Lessons From Books: Letters To A Young Poet

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke is a collection of ten letters that encompass Rilke’s thoughts on how a poet should feel, love, and seek the truth. Rilke was a renowned poet and novelist known for his lyrical style of prose. These letters further cover how Rilke felt about life, how he viewed hardship and struggle, joy and happiness, and the importance of positive thinking and solitude.

Lessons:

Creating Helpful Thoughts

And your doubts can become a good quality if you school them. They must grow to be knowledgeable, they must learn to be critical. As soon as they begin to spoil something for you ask them why a thing is ugly, demand hard evidence, test them, and you will perhaps find them at a loss and short of an answer, or perhaps mutinous. But do not give in, request arguments, and act with this kind of attentiveness and consistency every single time, and the day will come when instead of being demolishers they will be among your best workers – perhaps the canniest of all those at work on the building of your life.

Thoughts can be debilitating. They can riddle your mind with doubts and stop you from taking action. They can change a happy, positive situation into a negative one. They can suck away the joy of life by constantly pointing out how things can go wrong, what you should have done, and how you’re wrong about everything. Worse of all, you are stuck with your thoughts. Thoughts accompany you from birth until death. 

Therefore, what Rilke suggests is poignant and important. 

You don’t want to be in a constant battle with your thoughts for the rest of your life. Ideally, you want your thoughts to be aligned with your beliefs and wants and to act in a way that they empower you. Rilke suggests critical thinking in order to gain this benefit. When a negative thought arises, or a thought filled with doubt, guilt, or shame, pick at it, poke holes in its logic, make it work, and justify its position. Don’t simply accept that thought as the truth. In some ways, you have to wrestle with your thoughts and eventually submit them to your will, so they become loyal. 

Love Your Fate

I might be able to say about your tendency towards self-doubt or your inability to reconcile your inner and outer life, or about anything else that assails you – it all comes down to what I have said before: the same desire that you might find enough patience in you to endure, and simplicity enough to have faith; that you might gain more and more trust in what is hard and in your own loneliness among other people. And otherwise let life take its course. Believe me: life is right, whatever happens.

Each life is unique. Each individual has their own challenges in life, which they must either overcome, adapt, or accept. The acceptance of one’s hardships is vital. Instead of viewing bad luck or struggle in a negative light, it can help to see the pleasure in it, to find love in that hardship through the realization that this makes your life different. This makes your life solely your own.

Solutions and adaptation often come after acceptance. If you’re in denial of something, it is unlikely you will be in the correct mindset to improve your current condition. But, once you accept your fate and perhaps even love it, then you’re ready for the next step.

Reflect On Your Sadness

The only sorrows which are harmful and bad are those one takes among people in order to drown them out. Like diseases which are treated superficially and inexpertly, they only abate, and after a short pause break out again with more terrible force, and accumulate inside and are life, unlived, rejected, lost life – from which we can die. If it were possible for us to see further than our knowledge reaches, and a little beyond the outworks of our intuitions, perhaps we should then bear our sadnesses with greater assurance than our joys. For they are the moments when something new enters into us, something unknown to us; our feelings, shy and inhibited, fall silent, everything in us withdraws, a stillness settles on us, and at the centre of it is the new presence that nobody yet knows, making no sound.

When you ignore and disregard your sorrow, it often festers inside you and shows up later in life to cause more harm than it would have done if it was acknowledged on time. Sadness can be viewed as an important event in your life. Joy passes quickly. It arises and disappears as the joyful moment passes. It is as if human beings aren’t meant to live in joyful moments. While sadness sticks around. Years later, that sad moment feels as heavy as it did when it first happened. The reason for this is that sadness changes an individual. Sadness alters how you think, how you act, who you trust, your likes and dislikes, and much more. So, it’s important when a sad event occurs to seek solitude so you can reflect on the coming changes and see what kind of individual you are morphing into. 

What is new in us, the thing that has supervened, has entered into our heart, penetrated to its innermost chamber and not lingered even there – it is already in our blood. And we never quite know what it was. One might easily suppose that nothing had happened, but we have altered the way a house alters when a guest enters it. We cannot say who has come, perhaps we shall never know, but there are many indications that it is the future that enters into us like this, in order to be transformed within us, long before it actually occurs. And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the apparently uneventful and static moment when our future comes upon us is so much closer to life than that other noisy and accidental point when it happens to us as if from the outside.

Embrace Hardship and Difficulty

People have tended (with the help of conventions) to resolve everything in the direction of easiness, of the light, and on the lightest side of the light; but it is clear that we must hold to the heavy, the difficult. All living things do this, everything in nature grows and defends itself according to its kind and is a distinct creature from out of its own resources, strives to be so at any cost and in the face of all resistance. We know little, but that we must hold fast to what is difficult is a certainty that will never forsake us. It is good to be alone, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult should be one more reason to do it.

