Letters to a Young Poet

by Rainer Maria Rilke

Hardcover, 1992




New World Library (1992), Edition: New edition, 112 pages


Letters written to F.X.Kappus during the years 1903-1908. Chronicle of Rilkes's life for the years 1903-1908 (p. 81-123).

User reviews

LibraryThing member JimmyChanga
It is a moving book and a youthful book. I wish I had it all along. Rilke writes with love and deep understanding, thoughts that at first seem like platitudes because of their generality and ring of truth. They could be in a self help book if not for the complexity of thought and phrasing he brings, the thought-throughness of it, and the many unconventional quirks he throws in. This is a book to be re-read many times over.… (more)
LibraryThing member BrentNewhall
Lovely collection of letters, advising a younger poet about life and art. As with most great works, it's greater than the sum of its parts. Rilke's musings and recommendations penetrate into humans' purpose, and how we fulfill that purpose. Or don't.
LibraryThing member Thinandlight
Ten letters written between 1903 and 1908 to Franz Xaver Kappus, an aspiring poet writing to Rilke for advice. Rilke wrote the letters from Paris, Viareggio (near Pisa, Italy, and near where Shelley drowned), Rome, and Sweden. Much if not all of the collected letters discuss the creative process and the writing life. They were written (as the editor's supplementary biographical "chronicle" illustrates) during a time when Rilke was reflecting on his own unproductive spells. Rilke arguably wrote the letters more to himself and to the eternity of future writers as a kind of "credo" than to his particular correspondent, so for those seeking to understand Rilke the exclusion of Kappus' letters is probably inconsequential. Topics include: the creative process, irony, the poet's proper indifference to criticism and even feedback, sex (and its closeness to artistic experience), solitude, God, difficulty ("we must always hold to the difficult"), love (loving rightly and wrongly), the difference between the sexes, the future, convention and the poet's anti-conventionalism, repetition, emotions and doubt.

"This, above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night: must I write? Delve deep into yourself. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this question witha strong and simple 'I must' then build your lfie 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."

The book can be read in a day, and should be read by every aspiring writer in a very quiet place, in solitude. Very German.
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LibraryThing member GeneRuyle
Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a young poet, at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In 1903, by choosing to answer a letter and few poems sent him by the nineteen-year-old Mr. Kappus, Rilke, then twenty-seven, initiated a five-year intermittent exchange of letters that became one of the most famous in the literature of the world. The two men started off by acknowledging solitude as both a burden and a gift, but even more as the sole foundation without which no genuine poetic work could even emerge -- this solitude seen as the center around which their letters, and their lives, revolved and to which their discussions returned again and again.

Both men wrote out of that particular reality each was facing and dealing with at the time: Kappus, revealing himself to another as never before, out of his confusion and need for help; and Rilke, now with wife and child, starting to see for the first time how terribly great that distance was both within and around him because of who and what at core he was. He feared it greatly and longed to be freed of the suffering it brought; he even touched on it in these letters, but though he finally came to see the kind of relating that would transcend it, he could not manage to arrive there.

The powerful themes of creativity and love arise, and insights are found here regarding both of these as profound as any to be found anywhere. As Pascal once observed: the ones we love the most are not those who give us something we did not have before, but those who show us the richness of what we already possess. That is a way of saying what Rilke was doing for Kappus: showing him the richness -- as well as the cost -- of acquiring what he already possessed. And in doing this, Rilke was also speaking to himself as well.

What the two found is seen in what they wrote. Their efforts were rewarded. Will yours be in reading of theirs? What you will find, depends on whether you bring to the reading of their words that same fullness of living from your life that they brought to the writing of theirs. But there is, perhaps, a way of getting at least an inkling of whether reading the book would be worth your time. Try reading this:

"And if it frightens and torments you to think of childhood and of the simplicity and silence that accompanies it, because you can no longer believe in God, who appears in it everywhere, then ask yourself, dear Mr. Kappus, whether you have really lost God. Isn't it much truer to say that you have never yet possessed him? For when could that have been? Do you think that a child can hold him, him whom grown men bear only with great effort and whose weight crushes the old? Do you suppose that someone who really has him could lose him like a little stone? . . . But if you realize that he did not exist in your childhood, and did not exist previously, if you suspect that Christ was deluded by his yearning and Muhammad deceived by his pride -- and if you are terrified to feel that even now he does not exist, even at this moment when we are talking about him -- what justifies you then, if he never existed, in missing him like someone who has passed away and in searching for him as though he were lost?

