The ten letters of Rainer Maria Rilke in correspondence with Franz Xavier Kappus that makeup Letters to a Young Poet offer little in the way of technical advice for writing. Rilke does not instruct on form; he does not comment on the use of language, or plot, or dialogue, or verse. However, what takes the place of concrete instruction on the fundamentals is far more valuable. Serving as what translator Stephen Mitchell saw as a “Spiritual teacher” (vi), Rilke’s letters are meditations on the purpose and spiritual process of writing, and solitude.
From the beginning, Rilke warns that he cannot serve as a critic for Kappa’s or anybody else’s work, stating his philosophy is that “nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism” (3). The parts of me that exist as both an English student and an editor struggle with this. Unlike Rilke, I do believe in the value and importance of criticism. However, I think the context of Rilke’s other thoughts on writing, many of which are about the importance of solitude, help to clarify this approach to criticism. For Rilke, solitude is essential to the act of creation. “Solitude will expand and become a place you can live in the twilight,” (8). So the writer in me, separate from the critic and the editor, can accept what Rilke says when it comes to the act of creation, where one must trust “yourself and your own feelings as opposed to argumentations” (23). Considering criticism is essential to the process of revision, but that might be separate from the simpler and purer process of creation that is Rilke’s focus. Often throughout his letters, Rilke repeats the importance of “turning-within” (8). For Rilke, and I think for myself, writing cannot come without such reflection.
It is through preaching solitude that Rilke hopes to address the artists “beautiful anxiety” (32) about life, and about the art itself. For Rilke, the writer should find “solitude [to] be a support and a home” (44) where one can learn to “love the questions” (34) that life can present. Through Rilke, I have learned how to adapt and cope with the sometimes solitary nature of writing. The letters point towards the anxiety and self-doubt that can come bundled with the act of creation as a kind of exterior white noise that distracts and detracts from the said act of creation.
Rilke believes that solitude is “what it means to live as an artist” (24), not in the sense of constantly being apart from all others, but in being apart from others in the act of creation itself. Most important to Rilke’s turning-within, is to “find the reason that commands you to write” (6). While many of the later letters address questions of faith and illustrate the importance of reading other writers through Rilke’s recommendations to Kappa’s, it is in this the very first of the letters that I find Rilke imparts the wisdom most important to the process of creating as a writer.
Letters to a Young Poet was the first book I was recommended by a professor, in the very first lecture I attended as an undergraduate, but as short as it is, it is also the book that I have reread the most often in the intervening five years. Rilke’s letters are not instructions on how to write, but a spiritual guide for finding inspiration, and for helping one to resume the mindset and passion needed for writing. In the moments of an artist’s anxiety, the most helpful thing that one might do is to return to Rilke’s very first question “Must I write?” (6), in order to find the answer “I must” (6).
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. Translated by Stephen Mitchell, Vintage Books, 1986.