This is a simple matter of human nature. We like pleasure and dislike pain. This concept then becomes that we like what makes us comfortable and dislike what makes us uncomfortable. However, comfort and pleasure result in minimal growth. Humans need a reason, hardship, or difficulty to fight against in order to grow as an individual. 

But difficult things are what we were set to do, almost everything serious is difficult, and everything is serious.

So, the avoidance of pain and struggle causes us to plateau and even regress. Once the mindset shifts to the acceptance of becoming a better version of yourself, then hardship and difficulty become allies in this venture of self-improvement.

And if we only organize our life according to the principle which teaches us always to hold to what is difficult, then what now still appears most foreign will become our most intimate and most reliable experience. How can we forget those ancient myths found at the beginnings of all peoples? The myths about the dragons who at the last moment turn into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses, only waiting for the day when they will see us handsome and brave? Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help.

Importance Of Solitude

Think, dear Mr Kappus, of the world that you carry within you, and call this thinking whatever you like. Whether it is memory of your own childhood or longing for your own future – just be attentive towards what rises up inside you, and place it above everything that you notice round about. What goes on in your innermost being is worth all your love, this is what you must work on however you can and not waste too much time and too much energy on clarifying your attitude to other people.

As we grow older, it becomes more difficult to hear the voice inside of us. The busyness of everyday life doesn’t allow for moments of peace. In doing so, we lose touch with what we truly want and need. We follow the herd, a mass of nameless faces all headed one way, and believe that they must be going the right way and doing the right things. But because you don’t truly know yourself, you can easily end up living a life that you did not want. 

The first step in understanding your own wants and needs is to hear your own voice. This, according to Rilke, comes through the necessity of solitude. To sit alone with your thoughts, meditate, and go on long walks by yourself. These activities connect you with your inner voice. They help you shovel away all the random mess in your head and help you rediscover that child-like voice inside whose needs and wants you’ve been ignoring. 

Take pleasure in your growth, in which no one can accompany you, and be kind-hearted towards those you leave behind, and be assured and gentle with them and do not plague them with your doubts or frighten them with your confidence or your joyfulness, which they cannot understand. Look for some kind of simple and loyal way of being together with them which does not necessarily have to alter however much you may change; love in them a form of life different from your own and show understanding for the older ones who fear precisely the solitude in which you trust. Avoid providing material for the drama which always spans between parents and their children; it saps much of the children’s strength and consumes that parental love which works and warms even when it does not comprehend. Ask no advice of them and reckon with no understanding; but believe in a love which is stored up for you like an inheritance, and trust that in this love there is a strength and a benediction out of whose sphere you do not need to issue even if your journey is a long one.

Find The Beauty Around You

No, there is not more beauty here than elsewhere, and all these objects which generation after generation have continued to admire, which inexpert hands have mended and restored, they mean nothing, are nothing and have no heart and no value; but there is a great deal of beauty here, because there is beauty everywhere. Infinitely lively waters go over the old aqueducts into the city and on the many squares dance over bowls of white stone and fill broad capacious basins and murmur all day and raise their murmur into the night, which is vast and starry and soft with winds. And there are gardens here, unforgettable avenues and flights of steps, steps conceived by Michelangelo, steps built to resemble cascades of flowing water – giving birth to step after broad step like wave after wave as they descend the incline. With the help of such impressions you regain your composure, win your way back out of the demands of the talking and chattering multitude (how voluble it is!), and you slowly learn to recognize the very few things in which something everlasting can be felt, something you can love, something solitary in which you can take part in silence.

The real beauty for Rilke was in the everyday things, not some specific statue or monument deemed beautiful by others that you’ll have to travel hundreds of miles and pay thousands of dollars to see. Often these sights are pleasurable at the moment but the further you get away from that moment, the less you remember and the less beautiful they seem until you find yourself flipping through old pictures and see yourself beside a monument or painting and remember, yes you had been there once upon a time. Such beauty is not real. 

What is real is the appreciation of life around you at this very moment. To consciously look for beauty in the everyday life because it’s these moments, the breakfasts, lunch, and dinners, the drives to work, the drives back, moments spent with family and friends, going to local restaurants, and parks and so on. It’s these moments that make up your life and if you wish to live a life filled with beauty and wonder, it is in these moments one needs to find it and appreciate it. 

If you have this love for what is slight, and quite unassumingly, as a servant, seek to win the confidence of what seems poor – then everything will grow easier, more unified and somehow more conciliatory, not perhaps in the intellect, which, amazed, remains a step behind, but in your deepest consciousness, watchfulness and knowledge.

How To Live Like An Artist

Only love can grasp them and hold them and do them justice. – With regard to any such disquisition, review or introduction, trust yourself and your instincts; even if you go wrong in your judgement, the natural growth of your inner life will gradually, over time, lead you to other insights. Allow your verdicts their own quiet untroubled development which like all progress must come from deep within and cannot be forced or accelerated. Everything must be carried to term before it is born. To let every impression and the germ of every feeling come to completion inside, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, in what is unattainable to one’s own intellect, and to wait with deep humility and patience for the hour when a new clarity is delivered: that alone is to live as an artist, in the understanding and in one’s creative work.

