Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reading 'Letters to a Young Poet'

I am going through, very slowly, translations of Rainer Maria Rilke's letters to an aspiring poet, Franz Xaver Kappus, in the early twentieth century; these have been translated and bundled together in a book 'Letters to a Young Poet'. As the introduction aptly reminds us, they could as well be titled 'Letters from a Young Poet' for the poet Rilke had a tremendous impact on German poetry.

The letters, reflections of some of his poems, are at times dark and disturbing, at other moments, revealing and spiritually profound. He talks of writing, life, the essential creativity of the spirit, the inevitability of solitude and how to accept it, and more. The words seems to spring right from his heart and flow out in a compelling torrent - this is what makes the book haunting and thought provoking. He writes at the end of the first letter:

"What else should I say to you? I think everything has been emphasized as it should be; and all I wanted to do in the end was advise you to go through your development quietly and seriously; you cannot disrupt it more than by looking outwards and expecting answers from without to questions that only your innermost instinct in your quietest moments will perhaps be able to answer."

And, later-

"Make use of whatever you find about you to express yourself, the images from your dreams and the things in your memory. If your everyday life seems to lack material, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to summon up its riches; for there is no lack for him who creates and no poor, trivial place."

We have only to read some of Rilke's poems to see this (though something is probably lost in translation)-

A Walk

My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave...
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.

(Translated by Robert Bly)

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