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Saturday, June 9, 2007

Book Twenty-Six

The twenty-sixth book we read this year is Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated and with a biographical chronicle by M.D. Herter Norton. We picked this up at a sale on a whim, because once upon a dark and yearning time we had read and enjoyed some of Rilke's poetry and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

This is a collection of ten letters written by Rilke in response to a young aspiring poet who had sent him a letter and a poem for critique. We are shown only this side of the correspondence, though there is a brief introduction written by the aspiring poet. Rilke carefully and justifiably avoids any criticism of the poem, and instead goes on to explain why he does it, and how the poet should live and work.

There is little of a personal nature in his letters. The second half of the book consists of a chronicle that explains some of the things that were happening in Rilke's life during the time he wrote the letters, as well as gives some biographical background. This is a brief book, and easily could be read in one sitting.

We would recommend this book to writers, or anyone with creative intent. It provides a good outline of Rilke's theories on, among other things, poetry, life, God, and, with particular emphasis, the importance of solitude. Rilke did not have an easy life. Though faced often with difficulties, and intent on maintaining his principles, he does not seem to have pitied himself, or stopped pushing toward his goal of artistic creation. He appreciated both sides of everything.
And in fact artistic experience lies so incredibly close to that of sex, to its pain and its ecstasy, that the two manifestations are indeed but different forms of one and the same yearning and delight.
Though the subject is not addressed in these letters, Rilke even made a conscious effort to embrace death.

In these letters, as in his poetry, Rilke wrote in a manner that Norton describes as
uncompromising and courageous and truthful, charming and kind....
Rilke strikes us as one of the most honest writers, and one who is wholly original in his observations. His description in later life of his experience writing prose in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge provides a nice example of his style:
In writing poetry, one is always aided and even carried away by the rhythm of exterior things; for the lyric cadence is that of nature: of the waters, the wind, the night. But to write rhythmic prose one must go deep into oneself and find the anonymous and multiple rhythm of the blood. Prose needs to be built like a cathedral; there one is truly without a name, without ambition, without help: on scaffoldings, alone with one's consciousness.
We believe there is a place in art for criticism; Rilke did not. He shares the most basic part of his reasoning in this quote, which we read more significantly as the reason art transcends all:
With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: ... most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious experiences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.


  1. I love, love, love Rilke and you've selected some of the best bits. Just what I need to steep in at the end of a very long day.

    Thank you!

  2. Thanks for this post.

    You might like to know about LOST SON, a new novel based on the life and work of Rilke. It has just come out. Take a look.