"Why don't you think of him as the one who is coming, who has been approaching from all eternity, the one who will someday arrive . . . What keeps you from projecting his birth into the ages that are coming into existence, and living your life as a painful and lovely day in the history of a great pregnancy? Don't you see how everything that happens is again and again a beginning, and couldn't it be His beginning, since, in itself, starting is always so beautiful?"

Remember, that is only his prose. We've yet to get to the poetry that critics of every kind admit extended the range of the German language, bringing forth melodies and a use of imagery that wasn't found in it before. But if you find no such promise in this, then I recommend you pass this book by and go on to other things that strike and stir you instead.

Of the numerous translations of Rilke's book into English, Stephen Mitchell's is the one I most prefer. For me, his comes closest to the common tongue, and has such a natural elegance to it that it lets Rilke's own shine through. Rilke's book speaks for itself, and Mitchell has the humility to let it. Enough said.
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LibraryThing member gbill
Words of wisdom in ten personal letters from poet Rainer Maria Rilke to a man eight years younger, Franz Kappus, who at nineteen was debating between a literary career and enlisting in the Austro-Hungarian Army. The first nine of these letters were written over 1903-1904, and the last was written in 1908; Kappus published them in 1929 after Rilke had died. Rilke had his own frailties and doubts about the life he was leading, but in corresponding with the younger man he summoned his deepest convictions and passions about artistic life, and dispensed advice which still rings true today.

Here are some snippets:
“You ask whether your poems are good. You send them to publishers; you compare them with other poems; you are disturbed when certain publishers reject your attempts. Well now, since you have given me permission to advise you, I suggest that you give all that up. You are looking outward and, above all else, that you must not do now. No one can advise and help you, no one.
There is only one way: Go within.”

“…read as little as possible of aesthetic critiques. They are either prejudiced views that have become petrified and senseless in their hardened lifeless state, or they are clever word games. … listen to your inner self and to your feelings every time.”

“I would like to beg of you, dear friend, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question.”

On coping with sadness:
“You must not be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, when a sadness arises within you of such magnitude as you have never experienced, or when a restlessness overshadows all you do, like light and the shadow of clouds gliding over you hand. You must believe that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand. It shall not let you fall.”

Lastly this one on love:
“To love is also good, for love is difficult. For one human being to love another is perhaps the most difficult task of all, the epitome, the ultimate test. It is that striving for which all other striving is merely preparation. For that reason young people – who are beginners in everything – cannot yet love; they do not know how to love. They must learn it.”
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LibraryThing member the1butterfly
These ten letters give us a glimpse into Rilke's philosophies of writing and life in general. They are at times very interesting, but at times boring. The mini biography of Rilke's life at the back gives the letters context, but is very boring.
LibraryThing member tapestry100
These are the letter Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to the young, aspiring poet Franz Xaver Kappus. Through these letters, Rilke imparts his thoughts and feelings on living your life to its fullest potential, but to also make sure that you stay true to yourself throughout. I read through this book every couple of years, and it never fails to amaze me how a collection of letters written over 90 years ago can still have so much to offer us today. My copy is dog-eared from multiple readings, with numerous passages underlined, but I still seem to find something new in each reading that is relevant to my life right now.… (more)
LibraryThing member CliffBurns
Rilke gives practical advice and hard-won lessons to a young acolyte. A great gift for young or aspiring writers...
LibraryThing member joewmyrtle
It's amazing that someone can write letters on the fly (were they edited at all?) and have them be an almost flawless mixture of essays and poetry, philosophy and personal experience. I can only wish it was longer.
LibraryThing member jon1lambert
Lady Gaga apparently reads this every day. That's why I bought it.
LibraryThing member Ringtales
This book is a must read for the person who feels seriously hearted toward poetry and the title of poet. He provides sound guidance to the beginner and tremendous encouragement to poets that have been writing for a while. But honestly Rilke is a must for anyone that considers themselves an artist and sympathizer. He is fabulously generous in sharing his soul with his admiring friend this book has touched and moved me in ways hard to put into words. A must read.… (more)
LibraryThing member MissMea
Beautiful, poignant prose and advice. "Heavy" and "depressing" at times. I would have liked to see Mr. Kappus' letters to Rilke included in the collection, but, nevertheless, it has some great advice for all types of writers.
LibraryThing member BCbookjunky
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.”

