My quarrel with Rilke

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Rainer Maria Rilke‘s advice to an aspiring young writer took the form of a series of letters from 1902 to 1908.  Letters to a Young Poet has been translated again for Harvard University Press by  Mark Harman, who has translated Franz Kafka to much praise. (A podcast is here.)

The Prague-born poet wrote in German, a little in French.  Here’s what Harmon wrote in his introduction:

He also prized the differing personality, as it were, of each language: Two years later in a letter to Lou Andreas-Salomé he notes that on the few occasions when he wrote about the same subject in French and in German it “developed very differently in the two languages: which argues strongly against the naturalness of translation.”

The Harvard University Press’ blog cites one of the most famous passages from the letters:

You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have already asked others. You send them to journals. You compare them with other poems, and are upset when certain editorial offices reject your efforts. Now (since you’ve permitted me to give you advice) I ask you to abandon all this. You look outside yourself, and that above all else is something you should not do just now. Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There’s only one way to proceed. Go inside yourself. Explore the reason that compels you to write; test whether it stretches its roots into the deepest part of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would have to die if the opportunity to write were withheld from you. Above all else, ask yourself at your most silent hour of night: must I write? Dig inside yourself for a deep answer. And if the answer is yes, if it is possible for you to respond to this serious question with a strong and simple I must, then build your life on the basis of this necessity; your life, even at its most indifferent and attenuated, must become a sign and a witness for this compulsion.

It all sounds very grand, of course.  But I wonder how many young writers are prepared to make that decision – who could find “the deepest part” of their hearts even with a GPS.  In my experience, many of them think they must write – it’s a compulsive part of youth. They think they “would have to die if the opportunity to write were withheld.”

But somehow they manage, as the years go on.  For most, the question shifts when balanced against the needs of a  household, or when the old Camry breaks down, or when the medical bills pile up.  Of course, it also shifts as the rejection letters mount, and you find that the guidance from your own sweet self isn’t as reliable as the jalopy’s GPS.  Usually,  the writing compulsion leads to others – and who is to say they’re not equally valid?

It’s only when you’re older, more seasoned, and look back over your life and your choices, and realize that, for better or worse, writing is what you did.


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5 Responses to “My quarrel with Rilke”

  1. Leonard Kress Says:

    Good post! I cringe when I read a passage like this. (I cringe when I read a lot of Rilke these days.) And yet….when I was just such a young poet–early 20s or so–this seemed to be the kind of advice I needed/wanted to hear. I do wonder, though, if a young writer needs to have the mechanism to read these Letters and not cringe–no matter how unreliable that heart excavation might be. I wonder how my kids (in high school and college–2 musicians and a dancer) would respond to such Rilkean exhortations? In any case, the questions shouldn’t come from me.

  2. Paul Achitoff Says:

    At best, how different is Rilke’s advice from the old adage “If you have to ask” which precedes any number of questions — am I in love? can I afford it? should I get married? Perhaps if he’d said, “Ask yourself whether you’re prepared to be laughed at by people who cannot be dismissed as Philistines, to be borrowing yet again so you can pay the rent, to be ignored by the objects of your affections who prefer not to starve with you, and to wake up twenty years from now and realize that you’ve pissed away the years during which you could have learned a trade but you still have many years left to flounder” I could take him more seriously. Love his poetry or hate it, he took himself far too seriously.

  3. Jim Erwin Says:

    I survived a many-year period being a bit obsessed with Rilke. Making a wall poster of his fifth elegy with postcards of two versions of the Picasso work that inspired it and studying it for months just because it was more opaque to me than the other elegies, trying to read his “Malte” in the original, filling a whole shelf with every work and biography I could find – all this was almost a monomania. Despite this, his letters and biographies convinced me I would definitely not want to hang around with him. “Jeez, Maria, get a life” or “hyperdramatic much?” or other thought-terminating clichés would ensue. So, while I agree with Paul that he took himself way too seriously (as a thought experiment, try to imagine Rilke laughing…no, I can’t either), his framing of the advice sounds like the same message as Rilke’s, translated from a sensibility more aligned with the 19th century than the early 20th he wrote in to one more compatible with the early 21st. I can honestly say I had many sublime and ecstatic experiences studying Rilke, yet I feel a little embarrassed writing that, as it does not fit with the anti-romantic aesthetics prevalent during most of my lifetime.

  4. Paul Achitoff Says:

    Jim, you’re right that my framing seems like merely an update, although as I imagined it, it’s less self-indulgently melodramatic and somewhat more realistic. Many would-be poets might imagine they’d rather die than be unable to express themselves through their poetry, but few are likely to do themselves in on that account, and few would be willing to suffer the actual consequences of trying to be a poet. I find Rilke’s advice somewhat tautological–if you have to do it, then you have to do it. Not only is it not very helpful, but it may encourage a lot of bad poets who’d like to imagine they write only to avoid depriving the world of themselves. How about, “if you enjoy writing poetry, go ahead and write it.”

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