Written by Can Van Elk
Writing can be a lot like parenting, whereas reading can often be a lot like childhood.
Similarly, books about writing are as abundant as books on parenting in today’s world. Books that show you techniques, and give you, helpful hints and insights on how the perfect scenario would play out, never to be matched verbatim in reality. Books that point out all the foibles you might be experiencing and assure you that it is all part of the process.
Yet, what makes Letter To A Young Poet so unique – being instead a concise, collected correspondence between two creators – is its acceptance of subjectivity and, despite that, the challenge of what it might take to create what could be considered to be a masterpiece by critics.
This book is not simply collected correspondence either, it is instead a sheer display of passion packed into a few pages with such power that it pries open the very heart of any creative soul who sees these words or hears them spoken.
These letters, which you will find bound between the covers of this book, were written over about 4 years, starting in 1902. A young striving poet named Franz Kappus learns that our author is an old alumnus of his current alma mater. Kappus hopes of building upon such a great mind’s personal insights in his work. He had been receiving meager portions of positive feedback on any of his work thus far and was questioning his worth as a poet. So our “protagonist” sends some of his verses from Berlin, alongside a letter, to Rainer Maria Rilke.
With an inquiry to the likes of:
“When am I going to be good enough?” – A question many of us have asked of ourselves in some capacity in life, especially in our youth.
Rilke, a famous Austrian poet at this point, had recently moved to France to write about and further study his afflatus – the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Most of us might be familiar with Rodin’s often-replicated and most famous work, The Thinker. A seated figure rapt in thought with his fist tucked under his chin. Rilke had good reason to be fascinated by Rodin, for the artist represented a new era in modern sculpting, having a unique prowess over the shapes that he could concoct with his hands, using clay.
In today’s world, we can see The Thinker in numerous places, such as the large version at the Musée Rodin in Paris, at the Columbia University campus in the United States, or even on various mantelpieces as bookends. It is a single statue that has become ubiquitous in our kinetic interpretation of body language. Today, when we strike this pose, we at once emulate this single work of sculpture as well as all it stands for.
What is lost to our common knowledge today, however, is the historical fact that Rodin’s The Thinker was not a singular concept as a statue, and was merely supposed to be the centerpiece for a much larger commission granted to him in the 1880s. The same decade saw the genesis of pediatric pioneers such as Dr. Abraham Jacobi, who forced mourning generations of American parents in society to look inward and bring emphasis to child medicine and care to all hospitals. What cholera, Diptheria, leprosy, and a host of once-predatory diseases had taken away, great minds who looked inward at our cellular and chemical worlds, such as Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur, gave back in terms of hope.
Meanwhile, Rodin’s famous thinking statue, back in its original Victorian conception, was going to be at the center of a large representation of yet another famous poet’s timeless opus. What was to be Rodin’s larger concept, The Gates of Hell was inspired by Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s introspective work – Inferno. To this day, some critics of Rodin’s work speculate that The Thinker was a kind of self-representation for Rodin, who was at the height of his international fame during Rilke’s Edwardian tenure in Paris.
It is in this regard that we consider the advice which Rilke gives Kappus in this denary collection of letters. There dear reader, about three main avenues of advice which Rilke delves into in this book.
Firstly, there is the over-simplified chestnut – “Write what you know”.
Some of the most common pieces of advice in writing are. What might be a platitude for any other creative mind becomes, at the tip of Rilke’s passionate pen, the most insightfully dense and introspective set of curtains which can at once be pulled back to reveal the inner child dancing freely on the stage within. This is because Rilke at once instructs Kappus to cease looking outward for validation and rather focus on looking inward for the answers.
What Rilke tells Kappus, is to fall in love with the questions and uncertainties he is facing. He instructs Kappus to step into the maze that is the inner self, and navigate those tall corridors towards the answers of quality that he seeks about his work. This patriarchal poet tells Kappus that there, in the center of the maze, you will find the “unsayable things”.
What is meant by this, is the limitation of words to describe most of what we experience in life. This addition to the advice seems counter-productive at first, considering that a waxer of lyrics is now abbreviating the abilities of his given tools. But for Rilke, it’s not about the tools, it’s about the talent, and that comes from a life of experience.
