The possibility of interruption and distraction is everywhere today, making true-blue “alone time” more difficult to find, and to endure, than ever before. Thus, as we kick off our new “Creative’s Bookshelf” series, highlighting touchstone books for creative minds, Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet – an almost spiritual paean to the artist’s need for solitude – seems an apt starting place.
Letters collects the ten missives sent by one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, Rainer Maria Rilke, to an aspiring writer and army lieutenant named Franz Kappus. “Being not yet 20 years old and barely on the threshold of a profession which [he] felt to be directly opposed to [his] inclinations,” Kappus wrote to Rilke in 1903 seeking his creative counsel.
Although Kappus initially wrote to request feedback on the quality of his poetry, Rilke had little interest in critiques. As he remarks in Letter 1, “Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings.” Instead, Rilke uses the letters as an opportunity for a lofty meditation on how the artist cultivates great works. His advice is as relevant and sustaining today as it was more than a century ago.
You should not let yourself be confused in your solitude by the fact that there is something in you that wants to move out of it. This very wish, if you use it calmly and prudently and like a tool, will help you spread out your solitude over a great distance. Most people have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.
On the role of patience (Letter 3):
In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”
On embracing difficulty (Letter 8):
Letters can easily be read in one sitting. We recommend Stephen Mitchell’s excellent translation.
*Image via Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz.