Letters to a Young Poet

I like to read all sorts of books, especially those about the creative process.  The one I’m currently reading struck a nerve about my photography even though it’s written about poetry.

The book is called Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke.  As the title suggests, a young poet writes to Rilke kicking off a series of letters that talk about inspiration, the creative process, the artist’s life and more, spanning from 1899 until Rilke’s death in 1926.  It’s a small book, only 68 pages long, but it’s one that you could read many times and glean wisdom from it for a long time.

The very first letter in response to the young poet is excerpted below.  It captured one of the biggest lessons I learned about my photography.

You ask if your verses are good.  You ask me. You have previously asked others.  You send them to journals.  You compare them with other poems, and you are troubled when certain editors reject your efforts.  Now (as you have permitted me to advise you) I beg you to give all that up.  You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do. Nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one single means.  Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine whether it sends its roots down to the deepest places of your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you.  This before all: as yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write? Dig down into yourself for a deep answer.  And if this should be in the affirmative, if you may meet this solemn question with a strong and simple “I must”, then build your life according to this necessity;  your life must right to its most unimportant and insignificant hour, become a token and witness of this impulse.

Then draw near to Nature.  Then try, as if you were one of those first men, to say what you see and experience and love and lose.  Do not write love poems; avoid at first those forms which are too familiar and usual : they are the most difficult, for great and fully matured strength is needed to make an individual contribution where go and in part brilliant traditions exist in plenty. Turn therefore from the common themes to those which your own everyday life affords; depict your sorrows and desires, your passing thoughts and belief in some kind of beauty – depict all that with heartfelt, quiet, humble sincerity and use to express yourself the things that surround you, the images of your dreams and the objects of your memory.  If your everyday life seems poor to you, do not accuse it; accuse yourself, tell yourself you are not poet enough to summon up its riches; since for the creator there is no poverty and no poor or unimportant place. 

[jumping forward a bit]

Therefore, my dear Sir, I could give you no advice but this: to go into yourself and to explore the depths whence your life wells forth; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. 

[jumping forward some more]

Perhaps, however, after this descent into yourself and into your aloneness, you will have to renounce your claim to become a poet; (it is sufficient, as I have said, to feel that one could live without writing, in order not to venture into it at all.)  But even then this introversion which I beg of you has not been in vain.  Your life will at all events find thenceforward its individual paths; and that they may be good and rich and far reaching I wish for you more than I can say.

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2 comments

  1. Rilke is an amazing poet, one of mine and my wife’s favourites. This is not just poetic advice in its verse but it is wordly advice in its entirety. Thanks for posting it Mark.

  2. Wisdom at its very best for all of us asking the questions… is this quest truly my own and the one I need to follow?

    I love Rilke and am currently reading his book, “The Poet’s Guide to Life – Wisdom of Rilke.”

    Wonderful post – thank you.

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