Listen to the episode here. Today, we’re diving into a collection of letters from the Austrian-Hungarian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. This collection is called, “Letters to a Young Poet,” and is translated from German. You can access them for free here, or purchase a hard copy. I have a hard copy from Penguin classics that I have used for years, and every time I revisit these letters, I annotate them in different spots. It seems like there’s always something new to discover, that seems to serendipitously match up with where I’m at in life.
The letters were dated between 1902 and 1908, and we know that Franz Kappus, a young army cadet, wrote the first letter to Rilke, attaching some of his poems, and asking for advice from the young poet Rilke. Today’s literary reading is Rilke’s response to Franz. As you read, try to imagine that Rilke is talking to you directly. If you do any form of art, whether that’s letter writing, poetry, or painting, and you wish that you could get advice from an expert, then Rilke’s words will speak to you.
Paris February 17, 1903
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 unsay able than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose 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 of something personal. I feel this most clearly in the last poem, “My Soul.” There, some thing 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 any thing independent, even the last one and the one to Leopardi. Your kind letter, which accompanied them managed to make clear to me various faults 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 upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise 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 roots 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 if 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. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose.
Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember.
If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sound – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it.
Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. And if out of, this turning within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.
So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to, the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.
But after this descent into yourself and into your solitude, perhaps you will have to renounce becoming a poet (if, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn’t write at all). Nevertheless, even then, this self-searching that I ask of you will not have been for nothing. Your life will still find its own paths from there, and that they may be good, rich, and wide is what I wish for you, more than I can say.
What else can I tell you? It seems to me that everything has its proper emphasis; and finally I want to add just one more bit of advice: to keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your whole development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to questions that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.
It was a pleasure for me to find in your letter the name of Professor Horacek; I have great reverence for that kind, learned man, and a gratitude that has lasted through the years. Will you please tell him how I feel; it is very good of him to still think of me, and I appreciate it.
The poem that you entrusted me with, I am sending back to you. And I thank you once more for your questions and sincere trust, of which, by answering as honestly as I can, I have tried to make myself a little worthier than I, as a stranger, really am.
My sincerest interest and devotion, yours,
Rainer Maria Rilke
Rilke read the poetry, and has some advice for the young cadet. Rilke says that Franz hasn’t found his own voice yet, but he stops without going further. He doesn’t want to intrude on Franz’s own voice, and tell him the direction that he should go. Instead, Rilke recommends Franz goes into his own heart, and ask himself if he is supposed to write. There are parts of this advice that deeply relate to me.
Finding Validation Within
Throughout my twenties, I could tell within my heart that I was meant to do something creative. I knew my passion for art, and for letter writing, and for travel, all of which I’m finally bringing together with Kathryn Hasting’s and Co.—but I kept trying to find somewhere in the outside world to tell me that. I wanted someone to say, “Here’s your golden ticket, here’s the specific way to use your skills, just go and do this.”
But that didn’t happen.
I kept finding spaces where a little bit of my skills set would fit—but not all of it. In some ways, this was a blessing, as it allowed me to develop other skills, and to see what resonated with my heart, and what didn’t. So Rilke’s advice is sound: if you hear that whisper in your heart, get quiet and listen to it.
Art and Practical Life
However, I think there’s an element of practicality that isn’t addressed in the letter. Rilke doesn’t necessarily explain what it means if he “must write.” He does say, “If you must write, then you absolutely must, you have to center your life around that.” What does that mean though?
Does that mean that Franz should abandon the army? Possibly. But it could also mean that while he centers his life around writing, his career in the arm allows him to write. There’s a Japanese concept, ikigai, which is where your passion, your purpose, your skills, and what the world needs, all intersect. And that’s a hard thing for artists, having that thing in your heart you want to share with the world, but not knowing where you fit.
As an artist, you could look for validation from others, and here Rilke’s advice holds true. You can’t do that with your art, you have to just create. If it’s created from a place that is honest and true to yourself, you actually won’t care what other people think.
When the art has the pressure of also being a career, I find it can be more difficult. In that case, an artist has to have validation from outside, simply to make a living. So that is one question I would have for Rilke, “If someone is centering their life around the art, is it then their career, or is the career secondary but supporting the art?”
Art and the Outside World
I also feel that an artist is in communion with the world. We don’t just close our eyes and only think about our childhoods. Our childhood is so much a reflection of the experience that we’ve had after our childhoods. I think of these little threads of things that I’m doing now, and see how they began when I was a child. I can see in my own life, how letter writing has been a common theme. My grandmother taught me to write letters, then I learned how to do embossing, then I learned calligraphy, then I learned stamp carving, then I learned letter folding, and each chapter of my life has had some element of that in it. There are other common threads as well, like my love of skiing, my love of fly fishing, or my love of travel. So Rilke is correct in a sense, because going into your heart brings the rest of your life history into focus.
I’m sure Rilke would say that I’ve missed part of what he was trying to say—but I’m just noticing what comes up to me in this moment of time when I’m reading this letter. These letters bring up different things for me at different chapters of my life. Right now, what I’m taking from it is how to listen to that inner voice. But I’m not looking to Rilke for advice on how to build a life around that inner voice. Those are two different things.
In my twenties I tried to get that external advice, and now that I’ve turned 34, it’s now much more about being present for my life, and creating stability in areas so I can be a risk-taker in others to create art.
Practical Advice for the Artist
If you’re reading this, you’re likely an artist—and if you don’t consider yourself an artist, I want to challenge you to reconsider. I think we all have something creative that we need to express. Maybe it’s in the design world, maybe it’s in cooking. I consider my best friend and my sister really creative people, and they do project management work, so their creativity is problem-solving based.
Perhaps you’re reading this and you’re thinking, “I know what the thing is, but I can’t do that, I can’t center my life around it.” But as Rilke said, if that whisper is talking to you, you must. You have to do it. If it says that you must, then you must put it as a part of your life.
But when I look at my own life, and the many callings of my hearts, Rilke’s must and the realities of life intersect. Yes, there’s this peace of creative expression that is so central to everything I’m doing, of Kathryn Hastings and Co.—but I’m also a mom, I’m also a wife, and a sister, and a friend. (And I’m even a cat-mom to Darwin.) I feel whole in my identities, and in those relationships. So the priorities that Rilke talks about, of putting something central in life assumes that we have one voice, that tells us the number one thing. For me, I think it’s more of a synergistic relationship. The things I love most in life, make all the other things even better when they come together. They do all relate to the peace of necessity, that when you create, you must create. I see this as I’ve launched Kathryn Hastings and Co., as I’ve been up without an alarm because I just want to create. I’m so excited, I just want to do.
Rilke said that a piece of art is good if it is born of necessity. This is its source, its criterion; there is no other. So I invite you to ask yourself the question, “What is my necessity?” What is that thing which you know, but maybe you don’t share with the world? Because the world desperately needs it. Is there a way in your life that you can lean into it a bit more?
Try writing yourself a letter about it. I sometimes put my hand on my heart when I’m trying to tap into that inner voice and find that thing that I love. It brings a gentleness to my relationship with myself. When I put my hand on my heart, and just listen to what I’m feeling and what I need, the criticism goes away. It’s just my own relationship to my own natural gifts, and from that spot, then I feel that they can be shared with the world.
I didn’t intend for this post to get so deep, but this letter has so many interesting nooks and crannies that can bring up new thoughts. I hope it connected to something within you, and I’d love to hear which parts resonated with you, and have changed your perspective. I can’t wait to hear from you in the comments below, and to learn more about letter writing with you next week. But until then, I’ll sign off as Rilke did:
My sincerest interest and devotion, yours,