Three years before World War 2, back in 1936 in a modest post office worker’s home in a place called Dodge City in Kansas, James and Marjorie welcomed the newest addition to their American-Scottish lineage – a baby boy named Dennis. While baby Dennis was experiencing his formative years, the German Luftwaffe took advantage of the British industrial stronghold in Scotland, with its many factories, coal mines, engineering works, and shipyards. In a series of air raids, the areas of Clydebank, Glasgow, Greenrock, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Dundee had all been blasted with a bombardment of dropped Nazi bombs. Luckily the Hoppers, now in their comfortable existence in Dodge City U.S.A, seemed to have dodged a fate in their home country that could have left them crestfallen. Instead, Dennis Hopper was given the ultimate gift that parents can give their children – a chance to have a life, rich with formative experiences.
Many first came to know Dennis Hopper back in July 1969, at the height of the decline of the hippie movement, post-Woodstock. It was in a passion project, together with rising star Jack Nicholson and a collection of other creative cohorts – even including the dangerous gun-toting genius record producer Phil Spektor, who as a prank had once pulled the trigger in the studio and shot a bullet right past John Lennon’s ear.
Lennon, who had dodged the bullet by mere inches at the time, said to Spektor “Phil, if you’re going to kill me, then kill me”. As fate would have it, a little over a decade later Lennon would meet this precise incidental demise during the height of the introspective part of his forays into music, leaving his wife Yoko and their baby boy Julian behind. A well-documented murder that was itself inspired by the written words of J.D. Salinger and one lost soul who thought he was looking inward but was, instead, using the fringe critiques of others to form his version of reality, based on subjectivity and inertia.
Before Lennon’s bane, in Dennis Hopper’s breakthrough passion project, a film called Easy Rider, cinema history was made in an allegorical depiction of the sobering youth of the 1960s realizing that inertia was approaching their mass-consciousness movement in the tumultuous United States of the era. Hopper penned, produced, and filmed a story in which two biker hippies travel across the country, get met with extreme prejudices, stop beside the road at night for camp-fire introspections, and meet an abrupt fate as the curtains close on the final act of the film. It was a truly inward and psychedelic look at what had become of two generations opposed in thought, and at war.
What had seemed to be a “riding wave”, as famous Gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson noted, had by the 1970s come crashing down hard, and -as Hunter put it- could be seen as a clear waterline if you go up on a hill today and look towards San Francisco. A generational movement had lost its purpose for looking inward, which some still argue today to be one of the saddest fates of all.
This is why Rilke’s second piece of advice on purpose in this book resonates so harshly. Dennis Hopper had decided in 2007 to commemorate the one single book that had inspired him to become a creator and tell his own stories from his own experiences and inward questioning. In a short film, Hopper recites the first letter from Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet, citing it as the foundation for his life’s work and the book that helped give him the purpose to create.
Listening to Dennis Hopper recite the letter which contains this second avenue of advice from Rilke, one can sense the homage to the experiences of his own rich and creative life. In the video, Hopper reads with stage-driven aplomb, how Rilke asks Kappus whether his impetus to write “stretches its roots into the deepest place” of his heart.
Rilke asks Kappus here, “Can you say that you would die if you were forbidden to write?”
Rilke tells the young poet, “Do not now look for the answers, they can not be given to you, because you could not live them… At the moment, you need to live the questions.”
If existence and experience are the obscured pool of words, then Rilke tells us that poetry is the ability to find purpose in that pool. Quite often it is purpose -or the lack thereof- which becomes the most powerful fate of all. It has been the demise of many a creative soul in despair.
Such as Neo-Classical painter John William Goddard, who paid meticulous detail to his paintings of women in classical settings. A style that was, due to the holistic understanding of classical scholarship and the global rise of modernism in art, becoming unsustainable to produce for the sake of income. A vastly superior example of this dedication to Goddard’s level of detail can be seen in a painting such as Summer Fields, which was completed and displayed to merely moderate public interest during Rilke’s French tenure of 1903.
At the end of a dwindling path of success, Goddard took his own life after claiming that the world did not have enough room for him and Pablo Picasso. Goddard had become the tragic prisoner of his subjective critique. Like a bad parent berating their child despite any of the child’s achievements in life. We read the words of our voice most notably when we write them down about ourselves, which is why Rilke believes that we cannot allow these walls to enclose us and imprison us.
