This sunny weather has been a complete joy. I’m so grateful it’s here! Gone are the dark days, hello to sunglasses and summer wardrobes. This increased amount of daylight also means more reading time. Finally!! I hope you’ve all been soaking up the sun and making time for yourselves, you lovely people, you.
I’m going to review my book choice for Penguin’s Read The Year theme for April today. I’d read this at the start of the month but work is so demanding (exam season is fast approaching) so I haven’t had chance, but I’m here now! The topic for April was: Grab a book that will help you explore your creativity. I thought this book would be perfect because it’s all about a journey into writing poetry.
What’s it all about?
Firstly, this little book needs some context to it. These letters were collected three years after the death of Rainer Maria Rilke by the recipient, Franz Xaver Kappus. He was 19 at the time and at a military university when he first wrote to the poet to ask whether he believed his poems were any good and to see whether he should proceed any further. These letters formed a beautiful friendship.
These ten letters span over a two year period, with each starting with the various locations Rilke was writing from. Rilke wrote them when he was 27, stopping just before he was 30. These letters provide advice about being honest to yourself and the encouragement to continue in pursuing a creative career. Despite such support and praise, the men never met.
Each of the men attended the same university, so their grounds of their communication was born. The first letter is from Paris on February 17th, 1903. He writes about how he doesn’t believe in criticism and that the best thing a creative mind can do is listen to himself. A poem is good when the poet feels that it derives from necessity. It is at that point that the poet won’t feel the need to ask others for their opinions.
He writes that Franz’s poems are good but they are heavily influenced by Germany’s leading contemporary poets. The advice he offers is to look deeper into oneself. He explains how a good poem comes from connecting with one’s deepest and truest sui generis nature. This is most difficult to find in poems like love poems and is advised to stay away. Therefore, Franz would be better writing about his personal surroundings, even when it may seem the images aren’t exceptional enough to be in a poem.
“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”
The second letter in the collection is from Italy. Rilke begins by apologising for the delay in response and reveals he has been fighting an illness. Having read Franz’s work, Rilke offers two pieces of practical advice: don’t over use irony and whilst composing a poem, have some inspiring works near by e.g The Bible which he uses whenever he has writer’s block. These inspirations will help with any stoppages in writing as it provides a change in focus.
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart…live in the question.”
One of the most famous letters is where the poet shares his angst about love, sex and his future careers which can all be used as inspiration for his poetry. Franz reveals his complete and utter loneliness. The advice is to produce something amazing. It is only in loneliness that one can be uncomfortably honest with oneself. Use it to flourish and grow.
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
Throughout these letters we are also privy to some beautiful descriptions of foreign lands. Rome is described as a beautiful city and we see Rilke’s reaction to being here. Rome is full of beautiful paintings and astounding architecture. Despite this, Rilke is certain that if one can not find beauty in wherever they are, then one can only blame himself. The world is infinitely beautiful and if one is ever bored, it is because the individual is unwilling to exert some energy in seeing the world for what it really is. Go out and breathe it!
“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend.”
The following letter contains some lovely praise. He says there has been significant improvement in the young poet’s work. It is evident that Franz is deepening the personal knowledge he possesses and his work is something that only Franz could create. Of course, this is the real aim of writing poetry – expressing ones truest self. To show his appreciation and this movement to revealing oneself, Rilke transcribes the sonnet onto a blank sheet of paper. He claims this is often a useful tool for enhancing ones self awareness. I imagine you couldn’t get a higher form of praise in those days.
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
Letter eight deals with loss. From Sweden, Rilke writes that whenever one is sad, one should use the time to reflect on reasons why they are sad. Usually, it is due to some form of loss. We are able to recognise the nature of that loss and we create room for something new to enter our lives. Again, this can be used to create beautiful pieces of work. Channel those experiences into something wonderfully written.
“Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change.”
The next letter is arguably the most profound in its dealings as it is how to handle doubt during the creative process. Whether you are a poet or painter, any creative person would have experienced this. Rilke encourages the young poet it see doubt as an opportunity for further creative explorations, to enhance and develop. Even when one experiences such negative emotions, as long as they as intense, they are beneficial to the poet’s writing endeavours. They can be used to inspire more meaningful writing.
“Don’t be too quick to draw conclusions from what happens to you; simply let it happen. Otherwise it will be too easy for you to look with blame… at your past, which naturally has a share with everything that now meets you.”
The final letter holds deep congratulations as the young writer has decided to avoid a career in journalism and criticism. He writes that Franz seems more courageous and hope that these qualities only deepen in the years to come. He has grown as a writer and can now truly be himself.
What is fascinating is that these letters are probably the ‘truest’ thing I’ve read. Each of the emotions we probably have all felt. Self doubt is one of the hardest battles one can face and this advice is so reassuring. It’s really incredible to watch this young poet flourish over the course of these letters. Sometimes we all need a little reassurance and guidance to excel. This little book is so insightful. I believe it fits the criteria for Read The Year this month beautifully. It something I enjoyed reading and can take my lessons from it into my own life. I hope you can too.
Enjoy the sunshine everyone!
Big love xx