As part of an effort to read more poetry this month I picked up my copy of Rilke’s Poems.* I picked Rilke because I had just finished his Letter to a Young Poet. I had thoroughly enjoyed this short work. It was very insightful and is certainly worth the special place it holds in the literature on writing. I never did a formal review of this work and so I will briefly highlight some things from it before attempting to be as brief in examining his poetry itself.
Letters to a Young Poet**
Oddly enough I came across this book last year in Hitchen’s Letters to a Young Contratarian, which I also loved. Rilke’s short book is a collection of letters that the great poet wrote to a young man who was struggling with his own artistic problems. The man, like Rilke, was being raised to enter the military. Like Rilke, he also dabbled in poetry and so he reached out hoping the older accomplished poet might provide some help. Although Rilke and the young man evidently exchanged several letters the young man collected a few of Rilke’s letters, which he published as this book. It became a landmark work that has been read by countless aspiring writers/poets/artists ever since. Rilke provides some very helpful insights for the young man, but two stand out as particularly necessary for our time.
1. Learn to be patient and alone.
While technically this is two things they are deeply interconnected. Rilke strongly believes that being alone is crucial for a poet. It provides the poet with time to observe life, time to think, time to live. However while doing these, thoughts and observations beg to be written down. Here is where the patience comes in, Rilke believes that as a young poet it is impossible to adequately capture certain things. Therefore, one must be patient and suffer with these half-formed ideas while one matures (and one’s writing ability matures).
2. Writers are more productive in solitude.
Rilke’s own productivity was heavily tied to the times he could devote to it without the distraction of other things. He usually desired a quiet room with only the necessary provisions and some nature to be near. He tells the young man repeatedly that solitude should be welcomed. It is there that writing happens.
Favorite quote: “And your doubt may become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become critical. Ask it whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perplexed and embarrassed perhaps, or perhaps rebellious. But don’t give in, insist on arguments and act this way, watchful and consistent, every single time, and the day will arrive when from a destroyer it will become one of your best workers—perhaps the cleverest of all that are building at your life.”
Rilke’s Poetry Collection
This particular collection contains a handpicked, by the editor, selection of poems from Rilke’s oeuvre. Having the original German on one side and the English on the other is wonderful. It is possible to critique to the translator and see the original rhyme and meter. The poems themselves are varied. Some look at childhood, a very Rilkean topic. Most are observations of universal truths that have been condensed down to a bare form. Solitude, longing, relationships, and nature are reoccurring themes.
Of all the poems in the work two particular sections are particularly fascinating. The collection of “song” poems is incredible. It displays his observant eye and patient writing. The collection of “Mary” poems are beautiful. Although some spots are theologically shady they could easily be used in a liturgical or religious setting. At the least they should remind Christian “artists” that great creative art can be done without pandering to the low-level of the religious culture today.
* I later learned that National Poetry Month focused on American poets and then began to read a collection by John Ashbery as well.
** The edition that I own contains a section in the back that details what was going on in Rilke’s life at the time of each letter, this provides fascinating insight to the letters themselves.