Letters to a young poet
Rainer Maria Rilke
“You ask whether your poems are good. You send them to publishers; you compare them with other poems; you are disturbed when certain publishers reject your attempts…I suggest that you give all that up. You are looking outward and…that you must not do now. No one can advise and help you, no one.
There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And…if you can confidently meet this...with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.
Then draw near to nature. Pretend you are the very first man...write what you see and experience, what you love and lose. Do not write love poems…at first; they present the greatest challenge. It requires great, fully ripened power to produce something personal…Beware of general themes. Cling to those that your everyday life offers you. Write about your sorrows, your wishes, your passing thoughts, your belief in anything beautiful. Describe all that with fervent, quiet, and humble sincerity. In order to express yourself, use things in your surroundings, the scenes of your dreams, and the subjects of your memory.
If your everyday life appears to be unworthy subject…do not complain to life. Complain to yourself. Lament that you are not poet enough to call up its wealth. For the creative artist there is no poverty—nothing is insignificant or unimportant…Attempt to resurrect these sunken sensations of a distant past. You will gain assuredness. Your aloneness will expand and will become your home, greeting you like the quiet dawn…
If, as a result of…sinking into your own world, poetry should emerge, you will not think to ask someone whether it is good…For you will hear in them your own voice; you will see in them a piece of your life, a natural possession of yours. A piece of art is good if it is born of necessity. This, its source, is its criterion; there is no other.
Therefore…Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth. At its source you will find...whether you must write. Accept it, however it sounds to you, without analyzing…bear its burden, and its grandeur, without asking for the reward, which might possibly come from without. For the creative artist must be a world of his own and must find everything within himself and in nature, to which he has betrothed himself.
It is possible that…you might find that you must give up becoming a poet. Even then this process of turning inward…will not have been in vain. Your life will...find its own paths. That they will be good ones and rich and expansive…
…progress quietly and seriously in your evolvement. You could greatly interfere with that process if you look outward and expect to obtain answers...which only your innermost feeling in your quietest hour can perhaps give you.”