Letters to a Young Poet

Letters to a Young Poet

by Rainer Maria Rilke

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Letters written over a period of several years on the vocation of writing by a poet whose greatest work was still to come.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780241252062
Publisher: Penguin UK
Publication date: 03/03/2016
Series: Penguin Little Black Classics
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 578,546
File size: 709 KB

About the Author

RAINER MARIA RILKE (1875–1926) is one of the greatest poets who ever wrote in the German language. His most famous works are Sonnets to Orpheus, The Duino Elegies, Letters to a Young Poet, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and The Book of Hours.

M. D. Herter Norton is a publisher and translator. Together with her husband William Warder Norton, she founded the publishing company W. W. Norton & Company. Her work as translator includes the translation of works by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Read an Excerpt

February 17, 1903

Dear Sir,
Your letter arrived just a few days ago. I want to thank you for the great confidence you have placed in me. That is all I can do. I cannot discuss your verses; for any attempt at criticism would be foreign to me. Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, who life endures beside our own small, transitory life.

With this note as a preface, may I just tell you that your verses have no style of their own, although they do have silent and hidden beginnings or something personal. I feel this most clearly in the last poem, "My Soul." There, something of your own is trying to become word and melody. And in the lovely poem "To Leopardi" a kind of kinship with that great, solitary figure does perhaps appear. Nevertheless, the poems are not yet anything in themselves, not yet anything independent, even the last one and the one to Leopardi. Your kind letter, which accompanied them, managed to make clear to me various fault that I felt in reading your verses, though I am not able to name them specifically.

You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are update when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you tostop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise you or help you—no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its root into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And is this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must," then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.

From the Paperback edition.

Copyright 2001 by Rainer Maria Rilke

Table of Contents

Translator’s Preface xiii
Translator’s Introduction xv
Introduction by the Young Poet 1
The Letters 3
Commentary 35
Rilke in English 55

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“For this reason, my dear Sir, the only advice I have is this: to go into yourself and to examine the depths from which your life springs; at its source you will find the answer to the question of whether you have to write. 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. For he who creates must be a world of his own and find everything within himself and in the natural world that he has elected to follow. [. . .] Whatever happens, your life will find its own paths from that point on, and that they may be good, productive and far-reaching is something I wish for you more than I can say.” —Rainer Maria Rilke

“I cannot think of a better book to put into the hands of any young would-be poet, as an inspirational guide to poetry and to surviving as a poet in a hostile world.”
—Harry Fainlight, The Times (London)

“I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet every day.”
—Lady Gaga

Billy Collins

This fresh translation of Rilke's famous letters reminds us anew that Rilke is addressing not just his young correspondent but everyone, and that his advice is not only about how to write poems but how to live a deliberate, meaningful life. In these overly excited times, it is inspiring to listen to the patient counsel of this meditative man, this champion of solitude.

Dana Gioia

If I could recommend only one book to a young writer, it would be Rilke's perpetually fresh and penetrating Letters to a Young Poet, especially in Mark Harman's lucid new translation, which so capably captures the original's radiant intimacy. This small but inexhaustible volume belongs on every writer's bookshelf.

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Letters to a Young Poet 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 45 reviews.
MBNow More than 1 year ago
Good book but do not go into thinking its a quick non thinking light fare. It reminds me of Henry David Thoreau.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is inspiring and motivating. I highly recomend every artist( writer,poet,painter,) read and apply the lessons to their own life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Letters to a young Poet really makes you look at life in a different way.
gbill on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.¿
MissMea on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
joewmyrtle on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
BrentNewhall on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
CliffBurns on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Rilke gives practical advice and hard-won lessons to a young acolyte. A great gift for young or aspiring writers...
JimmyChanga on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
GeneRuyle on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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 th
Thinandlight on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
wordygirl39 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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."
the1butterfly on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love it . I haven't been this intrigued by a book in a while. I was left at bliss finishing the book. 
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