Reading Series: Letters to a Young Poet

I frequently see Rilke quotes floating around the internet, and, being a part-time poet, I figured it was my duty to read him for myself. A couple weeks ago, I snuck up to the stacks on the third floor of my university library and found this thin blue volume: Letters to a Young Poet.

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I don’t have much commentary to offer, but I did want to share some of my favorite excerpts. Because this book is a collection of Rilke’s letters to, as the title says, a young poet, it feels pretty self-helpy. If that’s not your thing, consider yourself warned. Thankfully, poet self-help is totally my thing, so I thought this book was pretty great.

On simplicity in inspiration

…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 pictures from your dreams, and the subjects of your memories. (Letter 1)

 

If you will cling to Nature, to the simple in Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring…then everything will become easier, more coherent. (Letter 4)

I need to keep this advice in my poetry notebook. The simple is just fine.

On uncertainty and perseverance

…be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, that cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. (Letter 4)

This is the first Rilke quote that really caught my attention. It helped me through a really difficult transitional period in my life. I’ve found that uncertainty doesn’t go away for very long, so you might as well get comfortable with it.

We know little, but that we must hold to what is difficult is a certainty that will not forsake us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult. (Letter 7)

“Difficult” sounds harsh. I think there’s a line between punishing yourself and pushing yourself.

The more still, more patient and more open we are when we are sad, so much the deeper and so much the more unswervingly the new goes into us, so much better do we take it to ourselves. (Letter 8)

I’ll just say it: being sad isn’t fun. But like being uncertain, I’ve found it’s a pretty dependable part of life. It’s so natural to want to close up when sadness comes, but Rilke suggests that openness is a better way to embrace it.

…perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. (Letter 8)

This imagery is beautiful to me. Princesses from dragons.

And because I have a total creator crush on Austin Kleon, I made a list of advice based on Letters to a Young Poet, like Austin’s check list of Goethe’s “every day” activities. Here it is (and a peek inside my journal):

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