I have owned my copy of Letters to a Young Poet for about thirteen years. It is the sort of wise book that has something new to say to me every time I pick it up. The volume has become such a classic that it’s hard sometimes to remember that it wasn’t written as a book, that it is but half a conversation. This time around, reading it for school, I also read the “Chronicle” written by translator M.D. Herter Norton, which describes where Rilke was in his own life—physically and psychically—when he wrote the Letters. It presents a more complex picture of the timid, tortured soul who was as much in need of his own advice as his reader.
The Letters cover a variety of topics, including love, solitude, depression, and inspiration. Together they comprise a volume that’s less of a book about how to write than about how to live—at least, how to go about living if one is a sensitive, perceptive, solitary, creative, and questioning person. The ultimate message I take from the Letters is to trust oneself and one’s own process, however difficult and fruitless that may sometimes seem.
At 15 years old, I underlined this passage: “Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write” (18). That challenging question was important to me then. Now that I have discovered it is essential for me to write, the passage immediately preceding that one shone out from the page:
"You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now … I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself."
This passage is good medicine for a grad student with a few published poems under her belt who fervently wants to continue wooing and impressing her slowly growing readership. It’s not that acknowledgement by the outside world doesn’t matter, but the material for creativity must always come from within and cannot be helped by adhering to current fashion. I am reminded of the indispensable advice of writer and teacher Pat Schneider in her book, Writing Alone and with Others: “When you ask someone else for a critical opinion, take suggestions for change only if they meet with an answering Yes! in your own mind” (113). Rilke’s words encourage poets to seek out and trust our most intimate instincts.