Review by Samantha Mastridge

Letters to A Young Poet
by Rainer Maria Rilke
ISBN 0-393-31039-6



Every aspiring poet thinks about exchanging letters with the established writer of their dreams. In these letters, the famous person will dispense wisdom to the young writer; they will nurture the budding creative talent and critique but not criticize the hopeful poems. But ultimately, most people never actually act on this wish. They talk about it, and they might even write the letters and find the address, but they never send them. They don’t believe that a ‘real’ poet would ever write them back.

Over the years, this fear has often been proven wrong. Good writers have written to great writers and in doing so have achieved their own measure of greatness. In 1903 Franz Xaver Kappus wrote a letter to Rainer Maria Rilke, the poet whose words had touched his soul. Miracle of miracles, Rilke actually wrote him back. Their correspondence lasted for five years, during which Rilke wrote Kappus ten letters. The letters have an older-brotherly tone to them, since the poet is advising his protégée in the ways of the world. He advises Kappus in the ways of relationships, both with himself and others. He tells Kappus the problems with sex, and he explains to him the relationship he has to have with his writing in order for it to gain the maturity of true poetry.

The letters are filled with the selfless, giving spirit that is evident in Rilke’s poetry. However, the letters only take up the first half of the book. The second half gives a chronicle of Rilke’s life at the time of each of the letters. Rilke spent much of his time traveling, and he was often very ill. But no matter what was going on in his life, he always took the time to write Franz Kappus back.

The letters were first translated by M. D. Herter Norton in 1934, and then revised again in 1954. The later translation is the one currently in print, and was reissued in 1993. Their content is simply inspiring. The translator puts it best: “It is evident that a great artist, whatever the immediate conditions disturbing his own life, may be able to clarify for the benefit of another those fundamental truths the conviction of which lies too deep in his consciousness to be reached by external agitations.” Rilke, by sharing his own brilliant insight with Kappus, created a manuscript that would continue to aid the creative minds for generations, and will probably continue to do so for generations more. The Letters to a Young Poet is the answer to all the letters that aspiring young writers will never send to their heroes. It is fortunate that Rilke was generous enough to spread his brilliance around, so that he might answer our questions before we even know we’re asking them.


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