The timelessness of R.M.R.'s Letters to a Young Poet

4:14:00 AM

It's a little over 3 A.M. and as much as I would like to say I don't know why I'm still wide awake, the fact of the matter is I do. I've come down with a flu and when I come down with anything (which very rarely happens), the body never manages to adapt. I would stay conscious until it's too late to sleep, throwing but I'm tired can You just send a heavenly knockout for me please tantrums all through the night.

But I am young and this is something I can take.

And as was pointed out by a friend from the office who's well into her 30s, there is one more thing I can take: feelings. You're at the right age for that, she said. And if it doesn't break you, it will make you, she said. Give me pizza and beer and we'll see, I thought.

Or an intimate moment with the late Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke - he might knock some sense into my hard, hard head. He did once, as I sat for hours bored in the absence of job orders one work day afternoon. I've never had the heart for poetry, but it didn't seem a bad idea to take a peek into what a seasoned name could say to an amateur. There could be some sort of wisdom in there that might just be what I needed.

And it was exactly what I needed.

His letters were long (even when he apologized for cutting them short) but without pretense, old but timeless. It was more than about poetry, more than about the art. It was what Thought Catalog (yeah, I'm not a big fan) has been trying to emulate but always fails. It's an ode to youth. He sent a total of ten and if I could quote everything to you, I would. And I'm pretty sure I could, just maybe not now, not all at the same time.

He began with one's "life's work" - writing in particular, and it was in the first few paragraphs that convinced me Letters to a Young Poet was to be a short but sweet journey to take. He says that it must flow from a deep place but urged the young writer to take from an everyday experience, not a well of grandiose that one in this age may not even understand. Truth, I thought. Writing is a beautiful experience but you can only do so much to change the world, and sometimes it won't even let you turn over the lightest leaf.

He talked about frustrations and solitude and childhood and difficult things and love being a difficult thing and sadness and dangerous sadness. He talked about all the young things in a way that all the young things could only appreciate once they've been there, done that. And like I said, I could quote everything but for now, here's three:

1.
"You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."

2.
"And you should not let yourself be confused in your solitude by the fact that there is something in you that wants to move out of it. This very wish, if you use it calmly and prudently and like a tool, will help you spread out your solitude over a great distance. Most people have with the help of conventions turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it."

3.
"If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better. In you, dear Mr. Kappus, so much is happening now; you must be patient like someone who is sick, and confident like someone who is recovering; for perhaps you are both. And more: you are also the doctor, who has to watch over himself. But in every sickness there are many days when the doctor can do nothing but wait."


The days are long, and a new one is sitting on my lap. At the sleepless rate I'm in, it is bound to seem like forever. But I am young and this is something I can take.

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3 comments

  1. Interesting find! Now I'm very tempted to get a copy [copies?] of Rilke's work(s), starting with this Letters to a Young Poet.

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    Replies
    1. I came to Letters while looking for good nonfiction and inspiring work that writers can chew on. Are there any more of the like you can recommend? :)

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    2. Rilke's Letters is the first of its kind that I intend to read; I'm not familiar with the gamut of it, my bad. But! But there are other nonfiction works that you may want to read one of these days. Try memoir [though I assume you could have already read some]. How about Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes? 'Tis? Teacher Man? :)

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