It feels quite trite to say this slim collection is inspirational.
But there you go.
It is.
LibraryThing member Fledgist
Short essays by a poet on what it means to be a poet, and how to draw on your inner resources in order to create.
LibraryThing member fphoppe
I loved it. A little too much religion and emphasis on purity, and I'm pretty sure why he's as depressive as he was, but still mainly good advice.
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
This is a charming little book, as fluid and emotive as Rilke's own poetry. Honest in its advice, and how it is unafraid to take on the darker realms of emotion and embrace the fate of the world.

Being a writer or a poet is a task of intense devotion, and Rilke gives it proper reverence. Rilke's focus is on the benefits of solitude and meditation, but also the steady work involved in this task, and how the writer must keep working so as to refine their craft.

This is a (dare I say?) very spiritual book. Recommended to all.

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LibraryThing member Neftzger
This is a short but thought-filled book that provides sage advice for writers, poets, and just about anyone. Rainer discusses topics such as the value of solitude, the nature of love, and personal growth. Written with wisdom and compassion, the book is filled with life experience that has been processed and well understood through time. In these ten short letters, Rilke provides some great advice, especially concerning our uncertainties about ourselves and the unknown future.

"Just as people for a long time had a wrong idea about the sun's motion, they are even now wrong about the motion of what is to come. The future stands still, Dear Mr. Kappus, but we move in infinite space."
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LibraryThing member wordygirl39
These days everyone prefers the Stephen Mitchell translation, but I first read this book in Norton's translation and I confess to thinking it superior. I fell in love with this book when my dear friend Nicole Salimbene gave it to me for college graduation. I have loved it for many years, often going to it to remember to "love my solitude."… (more)
LibraryThing member nbmars
Rainer Maria Rilke was a poet born in Prague (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1875. He is generally labeled a “mystic” and has developed something of a cult following over the years.

Rilke's poems are considered quite difficult to translate from the German, and frankly, I even have trouble understanding them in English. His letters, on the other hand, are quite comprehensible and even inspirational.

This little volume is the latest of one of many translations of Rilke’s famous set of ten letters he wrote between 1902 and 1908 to a “fan” – an aspiring poet. The young man, Franz Kappus, 19, sent Rilke some poems and asked him if he would evaluate them, and whether he, Kappus, should risk all by becoming a poet full-time. Rilke, then only 28, answered generously, at length, and in great detail about what constitutes creativity and poetry, and how to channel the former into the latter. (What a dream-come-true for a “fan” of an author!)

The letters give you a sense of Rilke’s great facility with words, and provide an interior portrait of an artist (himself) that is revelatory and moving.

Don’t stop at the first letter; in it Rilke claims no one can help another with writing. But thereafter, Rilke goes on to advise Kappus about how and where to find the creative thoughts within himself. (Not only within: he does go on a bit about how “creativity of the spirit has its origin in the physical kind, is of one nature with it and only a more delicate, more rapt and less fleeting version of the carnal sort of sex.”)

Poetry and sex. Who knew?

But here, perhaps, is a better example of the beauty of his writing, when he explains to Kappus how Rome has helped his equanimity:

"No, there is not more beauty here than elsewhere, and all these objects which generation after generation have continued to admire, which inexpert hands have mended and restored, they mean nothing, are nothing, and have no heart and no value; but there is a great deal of beauty here, because there is beauty everywhere.