During the lukewarm reception of Goddard’s 1903 exhibition of Summer Fields, a future icon in dystopian fiction and philosophical august was born. George Orwell would go on to write the sobering classic work of speculative fiction titled 1984. This book had become such a global phenomenon that today the term Orwellian represents the imprisonment of free thought itself. Some would say that Orwell intended to inform future generations, while others claim that his purpose was to entertain and the governments of the world just listened all too well. As if society had imprisoned itself with the same lack of purpose that befalls the oppressed world in 1984.
Rilke would have us believe instead that by looking inward for the questions, living this inward life, and finding purpose there, we can break free from these walls of imprisonment.
During the height of World War 2 when thousands of disenfranchised minds were taken under Nazi command in concentration camps, one particular author witnessed first-hand what the true power of purpose looks like. This ephemeral observance in others, well hidden under the minutiae of the daily existence of oppression, inspired Victor Frankl to write his inspiring 1946 book on purpose titled Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl wrote how finding a purpose for positivity can make the human spirit truly anti-fragile.
Anti-fragility is a philosophical concept conceived of by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and dictates that the true opposite nature of fragility is not indestructibility. The right opposite end of the scale of fragility is anti-fragility, which tells us that something can be enhanced by encumbering external forces instead of broken down by them or even worse, being unencumbered by them altogether. A great example of this is the kind of vaccination effect that is given to children for various diseases that are now long gone, thanks to the Kochs and Pasteurs of the world. The effect is where the virus itself gets inserted into the system to strengthen the system’s immunity. Another great example of this is the power of purpose for positivity during circumstances of superior oppression.
It might seem to any who does not endeavor the creative writing life, that Rilke, Kappus, Goddard, Hopper, and all who are stricken by the need to write or create might be at somewhat of a disadvantage in the ever-encroaching mundanity and purposelessness of our material existence.
Yet what Rilke and all other creative minds drove by passion and purpose know very well, is that this third and final piece of advice from Letters To A Young Poet is of the utmost importance:
To find solitude from your encumbered mind and the interrupting external stimuli of this world, you need to seek a subjective form of solitude in which your creativity can grow. Yet how can we achieve this, when for some of us this might seem like some sort of Sisyphean task?
As the creator ventures on their journey inward, beyond all that can be seen by material thought or conjured by our tongues, we need to be -as Rilke puts it- “poet enough to call forth the riches “of our daily existence. Rilke calls on us to become like children, lost between the scaling walls of adult legs as we crawl around on the floor, fascinated by every new thing as if we see it for the very first time. To be like the childlike reader, not aware of what is coming and merely clambering from one page to the next, leaving the serendipities and wonder of this universe open for ourselves to experience at the moment and envelop as we go along.
A perfect example of this advice -as extracted from ancient symbolism- would be to compare the creative mind’s journey to that of I’itoi, the Man In The Maze. The I’itoi Ki symbol originally belongs to the Native American tribe who call themselves the Tohono O’odham – “Desert People”, when Anglicised. It is in their ancient verses and myth that the journey of I’itoi is immortalized. A myth that describes the path to wellness and collected serenity, as we search for the answers to the flowing river of experiences in the maze of our lives. In this story, I’itoi faces many turns and decisions on the journey toward the center of the maze.
With each turn and decision, he grows wiser and closer to the center. As I’itoi’s journey inward progresses he also grows physically as he gains understanding, and soon – deep within the confines of the maze – he can at last peer over the walls easily to see the road to the perfect place – now having a holistic understanding of the world and his place in it.
Here, in the serene center of this maze, Rilke waits for all of us to navigate the rambunctious avenues of self-reflection and self-doubt. He waits for us to read these significant letters, like a father waiting patiently for their child to finish counting down the questions we need to ask ourselves as creative minds, before sprinting through the maze to find him. In the perpetual cosmic game of creative hide-and-seek that we play in this life, Rilke’s Letter To A Young Poet is less of a map and more of a fatherly voice in the distance, calling out to his children to create and conquer.
Every creative mind deserves to read it.