Classics Club #64: ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ by Rainer Maria Rilke ****

I borrowed the sixty-fourth book on my Classics Club list from the wonderful Poetry Library in London’s Southbank Centre.  The Harvard University Press edition which I was fortunate enough to borrow is a slim volume, running to just 87 relatively small pages, and was both translated and introduced by Mark Harman.

I am sure that the majority of you will already know the premise of Letters to a Young Poet, and if not, will be able to guess at it from the title alone.  To clarify, however, in 1902, ‘a nineteen-year-old aspiring poet named Franz Kappus wrote to Rilke, then twenty-six, seeking advice on his poetry’.  The two had similar backgrounds and, ‘touched by the innocence and forthrightness of the student, Rilke responded to Kappus’ letter and began an intermittent correspondence that would last until 1908′.  This volume collects the ten letters which Rilke penned.  The letters which were written from Kappus to Rilke have sadly never appeared in print, and there is speculation as to whether they were lost in Rilke’s many moves between France, Italy, Germany, and Scandinavia.

Throughout, says the blurb, ‘Rilke offers unguarded thoughts on such diverse subjects as creativity, solitude, self-reliance, living with uncertainty, the shallowness of irony, the uselessness of criticism, career choices, sex, love, God, and art.  Letters to a Young Poet is, finally, a life manual.  Art, Rilke tells the young poet in his final letter to him, is only another way of living’.  Harman reiterates this sentiment within his introduction, writing: ‘The voice we overhear [in Rilke’s letters] is by turns confident, self-questioning, concerned, self-absorbed, open-minded, didactic, genuine, and affected’.

In 1929, Kappus wrote a lovely little introduction to the volume: ‘What is important are the ten letters which follow, important for learning about the world in which Rainer Maria Rilke lived and created, and important also for many of those growing and changing today and tomorrow.  And whenever one who is great and unique speaks, those who are inferior should fall silent’.  Rilke’s beautiful correspondence ensues.  In the first letter, he writes the following about the importance of personal art: ‘There’s only one way to proceed.  Go inside yourself.  Explore the reason that compels you to write; test whether it stretches its roots into the deepest part of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would have to die if the opportunity to write were withheld from you’.

Letters to a Young Poet is rather profound, and such thought has been given to its translation.  Rilke’s letters present such interesting ideas, particularly about creativity, and those whom we perceive to be the judges of our art.  His replies to Kappus’ original letters are kind, measured, and honest, and there is a strong sense of contemplation which runs through them all.  If you have any inclination whatsoever toward poetry, Letters to a Young Poet is a must.

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