Letters to a Stranger

Writer: Grace Noh

Still image from  Cloud Atlas , 2012. 

Still image from Cloud Atlas, 2012. 

“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” - from Letter To A Young Poet 

Two young individuals exchanged letters from 1903 to 1908. Written in Paris, above is from the first letter from Rainer Maria Rilke to Franz Xaver Kappus, respectfully declining to criticize or comment on Kappus’ poetry. The letter offers Rilke’s candid and thoughtful insight and more letters continued to be exchanged for five years. Remarkably, the two individuals have never met in person.

Still image from  Cloud Atlas , 2012. 

Still image from Cloud Atlas, 2012. 

As someone who committed to write to a young poet over the course of ten letters, it is rather astounding that Rilke has in fact never met Kappus. Unlike the present day where digital communication is widely available, it was a different story in the early 1900s. Yet, the letters are more than simple conversations between two young men. Rilke keenly addresses what a writer like Kappus should develop and motivate himself as an artistic creator.

“Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsay able than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.”

Letters such as Rilke’s could easily be forgotten with time and by history as humanity frequently forgets the past when stories remain untold. Fortunately, the letters were published by Kappus after the death of Rilke and are continued to be read by many readers.

 “A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can't give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to, the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside.”

Written over a century ago, how does this personal writing to a young poet continue to be relevant to the young artists in the present day? While Rilke’s writing is not applicable to everyone, it nevertheless offers a timeless vision of how artists can engage themselves to creativity not heavily relying on others but emerging themselves in artistic creation with full commitment. 

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier,  Young Man Writing  (1852), oil on canvas, 23 x 16 cm. 

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, Young Man Writing (1852), oil on canvas, 23 x 16 cm. 

“If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.”

Rilke’s message is, perhaps, still read as there are and will continue to be numerous young poets like Kappus. As many young artists are full of passion to create something “great” and strive to become “successful,” they may fail to discover personal truths. It is not about how to write a successful poetry, but how understanding one’s own unique voice essential to an artist. As Rilke says, art is a “mysterious existence” that does not provide reasons or answers to the artist’s decision-making process. Rather, it is the one who is involved in creation to bring the meaning in art.