Life Lessons from Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters to a Young Poet

Jul 31, 2020 / The Twelve Mysteries / book reviews

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The Way Out Is Through. Cyanotype on paper, 2020. Two print sizes. © Jonah Calinawan

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A few weeks ago, I emailed an 85-year-old writer who I greatly admire and asked for career advice. She had started writing at 50 years old, the age I am now. This parallelism inspired me.

“If I want to have published books and lecture when I’m 85 (assuming I survive that long), what would I have to do?” I wrote.

I wasn’t expecting a reply of course. The pandemic has turned the world upside down, so there are more important things right now. But last week, she graciously replied:

“Hello Jonah,

Thank you for your email….Now if at 50, someone had said what will you do to pursue your career, I would have hopefully responded, ‘Listen to the voice within…’

I certainly had no idea that I would be able to bring my writing, teaching, and Jungian studies together in such a way. Then through dreamwork, analysis, reading, journaling, and silent prayer, I found my way. But your way will be different and you will find it.”

The author’s advice immediately transported me to a book I read 17 years ago but had forgotten. This article explores the lessons contained in that book─echoing her life advice.

Letters to a Young Poet─The Book

In the autumn of 1902, Franz Kappus who was 19 years old at the time was about to enter the German military. Perhaps feeling trapped in a military career he didn’t want and dreaming of becoming a poet, Kappus wrote a letter to Rainer Maria Rilke asking for advice on what to do. Rilke was 27 years old and was already a famous poet. (Today, Rilke is considered one of the greatest poets of the German language.)

The two men corresponded over the course of six years, and the ten letters that Rilke wrote to Kappus became the book Letters to Young Poet (affiliate link). Unfortunately, we don’t see Kappus’ letters to Rilke. It would have been illuminating to read those letters too.

As I re-read the book now, many years later, the life lessons in the book are applicable, not just to poets and artists, but to anyone searching for a meaningful life especially during the pandemic where we’re spending a lot of time with our internal Self. In the letters, Rilke talks about listening to oneself, being patient, and dealing with fear.

Stop Seeking Answers Outside

“You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself.

…Consider yourself and your feeling right every time with regard to every such argumentation, discussion or introduction; if you are wrong after all, the natural growth of your inner life will lead you slowly and with time to other insights.”

The ramifications of this advice are profound. At some point in life, one has to stop looking outwards, copying others, and seeking approval.

Incidentally, through journaling and dream analysis, I recently arrived at this same realization. “I’m now 50 and past mid-life. At some point, I have to start listening to myself. If I don’t do it now, then when?” The email reply reinforced this shaky epiphany that I then wrote in my journal.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that I will stop learning from others. Everyone is on their life journey and create gifts to share with the world (similar to what I’m attempting to do in this website). I still want to learn from those gifts. However, my perspective will now be different. In the first half of life, we conform to expectations of society and family that it becomes difficult to differentiate between the voices outside vs. inside. The tendency is to listen too much to the outside. From now on, when it comes to the “what, why, and how,” I will also seek my counsel and respect it.

Everything Will Take Time. Be Patient

And when you start listening to your voice, Rilke advises patience.

Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the expressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life; in understanding as in creating.

…There is here no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!”

What I take from this advice is that things will happen at the right time. An invisible fermentation takes place between an initial spark and its eventual manifestation. Everything goes through this process. For example, I read this book 17 years ago, and at the time, I didn’t think the book was any good. Reading the email reply above brought back this book to my consciousness, and upon reading it again, I was blown away! 

Admittedly, Rilke’s advice is difficult to put into practice. We assume that everything can be solved quickly if we just put our conscious minds to it. If we can’t solve it today, then we buy the solution and have it delivered the same day if possible. Waiting is now a foreign concept.

I like the idea that gestation happens in the unconscious─beyond the reach of the ego. This is consistent with my beliefs. I believe that the spark of inspiration for creating anything new–a poem, a book, an app, or a vaccine for that matter–comes from that mysterious place inside of each of us. Call it the Ideal Forms (from Plato), the Muses (from the Greeks), or the Unconscious (from the Jungians). It doesn’t matter what you call it. Our internal landscape is the source of anything new. Rilke suggests we just have to be patient.

Allow Fear to Work Through You

With the pandemic, we are isolated and scared of what may come. We take all precautions to protect ourselves and others, but after that, what else can we do? Do we watch Netflix all day and binge eat? Or do we allow ourselves to listen to our silence and solitude?

“So you must not be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working upon you?

…Do not observe yourself too much. Do not draw too hasty conclusions from what happens to you; let it simply happen to you.”

Even though Rilke was not talking about a pandemic, his words resonate at this time. Could the agitation, pain, melancholy be working something within us? Could this solitude be a time to Ask the Most Important Question before the Pandemic ends

The Work Continues

I still don’t know where I’m heading, but I continue to create art and write. All the while, I will listen to that voice within, be patient, and let the fear work through me. Somehow, I will find my way. I hope you find your way too.

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