Letters to a Young MFA Student

Rainer Maria RilkeI have been reading Rilke‘s Letters To A Young Poet with great interest tonight. It occurs to me how much this correspondence resembles my exchanges with Joe this semester: talking about what I have been reading, sending in poems, coming to terms with the writing life as a practical necessity. Why should it seem foreign to apprentice with other poets in this way? Though the format is academic, the university is really just a vehicle through which this timeless tradition of mentorship in art continues. And so, I find insights, comforts and calls to action in Rilke’s words that are as potent for me now as they must have been for Herr Kappus over a hundred years ago.

Here are some excerpts arranged by theme:

Solitude & Introspection

… ultimately, and precisely in the deepest and most important matters, we are unspeakably alone.

What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours — that is what you must be able to attain.

There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. … Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. … If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. … And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. … A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity.

… one can only wish that you are trustingly and patiently letting the magnificent solitude work upon you, this solitude which can no longer be erased from your life; which, in everything that is in store for you to experience and to do, will act as an anonymous influence, continuously and gently decisive, rather as the blood of our ancestors incessantly moves in us and combines with our own to form the unique, unrepeatable being that we are at every turning of our life.

Negative Capability

We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us. … only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.

Don’t observe yourself too closely. Don’t be too quick to draw conclusions from what happens to you; simply let it happen. Otherwise it will be too easy for you to look with blame (that is: morally) at your past …

… 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.

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