Why You Should Read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet

This summer, at the Ashland Goodwill Store, I bought a book for one dollar. Not just any book, but one every poet should read. The universe sent me this book knowing I am diving deeper into the writing lifestyle. I’m past the point of getting my toes wet or devoting Sundays to this feat. I’m all in, ink from edits tattooing my arms, waking up early with lines of my next poem. Okay, I’m not writing 24-7, since I still hold a part-time job to pay the rent. But the commitment is increasing. I’m trying to maximize all the time I have. I’m giving this writing life my all.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke speaks to the struggle of the artist. Hell, it speaks to the struggle of creation. It is refreshing to read. Writer’s block is addressed, as is his health: “But I am not yet well, writing comes hard to me, and so you must take these few lines for more.” It’s frustrating when a physical illness or a depression prevents us from devoting time to creating.

The artistic process takes time. Rilke writes, “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!” Rilke, master of poetry, is a true master of metaphor.

As a writer, Rilke encourages fellow poets to ask questions without seeking the answers: “…be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.”

“That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.” Recently, each of my writing teachers has advised me to “edit toward the strange.”

“The necessary thing is after all but this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going-into oneself and for hours meeting no one—this one must be able to attain.” This focus is needed to create and to revise. Recently, I have discovered that this focus can be achieved around others, but only if you are able to tune them out, via headphones or determination. Any library, coffeeshop, ice cream parlor or restaurant can be a place to find solitude. However, Rilke seems to speak to the importance of having a writing area. For me, I have two: my patio or my dining room table. Options are nice, and I prefer fresh air if it is warm enough.

On a College Campus Again…

Starting Monday I will be offering up my poems for workshop in an MFA Summer Residency.   This is the second of three summers, the cornerstone of a program that pushes us all to improve as writers.

I feel that my writing is becoming more personally resonant and more open. There is more freedom as I sit down to write. Last semester, my class engaged in discussion about self-censorship and why it is essential that we not censor our words in our writing. There are no longer “off-limit” topics. If there was a topic that I avoided, I am forcing myself to go there and write about difficult subjects, characters, and events.

Writing is an art and it is therapy. You might call it “free therapy,” but anyone who writes knows that in reality there is a cost to laying yourself bare on the page.   Writing digs deep into our human emotions. Not to mention the fact that poems are meant to be read aloud, and reading aloud in workshop or on stage such raw poems is tough.

Step by step. I will start with the writing and the workshopping process. Later, I’ll step my toes into the process of sharing with an audience: submitting to publications and reading aloud in public.

Art is emotion and it can be hard to wrap your brain around sharing it with the world.

But, this is why we write, and especially why we are in an MFA program.

We are taking steps to share our experience.

I’m Drawn to Artists

My parents shared with me their own appreciation of the arts.

Their talent certainly isn’t singing, but they aren’t afraid to sing their favorite tunes off-key.  Might I add, my mom is a world-class whistler.  She’s a songbird.

They always enjoy hearing quality live music.  Even now they especially enjoy local music and the singer-songwriters who play in smaller venues.  The best part of the concert is the backstory.  They reveal slices of their story in between the notes.

They encouraged my interest in reading.  The newspaper was more than news.  We read the bylines and continued to read our favorite weekly columnists who slipped in their own story as if we were reading chapters of their personal memoirs.  We discussed John Switzer’s philosophical take on the weather and the migration of birds, and Joe Blundo’s take on the intersection of morals and politics.

They took me to countless art galleries as we marveled at the genius of sculptors and painters.  They never had to drag me; I always enjoyed hypnotically gazing in wonder at works of visual art.  I’m not a visual artist, so I especially valued seeing this style of art.

Last summer, looking at my friend Greer’s oil paintings mounted on a wall at the Beachwood Community Center really hit home.  She has been practicing her art since as long as I’ve known her.  All artists practice their craft.  Art is about expression not perfection.

She’s been improving her own art technique and her artist’s eye allows her to share her story on canvas.  A picture is worth a thousand words.  I won’t do it justice by trying to explain.  The paintings are her point of view.  I did feel a sense of being outdoors after looking at her images, which were all grounded in nature.  Being outdoors brings a sense of calm but also it also brings me back to equilibrium.  I always pray for strength, health, and energy; nature freely gives me all of these.

The writing process is my main artistic venue.  My secondary venue is through music.  I have always been a singer in a choir, and for the past decade I have been dabbling in guitar.  I am certainly amateur, but what I enjoy most is setting my own lyrics to music.  A life beyond poetry on the page.  It’s more universal and more meant for sharing.

The process is visual.  Removing my guitar from its case.  Adjusting the strings back in tune.  Cutting my fingernails.  Making time out of my day to play notes, chords, and build calluses.  Allowing the time for songwriting to ooze out of my pores.  Waking up from a dream with a new phrase or refrain written.

Giving time to art is the key.  As much as you practice and edit, you must let inspiration have the time to make the masterpieces you are meant to create.  You must allow yourself the time to create your art and finally to share your art.

The writing process is more internal, and more about mastering your awareness.  A poem percolates from an observation.  Notice both beauty and injustice.  Practice mindfulness daily.


(Art is about perspective. Kouros holding a ram, Akropolis, 600 B.C. in Thasos Town, Greece.)