Rilke and the young poet

More than 100 years ago Rainer Maria Rilke wrote ten letters to a young poet who wanted to learn to write poetry. Those letters, collected in a memorable book, are still relevant today because they vitally appeal to today's readers who long to be poets.

Jaime Nubiola-April 11, 2017-Reading time: 4 minutes
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

For years now, the book I have most frequently given to students who approach me to ask me how to learn to write is the work of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). Letters to a young poetoriginally published in 1929. In that volume are collected the ten letters that between February 17, 1903 and December 26, 1908 Rilke wrote to the young Franz Xaver Kappus, then a student at the Military Academy in Vienna. Several years ago I gave that book as a gift to the young poet Ana Gil de Pareja and I am delighted to bring to these pages today some of what she wrote to me after her excited reading: 

"I started reading Letters to a young poet I was engrossed, underlining page by page what touched my heart. It is a book to reread when life pulls at more than one part of ourselves, when we are in despair, when we feel an anguished loneliness or when we need good advice that delves into the depths of the soul". That is what I admire most about this book by Rilke: that what could help the young poet with those letters reaches the depths of a reader today.

Rilke with his letters manages to awaken the restlessness of the future writer not by persuasion, but by teaching. He is a master at awakening the passion of Kappus's literary vocation, showing him the pleasure of seeing beyond what many see, that is, discovering the beauty of the ordinary. "If you find your daily life poor, do not accuse it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to extract its riches. For the true creator there is no poverty and no platitudes." (p. 24). With his letters Rilke guides the young man's attention to what is truly important. And, in a way, he also guided my discovery of what is truly valuable. 

The great poem may not please everyone, but our souls are not very different from one another. We have all suffered similar pains, for we all, in one way or another, wear the same skin. It is the poet who knows how to describe the sensations he perceives, describes his appearance, his scent, his reactions to his environment, his wounds and scars... He is the one who is in charge of making a real jewel out of the ordinary in the rough; the poet is like a polisher of reality.

The polisher's job is to erase all the marks that have been left on the jewel during its processing. He must be attentive to concentrate on treating the jewelry entrusted to him with the utmost delicacy. Patience is also a necessary quality in this work, as the finishing of the jewelry can be very time consuming. Therefore, in addition to the skill and precision needed to carry it out, what you need above all is a great desire to turn your work into a work of art.

Simone Weil has written that intelligence can only be moved by desire, and I believe that this is how Rilke understands the work of the poet. The true poet writes not because he is born with a pen in his hand, but because what is really born in him is a great desire to write and a deep need to do so. The work of an artist arises because he really wants to create his work, because it is born from the depths of his being to give life to give life to those who contemplate it. 

As I read those pages I felt that my great illusion was -like Kappus- that of being a great poet. However, how could I know then whether poetry was mine? "Ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: have I got the need of writing? Dive into your innermost being to get an answer. And if it is affirmative, if you are able to answer this serious question with a simple and resounding 'Yes, I must,' then build your whole life around that need." (p. 23). Even the famous singer Lady Gaga has this phrase tattooed on her left arm in the original German. It comes from the first of the letters and shows, in particular detail, the point I am getting at. My writings may not be better than those of the great writers, but they are a piece and voice of my own life. Therefore, I had to ask myself whether it was my duty to raise my voice so that it could be heard, because no one else could say what I had to tell the world. My words were and will remain unique and unrepeatable.

Faced with this discovery, the soul of a restless writer is not indifferent. This book has enlivened my illusions to show the richness of the ordinary, to tell the world the great stories that have not yet been told because no one has yet discovered them. Those stories that have long belonged to us and that by bringing them to life can come to belong to others. In short, I discovered that my vocation was writing, because the beauty was not only in my writings, but above all in their purpose, that is, in what they provoke in those who read them. I understood that this effect is born in each singular soul: the success of the writer resides in the authenticity of his soul and in how he manages to show it to the world in a transparent way, without shadows or contrasts. The great poet does not succeed because he writes excellent things, but because he transmits his own belief to those who have the capacity to believe what he believes. Beliefs and deep looks, unique and unrepeatable, that embellish the world: that is what the young poet works on".

So much for what the young poet Ana Gil de Pareja wrote to me. For this beautiful testimony -and for so many others that I have accumulated over the years- it seems to me that it is worthwhile to continue recommending the reading of this book today.

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