Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” and Cultivating the Virtue of Solitude

Rilke’s 10 letters -written when he was rather young, to an admiring fellow poet, younger still- continue to enjoy a popularity within the artistic set. I came to this slim little thing with a bit of trepidation, on account of my cynicism and my lack of patience for anything that might possible swerve in to the territory of “Chicken Soup for the Artist’s Soul”. Happily, it turned out I had no cause for concern. There is plenty of angst but, come on, we are talking about German poets here. I’d assume some kind of disingenuous posturing if the angst was totally absent.

What Rilke seems to spend most of his time on is in describing his relationship with solitude, with the artistic necessity of removing yourself from the crowd of people whose company you enjoy and spending time in your own head. Out of this grows the need to build your own mind into a place where you are comfortable spending extended periods of time -this idea being the big take-away for me. I’m an extremely social person, but I can become depressed if I don’t take the time to go into my own head, creating and dwelling, building the frames and references there before setting them down on paper later. Rilke is talking about it mostly as a precursor to creation, but the solitude he prescribes stands for more than that. It’s about cultivating the kind of mind that is capable of saying something legitimately remarkable, and not merely clever. It’s a damn hard thing to do.

I really appreciate the value of craft-based books, from Rilke’s epistolatory commentary on the artistic life to John Gardner’s far more specifically instructive “On Becoming a Novelist”. I notice that I tend to read these kind of books very differently, almost always with a highlighter or pen ready, and the finished volume full of notes and underlining. There is no substitute for the instructive power of the act of creation itself, but regularly reading the thoughts of great writers and artists isn’t going to hurt. We all want to have someone like Rilke as a mentor, but reading the collective mentoring of all the powerful writers who have written such things isn’t that poor a substitute.

Recommendation: Read it. Spend some time rolling it around your head, especially if you want to create.


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