Book: Letters to a Young Poet
Author: Rainer Maria Rilke
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.” — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
The young poet, Franz Xaver Kappus, has written to the master dichter Rainer Maria Rilke to ask him which books he keeps near to him for most frequent consultation. Rilke replies that the two books that he always keeps near for endless streams of inspiration are the Holy Bible and a collected works of the Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen.
Having experienced Letters to a Young Poet as an utterly affirming battle cry to the authentic creative life, and having already read the Bible several times, I embarked on a search for English translations of Jacobsen. Until just recently I couldn’t find an English translation of anything of his anywhere, although I did stumble on a few poems once.
Even after the internet had undertaken to publish everything ever written in digital form, Jacobsen was nowhere to be found, which was puzzling after considering that Letters to a Young Poet is one of the most popular books on creativity ever written.
What’s immediately striking is that, in the dog-eat-dog competition of the literary, this great poet deigned to write to an amateur to encourage him and give him hints as to how to write better. I can’t imagine a writer before or since who would have gotten down off the high horse long enough to provide a bit of counsel to a struggling beginner. It just shows what a remarkable person Rilke was.
But he’d come up in the school of hard knocks, a highly sensitive boy sent to a brutal and traumatising military school by parents who planned to have him enter law. Such an upbringing can be expected to lead to a life of self-destructive dissipation; in Rilke’s it bore fruit in the form of a powerful existential courage. His pain was like an impossible mission handed to him?a mission to usher in a new and more truthful way of thinking and living to a world that probably wasn’t ready. And he accepted.
His opinions on the sacred, nature, female emancipation, couplehood, and writing are deeply insightful, even groundbreaking, and way ahead of their time, but his great contribution to art has been his call to live authentically and, in Rodin’s words, to simply get to work on making art, inextricably linking human virtue with the vertu of artistic toil.
Oh yes, and the good news is that last week I found the books of Jens Peter Jacobsen online. More to come about them in an upcoming article.
Letters to a Young Poet manifests eleven of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for books well worth reading.
– It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
– It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
– It stimulates my mind.
– It provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.
– It’s about attainment of the true self.
– It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
– It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
– It gives me artistic tools.
– It makes me want to be a better artist.
– It gives me tools of kindness, enabling me to respond with compassion and efficacy to the suffering around me.
– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.
Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.