Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926):
Letters to a Young Poet (1903)

Rainer Maria Rilke is one of my favorite poets. His "Panther" poem was a tour-de-force poem which taught me the value of in-seeing by contemplating on an object long enough until we see into its essence. I had fun writing "First Poem in Paris" for Pinsky's Workshop and compiling the Notes to this poem. I loved Robert Bly's translation of Rilke's "I live my life in growing orbits" (Book of Pictures)with its ending "and I still don't know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song." Stephen Mitchell's translation of Rilke has brought many of his poems to life. When Pinsky was asked what is the responsibility of a poet (Feb. 14, 2007), he said that "Don't freeze poetry. Change it. Turn it inside out. Keep it alive. Pass it on." Rilke had learned much from Rodin when he worked as the sculptor's secretary (from autumn 1902) on the nature of creativity. On Feb. 17, 1903, a 28-year old Rilke wrote his first letter to Franz Xaver Kappus, a 20-year old military student who asked Rilke's advice in poetry writing. Over a five year period, in ten letters, Rilke was passing on to the younger Kappus what he had learned in life and the craft of writing. I'm citing some of my favorite passages from Rilke's first Letter. I'm typing the translations by Stephen Mitchell, who autographed three of his books at Printer's Inc. in Palo Alto (May 16, 1990). After signing his Parables and Portraits and Letters to a Young Poet, I showed Mitchell his first book Dropping Ashes on the Buddha. After telling him that my friends Larry Rosenberg, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and I attended many talks by Zen Master Seung Sahn at the Cambridge Zen Center, where Stephen Mitchell would deliver the opening talk, he was surprised that I knew him from the 1970's. He signed the book— "To Peter: remembering the good old days, Stephen".
(Peter Y. Chou)

Letters to a Young Poet

Letter One: Paris, February 17, 1903

No one can advise or help you— no one. There is only one thing you should do.
Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it
has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself
whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all:
ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into
yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet
this solemn question with a strong simple "I must," then build your life, even into
its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.
Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say
what you see and feel and love and lose... So rescue yourself from these general
themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows
and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind
of beauty— describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when
you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams,
and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it;
blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its
riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.
And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world's
sounds— wouldn't you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price,
that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the
sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your
solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where
the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance.— And if out of this
turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then
you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not... A work of art
is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.
So dear Sir, I can't give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see
how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find
the answer to the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer,
just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will
discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself,
and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might
come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find
everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.

                                                                      Yours very truly,
                                                                      Rainer Maria Rilke

— Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
     Letters to a Young Poet,
     Letter One: Paris, February 17, 1903
     translated by Stephen Mitchell
     Vintage Books, New York, 1987, pp. 3-12

Academy of American Poets: Rilke
   (Biography, Poems, External Links)
Books & Writers: Rainer Maria Rilke
   (Biography and Selected Works)
Rilke Archive
   (About Rilke, Poems, Quotations, Bibliography, Rilke in the Media)
Digital Dantei (Columbia University)
   (Dante in Italian with translations by Longfellow and Allen Mandelbaum)

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