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Wisdom from an Older Poet

September 13, 2010 7 comments

Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke. Read by Denis Podalydes.

 In 1903, Franz Kappus is a cadet in a military school. He writes poetry and wonders whether his poems are good and if he is meant to be a poet. When he learns form one of his teacher that  Rainer Maria Rilke is an alumnus of the same school, he decides to write to him and ask for an opinion on his poems. A long correspondence will follow, and Franz Kapuss had Rilke’s letters published years later, leaving his own in the shadow.

 I have borrowed the audio book of Letters to a Young Poet at the library. The voice of Denis Podalydes was sometimes musing, sometimes firm, and always warm, soft and convincing. Rainer Maria Rilke has a calm wisdom which applies a soothing balm on one’s mind.

In the first letter, Rilke answers to Franz’s interrogations. He gives his vision of being an artist. How do you know if you are meant to be a writer ? The answer is simple: if you can imagine your life going on without writing, then you are not a writer. He advises Franz to turn his attention to himself to find in his inner life the roots and the raw material for his art. Critics from journalists, magazine owners and readers are not relevant to evaluate the worth of his poems. He shall find this answer in himself. No one can teach him how to write, something I agree with. (I’ve always wondered what Americans teach in writing classes). He needs to find his voice as a writer, and this voice comes from deep inside.

The other letters are more guidelines for life than writing counsels. The experience of the artist is solitary and to bear its loneliness with forbearance is a way to strengthen and reveal one’s personality. Rilke thinks a period of solitude is a mandatory step to discover who we are and that if we throw ourselves in the world without caution, we shall never know ourselves deeply. Solitude is a mean to shut out the futilities of life and concentrate on the essentials. It will give us solid roots to face the tempests of our existence.

His vision of women suits me and is insightful for the time. He points out that men and women are more similar than it seems (Remember, we are in 1903 and women have the rights of children). The greatest worldwide innovation will occur when men and women will not consider themselves as opposites but as human beings. Women should no be individuals defined in comparison to men but as themselves, a feminine human being. Rilke perceives that love relationships will be affected by this transformation and men will be surprised. Love will consist “in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other”.

To Franz who seems to have lived some hard times, he says sorrows should pass through him. The sadness which crosses someone nourishes them but when it stagnates, it putrefies and pollutes their soul. Fate is not external to men but within. The future is immobile, we are moving and imagining that events fall on us. But we just fail to listen to our inner minds and detect the coming events. It is that way that the future penetrates in us.

On courage, Rilke writes that the only true audacity is to welcome the unusual, the new, the strange as a benefit. “…perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”  Perhaps the ability to adapt to changes and new events is indeed the route to happiness, if happiness can be defined as a state of “non-suffering”

Rilke’s personal telescope is pointed on life from an fresh corner. These peaceful letters are the sort of book you want on your bedside table. They are a kind comfort for bad days, a silent shelter from the tumultuous outside world.

For another review, read Caroline’s fascinating take on these letters.

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