Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke

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“You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you ) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple, “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.

Then draw near to Nature. Then try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose. Do not write love-poems; avoid at first those forms that are too facile or commonplace: they are the most difficult, for it takes a great, fully matured power to give something of your own where good and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity. Therefore save yourself from these general themes and seek those which your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty—describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity, and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory. If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place. And if you were in some prison the walls of which let none of the sounds of the world come to your senses—would you not then still have your childhood, that precious, kingly possession  that treasure-house of memories? Turn your attention thither.

Try to raise the submerged sensations of that ample past; your personality will grow more firm, your solitude will widen and will become a dusky dwelling past which the noise of others goes by far away.—And if out of this turning inward, out of this absorption into your own world, verses come, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses. Nor will you try to interest magazines in your poems: for you will see in them your fond natural possession, a fragment and a voice of your life. A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgement of it: there is no other. Therefore, my dear sir, I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out 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 recompense might from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself.

But perhaps after this descent into yourself and into your inner solitude you will have to give up becoming a poet; (it is enough, as I said, to feel that one could live without writing: then one must not attempt it at all.) But even then this inward searching which I ask of you will not have been in vain. Your life will in any case find its own way thence, and that they may be good, rich and wide I wish you more than I can say.

What more shall I say to you? Everything seems to me to have its just emphasis; and after all I do only want to advise you to keep growing quietly and seriously throughout your whole development; you cannot disturb it more rudely than by looking outward and expecting from the outside replies to questions that only your inmost feeling in your most hushed hour can perhaps answer.

Yours faithfully and with all sympathy:

Rainer Maria Rilke

Published by Jill London

Hi, I’m Jill, a writer and teacher living in the UK, usually behind a desk but sometimes on a sofa with a book or a film. I began writing at around age three, legibly by five, although I didn’t write any stories until I was older. Aged eleven, I began writing children’s fiction, mostly middle-grade fantasy and I’m still doing it to this day. I have had stories published online and in My Weekly magazine. The best bit about writing is when ideas pop into your head (from the writing fairy presumably?) and everything starts clipping together like a jigsaw puzzle. The worst bit? When you start to get the feeling there's a piece missing from the box...

19 thoughts on “Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke

  1. I have been reading these letters recently myself Jill – they are so beautiful aren’t they ? You always choose such interesting things to post, thank you!

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    1. Thank you, Michele, for reading and for always having something lovely to say xx These letters have so much to offer and speak with such honesty, they’re stunning. I’m glad you enjoyed them 🙂

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  2. Thanks for posting this, Jill. It’s a good “kick start” for me, since I’m about to start writing again. I haven’t forgotten about your book, by the way. I started reading it and loved it. I’ve just been busy and scatter-brained. I’m going to finish it soon, if I can slow down and unclutter my life for a moment. You’re a very talented author!

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    1. I took ages to finish the last book I was reading, even though I really enjoyed it, so I appreciate exactly where you’re coming from! I suffer from a scatter-brain too, so if you find anything to cure it (or maybe just curb it ;-)) I’d love to hear about it!! And thanks for all your kind thoughts, Matthew xx

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  3. “Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.”

    Rilke doesn’t mince words about defining passion, does he?

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    1. Yes, it makes you want to brandish your pen and head into the fray, doesn’t it! I wonder if the young writer who received these words felt inspired or whether he went for a lie down in a darkened room after reading them? 😉

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  4. This is beautiful. I’m not a poet, but I am a writer, and I have bouts of confidence followed by crushing insecurity. If I don’t hear from readers, if I don’t get blog hits, if… if… if… But write I must, and so I do. 🙂

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    1. We writers do seem to suffer with that particular demon! The only cure seems to be to just write, so keep up the good work, Jessica 😉 Love the name “gutsandglorybooks” btw!

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      1. Thank you. It literally came to me as I was falling asleep one night. That’s when my muse usually comes followed either by a sleepless night or cry dreams.

        I was JUST reminding myself tonight that my insecurity might have a lot to do with the fact that I haven’t written much lately, save thesis work. I’ll need to put some passionate writing time aside. 🙂

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      2. It is so difficult to keep focussed on what we truly want, isn’t it? Life makes its demands and we fold, sometimes (often) not even realising that we are relinquishing too much. I think blogging could be the answer! If we watch each others’ backs we will prevail 😉 but we need to be vigilant.
        Go be passionate, Jessica! And keep smiling 🙂

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