Infinitely lively waters go over the old aqueducts into the city and on the many squares dance over bowls of white stone and fill broad capacious basins and murmur all day and raise their murmur into the night, which is vast and starry and soft with winds. And there are gardens here, unforgettable avenues and flights of steps, steps conceived by Michelangelo, steps built to resemble cascades of flowing water – giving birth to step after broad step like wave after wave as they descend the incline. With the help of such impressions you regain your composure, win your way back out of the demands of the talking and chattering multitude (how voluble it is!), and you slowly learn to recognize the very few things in which something everlasting can be felt, something you can love, something solitary in which you can take part in silence.”

Discussion: Can the prowess of Rilke be evinced through this (or any) translation? I have no idea. Rilke himself said in a letter to his long-time friend/lover Lou Andreas- Salomé that when he wrote on the same subject in French as well as German, the content “developed very differently in the two languages: which argues strongly against the naturalness of translation.”

I cannot read Rilke in German, and thus I don’t feel able to say how good this particular translation is, although it is easy enough to find and compare others. Take, for example, the passage cited above about Rome. In this version, the translator has Rilke saying that “inexpert hands” have mended the beautiful objects of Rome. Another version I checked uses “workmen.” My impression is that restoring objets d'art is an extremely painstaking process requiring great skill, so I don’t find those concepts fungible. But, I have no idea what the passage says in the original German, so I have no knowledge about which construction is closer to Rilke’s intent. And in any event, otherwise I thought that this beautiful passage comes forth much clearer in this translation than the other. Generally, however, among translations, I think there is more variation in the associated matter (intro, notes, and the like) than in the text itself.

What I can say that I found Rilke’s thoughts riveting. In the course of talking about creativity, he also muses on power relationships, love, gender roles, sickness and health, cowardice and fortitude, and how to think about what happens in life generally. I especially like this passage:

"… imagining an individual’s existence as a larger or smaller room reveals to us that most people are only acquainted with one corner of their particular room … That way, they have a certain security. And yet … perilous uncertainty … is so much more human. …

How can we forget those ancient myths found at the beginning of all peoples? The myths about the dragons who at the last moment turn into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses, only waiting for the day when they will see us handsome and brave? Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help.”

These letters will give you a very good sense of Rilke’s genius, his quixoticism, and lots of ideas to think about as well. And I particularly enjoyed being able to read something by Rilke that I actually understood….

