Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke

During my childhood years, I always carried a book with me wherever I went – The Bhagwad Gita. Though I’m sure I understood very little of the book’s great wisdom underlying in the pages, I had heard from my parents and teachers that the book could solve all the problems of life, that the Warrior Arjuna represented us and the book represented Krishna and the wisdom pearls inside were all that we needed to lead a noble and happy life.

Letters to a Young Poet is one such book that is the Bhagwad Gita for the poets of our times. Rilke in his letters has dug deep inside the human mind and heart and has come out with gems of wisdom that come only through experience and the love for your craft. If you are the kind of person who daydreams, looks at the sky and wonders what is more expansive and infinite – the sky or the heart, and every time your heart wins over the sky – then my friend, your library is empty without this book.

Originally written in German to an amateur poet who sought guidance from Mr. Rilke, the book is an English translation of the correspondence that took place between Mr. Franz Xaver Kappus and Rainer Maria Rilke. It is a collection of ten beautiful letters which are must reads for every human being who wants to understand the meaning of love, solitude, poetry, life and one’s self. The translation by Reginald Snell is in itself a work of supreme art and deserves respect. The book was published in 1945 by Sidwick and Jackson, London and the edition I have with me was first published in 2002 by Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York. I chanced upon the book at the Infosys Mysore bookstore in 2011, completely unaware of the Poet, Writer – Rainer Maria Rilke and the following read was one of the most enchanting one for me. Considered to be one of the best letter writers in German Literature , Rilke writes in his first letter dated 17th February, 1903 –

“You ask if your verses are good. You ask me. You have previously asked others. You send them to journals. You compare with other poems, and you are troubled when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (as you have permitted me to advise you) I beg you to give all that up. You are looking outwards, and of all things is what you must now not do. Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one single means. Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you to write; examine whether it sends its roots down to the deepest places of your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you. This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write?… ”

This book is not the kind that is read and kept to rust on your rack. This book is to be used like the salt in your food, taste it every day and you will find greater joy in everything else that you read, write or do. The book will unfold before you in a different form each day and you will be amazed how you can spend dawn to dusk thinking about a couple of lines from the letters. This one is a must keep for every bibliophile. Do devour the letters at the first chance you get. The letters are works of a meditative mood. Happy ruminating!