Being an artist requires you to trust your own judgement and intuition. To give light to your own thoughts and opinions and allow those thoughts to carry on until they are completed. This will result in many failures and few successes, but each failure and success comes with further insight into who you are, what you need, and what you believe in. The more insight you gain about yourself, the better your expression of art becomes. As art is often self-expression.

On Being A Writer

“You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me that. You have asked others, before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you worry when certain editors turn your efforts down. Now (since you have allowed me to offer you advice) let me ask you to give up all that. You are looking to the outside, and that above all you should not be doing now. Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself. Examine the reason that bids you to write; check whether it reaches its roots into the deepest region of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would die if it should be denied you to write. This above all: ask yourself in your night’s quietest hour: must I write? Dig down into yourself for a deep answer. And if it should be affirmative, if it is given to you to respond to this serious question with a loud and simple ‘I must’, then construct your life according to this necessity; your life right into its most inconsequential and slightest hour must become a sign and witness of this urge. Then approach nature. Then try, like the first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid at first those forms which are too familiar and habitual: they are the hardest, for you need great maturity and strength to produce something of your own in a domain where good and sometimes brilliant examples have been handed down to us in abundance. For this reason, flee general subjects and take refuge in those offered by your own day-to-day life; depict your sadnesses and desires, passing thoughts and faith in some kind of beauty – depict all this with intense, quiet, humble sincerity and make use of whatever you find about you to express yourself, the images from your dreams and the things in your memory. If your everyday life seems to lack material, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to summon up its riches, for there is no lack for him who creates and no poor, trivial place. And even if you were in a prison whose walls did not let any of the sounds of the world outside reach your senses – would you not have your childhood still, this marvellous, lavish source, this treasure-house of memories? Turn your attention towards that. Attempt to raise the sunken sensations of this distant past; your self will become the stronger for it, your loneliness will open up and become a twilit dwelling in which the noise other people make is only heard far off. And if from this turn inwards, from this submersion in your own world, there come verses, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses.”

Poem: The Present

Moments past,

Take with it future hope,

Leave behind present guilt,

Chaining you to your judgement.

But each moment is renewed,

Like the passage of a stream,

The present need not be tied to the past,

As a new set of eyes or ears or a new breath or thought can unchain the present from what has been.

Past judgements left in the past,

The now, gives birth to new possibilities,

Which open new paths,

As the present allows for you to be born again.

Poem: Unchained Ambition

Ambitious desires chained,

so balance can be had,

in harmony, life is lived,

or so that’s what is purposed.

 

The golden mean,

not too hot, not too cold,

harmonizing the ebb and flow of life,

and thus, you may find peace and happiness.

 

But there is a pull to go over,

to commit yourself to one thing, fully

surrender to the disharmony,

to look at the edge and knowingly step over,

peace and happiness may lack,

but life is experienced, vividly,

the ebb and flow of good and bad,

open to high passions of pain and pleasure,

higher the threshold of pain, equally higher the pleasure,

instead of the mild which comes with balance,

so, the aim changes,

from the mean to the extreme,

unchained ambition,

balance a thought for later life.

Poem: The Choice

Impulsive,

following the first thought,

the first desire,

the first pleasure.

 

Confused,

thinking that is what you are thinking,

that is what you want,

that is what you need.

 

Man being god,

he like the all-knowing sits above and watches,

observes the animals going about their business,

animals that are full of thought, desires, and pleasures,

who are constantly acting on impulses,

but He watches and observes,

You watch and observe,

the real you isn’t the first to act.

 

Breathing in heavenly air,

shrouded in stillness,

clear sight, clear mind,

choosing what you act upon,

the choice is godlike,

the choice is man,

the choice is you.

 

Poem: Reflect On The Self

Eyes only for the bad leaves a darkened heart,

seeing, watching, consuming all that is wrong.

Eyes only for the good leave an ignorant heart,

overlooking, bypassing, ignoring the realities of life.

 

To neither be dark or ignorant,

to neither be cynical or idealistic,

rather, be aware of the self which is all of that and more,

through awareness, decency follows.

 

Eyes turned inwards,

peering into the shadowy pockets within as orbs of light shine and dim,

eyes outwards looking into the mirror,

the reflection shows all of mankind,

the shadow and light within mirrors all of mankind.

 

Consume enough hate and you’ll become hateful,

consume enough fear and you’ll become fearful,

consume enough goodness and you’ll become good,

consume enough knowledge and you’ll become intelligent.

 

Reflect on the difference and you’ll become different,

reflect on the similarities and you’ll become similar,

reflect on yourself and you’ll be one with mankind.