older than) the Erstwhile Nazarene. Writes Mark:

And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all.” (10:13-16)

Rilke too gets at a (maybe?) complementary concept — the essential agelessness of things:

Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I’m grateful for: patience is everything!

Also (maybe) at the Zen of things:

Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe.

Also (maybe) at the Emersonian creative/self-reliance boot-strappy thing:

No one can advise you or help you — no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself.

Clearly that advice aint for everyone, and because I haven’t read many Franz Xavier Kappus poems, maybe it either fell on deaf ears or Franz took it to heart and decided that all that unsayable navel-gazing — not to mention the relentless, edifying pain for which he was supposed to be grateful — just wasn’t for him. Which is fine. Not everybody — thank God — is a poet.¹


¹ One of my teachers in poetry school used to say that one of the most important things an MFA program can do is help people realize they don’t really want to be writers. It’s a lot to ask of yourself and the people you love. I don’t want to put too fine a point on any of that, just because it gets tiresome even to somebody who takes himself as seriously as I do: O the crushing burdens of the artiste in an indifferent Universe! I’ll leave it at this: through trial and a good deal of error, I’ve come to the following realization: by definition, art and artists are abnormal. Weird, even. There’s all that aforementioned self-absorption that seems to go with the territory, but just practically speaking, to put all those words on the page you need a lot of quiet time alone. Quite frankly, if you can comfortably live a “normal” life, surrounded by nice, “normal” people plus with cool stuff and fun activities, you probably should go ahead and do it. Or at least instead of writing, do some tangible creative thing, like knitting or sex or maybe philately (which sounds like sex but isn’t). FYI.
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