“Letters to a young poet”: Art is just a way of living

“Letters to a young poet”: Art is just a way of living

Pages: 52
Literary Genre: Epistolary, German Literature
Publishing house: Penguin Books

I feel a sense of unease whilst writing this review. It’s a feeling referred to by the author himself, Rainer Maria Rilke, to explain his view on literary criticism: he blames the young poet Franz Xaver Kappus for “looking to the outside” and instead invites him to “go into himself”.

«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 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.»

Rilke advises Kappus not to strive for publication; rather, he considers it more important that his verses be “a submersion in his own world”. He rejects the idea that being an artist is work and instead presents it as an achievement that comes from real necessity. It’s like an inner urge: criticism may pass like trends, but art challenges centuries.

“Letters to a young poet” wasn’t intended for publication but for private reading, by a young poet who had the fortune to correspond for years with one of the finest literary voices of his time.

Rilke began to reply in 1903 in his letters from “Viareggio, near Pisa”, Brema, Rome. The main question was “must I write?”, which Rilke used as the pretext to discussing how artistic creation dissolves into a reflection on life, because “art too is just a way of living”.

Rilke’s thoughts read like Romanticism and claim that there are two existential actions an artist has to make: dig down into himself and approach nature. And nature reminds us of Hegelian memory, because “beauty is everywhere”. It is possible to find more than you can actually see.

There’s another way to live in this world: the way of absolute solitude, though hard to sustain. In that approach, Rilke contends that real courage becomes evident: everything alive finds faith in difficulty. Nature grows and defends itself in any way it can, trying to be itself at all costs and against all opposition. We must trust in what is difficult, embracing solitude, fear and mystery.

Rilke is cold-blooded at times, particularly when he affirms that most people – cowardly people – shift their focustoward what is easy, and even further toward the easiest side of the easy; the result achieved is a weakening of senses. But he’s not a teacher; he doesn’t assume doctrinal tones: he’s a man who suffers; who, like everyone, is  sick of uncertainty.

In “Letters to a young poet” there’s a place for love too. As Rilke says, “love is hard” and this difficulty legitimizes it, because “love consists in two solitudes protecting, defining and welcoming one another”.

«I should like to ask you, as best as I can, to be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, like books written in a foreign tongue.»

Therefore, could we all be poets?

Only the ones who would die if they were forbidden to write can look into their heart in the deepest hour of the night and find the answer; more importantly, everyone should learn how to live, and for those who can’t, he has some words of comfort.