Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Letter to a Young Poet

One of the assigned readings for my senior thesis class at DePaul University was Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.  I didn’t really take the book seriously at first, it was more of ‘ok, fine, I’ll read this, but really, let me just start making something!’  It has since then become one of my favorite books.  The book is a collection of letters written by Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  The letters were written to Franz Xaver Kappus, then a 19 year old aspiring poet who asks for feedback on his work.

Back then, I was confused as to why we would be reading a book about poetry in a visual arts class, but after reading the letters, it was clear that the knowledge Rilke passes on applies to everyone and everything.  What he discusses is really more of a view of life rather than anything that specifically applies to a writer.  Now, I realize, these lessons have stuck with me, whether it is because they were with me all along and I just couldn’t find a way to vocalize it or because they developed through this book and other influences.

To Kappus’ request for feedback, Rilke responds:

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.

I love this quote because I think it applies to anyone who has ever created anything.  There is something within us that just needs feedback, needs approval and affirmation that we are doing something worth doing.  It’s a struggle I face often (read: all the time) as I get so involved and lost in a project that I lose my ability to be objective and decide whether it is good or not.  I start questioning myself and often come close to convincing myself that it is actually worse than anything I’ve ever made before and not worth finishing.  It becomes a struggle to trust myself in that moment despite knowing that trusting myself is essential to creating anything original.  Logically, I know that no one else can create what I create and that others’ opinions should not make a difference and should not alter what I am doing, but after I invest so much of my time and so much of myself into a piece, the logic is easy to forget.  I like coming back to Rilke in those moments.

 

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Here are a couple more of my favorite quotes by Rilke (pictured above) from Letters to a Young Poet:

If your everyday life appears to be unworthy subject matter, do not complain to life.  Complain to yourself.  Lament that you are not poet enough to call up its wealth.  For the creative artist there is no poverty — nothing is insignificant or unimportant.

If I were to choose a favorite quote, this would be it.  I’ve mentioned before that I mainly work from photographs and part of the reason is that I don’t believe I can come up with anything more important or more interesting than what I witness everyday.  It’s easy to get caught up in our daydreams of what it would be like to have a different life and miss the beauty of our everyday.

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.

This quote I love because I feel like there’s always such a push to know what the future holds.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been asked what I’m going to do with my art degree.  And to this day I don’t know.  I’m not sure where it will lead me, but until I get there, I’m ok with not knowing.

It is always my wish that you might find enough patience within yourself to endure, and enough innocence to have faith … Allow life to happen to you.  Believe me, life is right in all cases.

And again, the idea that we don’t have to know the answers, all we have to do is have trust in life to lead us down the right paths.  It’s reassuring to realize that every experience we go through, good or bad, has some sort of effect on our growth and in some way leads us to our next step, whether we know what it is or not.

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