Note: This edition was translated and edited by Charlie Louth, and contains an introduction by Lewis Hyde.
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LibraryThing member jennladd
I was intrigued by this title. I loved that Rilke was kind and compassionate enough to write back to a man who sent him samples of his own work. I was even more amazed that they formed a friendship that spanned a great length of time.
I don’t think that kind of relationship would tend to be repeated in today’s time but one can only hope. It’s a quick moving read. It’s not something that I would go out of my way to read again, but I am glad that I read it once… (more)
LibraryThing member madepercy
Rilke wrote a series of letters to the young poet, Franz Xaver Kappus, beginning in 1902. Kappus was reading Rilke's poetry under the chestnut tress at the Military Academy in Wiener Nuestadt when his teacher, Horaček, noticed the volume. Rilke had been a pupil at the Military Lower School in Sankt Pölten when Horaček was a chaplain there, and Horaček had known Rilke personally. The military proved not to be for Rilke, and he continued his studies in Prague. Kappus, however, felt that his own choice to pursue a military career was "directly opposed to my own inclinations", yet would continue his military career for years after. In the meantime, Kappus decided to write to Rilke to ask for feedback on his own poetry, and Rilke maintained their correspondence despite his constant travels. By Rilke's tone in the letters, it is obvious that he enjoyed his correspondence with Kappus, and often told Kappus that if he wished to be a poet, he would need to change careers, or, at worst, he might find time in barracks life to keep at his poetry. The book provides Rilke's correspondence to Kappus, beginning with his return letter of 1903 and continuing until 1908. The book also includes a second work, The Letter from the Young Worker, which adopts a letter format to "a polemic against Christianity". This style recalls the dialogues of Plato and others, but in this case is one side of a potential written conversation. In many ways, the style mirrors the way we read Rilke's correspondence with Kappus, only having (mostly) one side of the narrative. In his first response, Rilke provides some important feedback. He suggests that Kappus' poetry lacks an identity. He suggests that Kappus is looking to the outside, but the answer is (pp. 6-7):Go into yourself. Examine the reason that bids you to write. This above all: ask yourself in your night's quietest hour: must I write? Dig down deep into yourself for a deep answer. And if it should be affirmative, if it is given to you to respond to this serious question with a loud and simple "I must', then construct your life according to this necessity; your life right into its most inconsequential and slightest hour must become a witness to this urge... A work of art is good if it has risen out of necessity... Accept this answer as it is, without seeking to interpret it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist... Then assume this fate and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking after the rewards that may come from outside.Imagine having such a mentor? Rilke was patient, kind, and wise. His connection with Kappus has, perhaps, something to do with being a poet while in the military system, something I identify with personally (having found that the military was, once I neared the tell-tale signs of the evening of my youth, "directly opposed to my own inclinations"). There is so much in such a short work, with Rilke's advice becoming "Candidean" - "take refuge in [subjects] offered by your own day-to-day life" - and focused on the individual rather than the work (and not in a mean-spirited way but as a mentor). Given that Kappus continues his military career and does not become a poet of any note, and that Rilke was the opposite in springing from the military's well, it makes me wonder: should we take care in choosing our careers so we do not waste time in the wrong station? Or should we learn what really floats our boat through trial and error? I suspect, based on Rilke's care for Kappus' work, that Rilke really knew himself as a result, while I felt that, perhaps, Kappus had taken the easy option.… (more)
LibraryThing member libbromus
"...we will also gradually learn to realize that that which we call destiny goes forth from within people, not from without into them."

From this incredibly sensitive and thoughtful man one can receive a lifetime's worth of advice on nearly all the topics pertinent to being human; namely, love, but also work, work/life balance, forgiveness, childhood difficulties, youthful exuberances, sex and poetry. Rilke was so remarkably giving of his wisdom, his thoughts, his deeply personal inner life. What a fortunate man, was Mr. Kappus, to have such a pen pal.… (more)
LibraryThing member Leticia.Toraci
Beautiful... Not a "how to write" book, a beautiful book about the art of writing.
LibraryThing member NielsenGW
In 1902, 19-year-old cadet Franz Kappus wrote to Rainer Maria Rilke for his thoughts on some poems he had written. Rilke was known for a few acclaimed books of poetry and was beginning to really hone his craft. Kappus wanted genuine criticism and was trying to decide between a career in the army or a life as a writer. The ten letters he saved and subsequently published as Letters to a Young Poet are some of the most genuine and honest assessments of the field of poetry and the duty of the poet.

Morton’s translation of Rilke letters is all at once succinct, plain, and gorgeous. Rilke needs few words to impart to Kappus the importance of poetry and how one should go about writing it. “Nobody can advise you and help you,” he says, “nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.” Rilke decries the professional critic, the editor, and even the friend who seeks to help the poet. All poetry must come from a place free of outside judgment. Rilke also helps Kappus through a series of crises, including ones of sexuality, intimacy, and professionalism. Rilke takes a little longer to respond to each letter, almost trying to wean Kappus off using him as a critical crutch. In ten simple letters, Rilke gives a very good master class in poetry. If you’re a writer or a lover of poetry, this one will make for a grand and quick read.
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LibraryThing member ternary
I've loved every bit of Rilke's poetry I've read, but I couldn't stand these letters. Half of me saw them as a tired, private communication between an artist and an aspirant, How to Live Authentically; reasonable letters, bad book. The other half of me was repulsed, unable to look past the fawning, excessive chic granted them.
Life-changing they are not.
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