Reading Tips and Recommendations from Rainer Maria Rilke

Oftentimes, the growing bond built through careful correspondence between two artists can become the lynchpins and clues behind deciphering the complex worlds that influence the minds of the greatest of thinkers.

Rainer Maria Rilke

In this, the letters of Rainer Maria Rilke are no different, and “Letters to A Young Poet,” which provides several hours of unrivaled wisdom of reaching into our own selves and exploring our creativity, also gives us a fantastically unique lens into the artists and writers revered by the German author in honest and understandable terms.

Rilke was asked for words of advice from an an Austrian journalist and military cadet, Franz Kappus, in what became a unique glance into the author’s world in a correspondence that was espoused by Rilke to Kappus, who beseeches Rilke to provide Kappus, an aspiring writer, with an honest critique regarding some of Kappus’s poetry. Rilke himself was about 27 when he first responded to Kappus in 1902, which resulted in several timeless meditations over a five year period, that Kappus eventually published in 1929.

The second letter is a fantastic testament as to how the correspondence itself becomes a pleasurable act for Rilke, who understands the heavy role of being an adviser to anyone, is inextricably intertwined with solitude, and that the idea of providing “help” to someone, be what it may, is actually a more grandiose and futile agenda, because of the aloneness of human destiny. What is essential to remember here, is that Rilke is clearly speaking about the importance of words in providing clues on life, but how introspection is likewise crucial, when he says:

Of course, you must know that every letter of yours will always give me pleasure, and you must be indulgent with the answer, which will perhaps often leave you empty-handed; for ultimately, and precisely in the deepest and most important matters, we are unspeakably alone; and many things must happen, many things must go right, a whole constellation of events must be fulfilled, for one human being to successfully advise or help another.

That Rilke makes light of what must have been his vast library, on April 5, 1903, when he penned this letter to Kappus sitting in Viarregio near Pisa in Italy, is second only to the the clarity and simplicity of the recommendations at hand. It is interesting that he only focuses on one particular author as an example of how truly immersing ourselves into the landscapes provided by a singular artist CAN and does provide unrivaled fodder to our imaginations.

     Of all my books, I find only a few indispensable, and two of them are always with me, wherever I am. They are here, by my side: the Bible, and the books of the great Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen. Do you know his works? . . . Get the little volume of Six Stories by J. P. Jacobsen and his novel Niels Lyhne, and begin with the first story in the for mer, which is cared “Mogens.”

A willing suspension of disbelief crucially follows those who are able to delve into the worlds created by another’s imagination, and in order to read well, Rilke advises us, we must pay homage to that ever elusive emotion: love.

A whole world will envelop you, the happiness, the abundance, .the inconceivable vastness of a world. Live for a while in these books, learn from them what you feel is worth learning, but most of all love them. This love will be returned to you thousands upon thousands of times, whatever your life may become – it will, I am sure, go through the whole fabric of your being, as one of the most important threads among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments, and joys.

If you have been fortunate enough to read the novels and words of Jacobsen, you will have noted that the descriptive tonalities in Niels Lhyne paint a vivid world of a sickly child whose days are numbered. In the story, Jacobsen draws his audience in as an expert writer, whose prose is substantially subdued, devoid of the florid flourishes which often deem a piece of literature mediocre.

What is important to remember about the words of advice that Rilke is providing is that he clearly valorizes reading as much as he embraces various forms of inspiration- through the letter that he has composed for Kappus, he has found some meaning in his own existence as a writer, but this meaning is by no way limited to the writer and the written word, for Rilke pinpoints how visual media and landscapes are shaped by artists practicing in all art forms, and they must all be embraced, whether they are sculptors or writers.

     If I were to say who has given me the greatest experience of the essence of creativity, its depths and eternity, there are just two names would mention: Jacobsen, that great, great poet, and Auguste Rodin, the sculptor, who is without peer among all artists who are alive today.

As an avid fan of Rilke, I delved into  five crucial reasons why a process of self evaluation must accompany each artist’s journey into truth and creativity, which was gleaned from the writer’s first letter to Kappus. Other artists also attribute their work to their mutual interactions, such as performance artists Ulay and Marina Abramovic, but sometimes, when emerging forces are at bay, these seem to clash in powerful showdowns, such as the first encounters betwee artist Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali. Whatever the ingredients for successful interaction actually are, it is the takeaway, and the necessary intertextuality in form and content, which clearly help situate and distinguish the novel ideas


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