Letters to a Young Poet - Life-Shattering Rainer Maria Rilke Quotes From Letter One

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Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet and novelist whose poetry is hard for me to describe.

The words "otherworldly" and "majestic" come to mind.

"Indecipherable" is another, but not in the way you might think.

His words had meaning, yes, but Rilke was singular, a soul seeking his own place in the world.

Letters to a Young Poet is how many people come to know Rainer Maria Rilke.

The short book contains ten letters he sent in response to a young, aspiring poet by the name of Franz Xaver Kappus.

Kappus, who was attending the same military academy Rilke attended ten years prior, wrote to Rilke to ask for his creative and career guidance.

Much to Kappus' surprise, I'm sure, Rilke did not hold back with his response.

His candid response is striking, if not for the words he wrote but in how he wrote them.

Here are my favorite quotes, the quotes that most spoke to me, from letter one of Letters to a Young Poet

Quote 1 - Criticizing Art

There is no way for me to comment on the manner of your poems for it is not in my nature to offer any kind of criticism. Nothing can touch a work of art as little as words of criticism: such efforts always results in more or less fortuitous misunderstandings. Things are not as easy to understand or express as we are mostly led to believe; most of what happens cannot be put into words and takes place in a realm which no word has ever entered. Works of art are even more inexpressible than anything else: they are altogether secretive beings whose lives outlast our life which will inevitably cease to be.

Rilke begins his response by commenting on the ineffability of art. He states that art cannot be criticized because of the very nature that is a work of art.

This is how I felt about so much of my schoolwork growing up.

Even in the workspace, it's so easy to come up with rubrics, work plans, and process documents.

This helps an organization or business run, yes, but what about the human being doing the work?

Life comes from people being themselves.

It's hard to put a grade or judgment on that.

Quote 2 - On What a Person Must Create

You ask whether your poems are good...Well (since you have written to me for advice), I ask you to stop all of that right now. You are looking toward the outside, and that above all is the one thing you should not do at this moment. Nobody can give you advice and help you. Nobody. There's only one way. Go within yourself. Explore the cause that compels you to write; examine whether it plunges its roots into the deepest part of your your heart. Admit to yourself whether you would have to die if you were kept from writing. Above all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: 'Do I absolutely have to write?' Dig within yourself for a deep answer. And if the answer is affirmative, if you can counter this grave question with a strong and simple 'I must' then build your life according to this need. Even during its most indifferent and emptiest hour your life must become a sign and testimony of this urge. In this way you will become closer to nature.

Rilke demands that the young student stop with the need for validation for his art.

How often have I done the same thing, asking for validation for something that should not be judged?

We are indoctrinated by society to need public approval or, at least, approval from someone we deem "higher than" or "in the know," when, in reality, all wisdom we must be by the work we do on ourselves.

Quote 3 - What Makes One's Art Any Good

A work of art is good when it has been born from necessity. It will be judged on the basis of this origin: there is no other standard. For this reason, dear Sir, I could only offer the advice for you to go deep within yourself and to probe the depths from which your life emanates. At its source you will find the answer to the question whether you absolutely must create. Accept this answer, listen to its sound, but do not guess at its meaning.

There is something that each of us must do. The older I get, the more I believe this. Each person is unique. You are living a life no one else will ever live. Rilke speaks to this point in a way I find both beautiful and haunting.

Quote 4 - On Possession and Humility

I am returning the poems that you generously entrusted to me. And I thank you again for the great and heartfelt faith you place in me. I hope that my sincere answer, given to the best of my knowledge, has rendered me a bit more worthy of this trust that I, as a stranger, truly do not deserve.

Through his actions, Rilke demonstrates that his young mentee's art does not belong to him, if it can belong to anyone.

We all are in this world to figure out what life means for each of us.

To comment on another person's life course is antithetical to creating meaning in the first place.

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