The letters that the great German poet Rainier Maria Rilke wrote to a young student at a military academy from 1903-1908 are still being read today. I suspect that they will continue to be read as long as people want to write poetry – or stories or novels or plays or memoirs. The letters were published in 1929 as Letters to a Young Poet (Penguin) and the slim volume has been in print ever since, in many languages. It is not a “How to Do It” book, and does not presume to tell the reader how to construct a sentence or a sonnet or how to create a plot; least of all does it give any hints or formulas for the questions that most aspiring writers are burning to ask: “Is my work any good? How can I get published?” Rilke begs the aspiring young poet to stop asking:
“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. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?”
Most aspiring writers would not have written any more letters to Rilke! But nineteen-year-old Franz Kappus was serious enough to keep writing to this ruthlessly honest advisor, and Rilke was generous enough to keep answering. The ten letters Rilke wrote between 1929 and 1928, along with the briefest of introductions by Mr. Kappus, make up this book. It is more of a spiritual guide than a writing guide, and its quiet wisdom will continue to be appreciated, not only by aspiring writers, but by anyone who seeks fulfillment in work and life.
This is a book that reverberates and evokes responses through the years in many different forms. It was no doubt an inspiration for the poet Hyam Plutzik to write the former professor he regarded as his own mentor, in Letter from a Young Poet (Watkinson). This poet was twenty-nine when he wrote during seven months in 1941 this seventy-two page outpouring that seemed a personal and artistic accounting of his life before reaching the turning point of thirty. It has now been published with an introduction by poet-editor Daniel Halperin, former editor of the literary magazine Antaeus, and co-founder of The Ecco Press. There is an biographical summation of the letter’s context, and the three-page response from Professor Odell Shepard that, ironically, was never mailed, but discovered among Shepard’s papers after his death. A reader senses that the deeply personal and seeringly honest summing up by Plutzik was the necessary prelude to the three books of poetry that he later published after serving in WWII. Some of the poems appeared in collections that also included the work of renowned poets such as Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.
In the pages of what Halperin accurately describes as Plutzik’s “fervid” letter to his mentor, many young writers may recognize the tone and feeling of their own emotions. It’s too bad that Plutzik never was sent his mentor’s letter of response to his passionate outcry. Professor Shepard told him “It is the inescapable fate of the young artist, insofar as he has any original gift, to produce a kind of ware for which there is no immediate market, to supply goods for which there is no demand.” Unlike Rilke, who offered no critique at all of his young correspondent’s poems, Plutzik’s Professor found the one poem that was sent him along with the letter to be “highly original” and “on the whole, successful.” He also passed on a bit of advice that could well serve every aspiring writer: “. . .let me say what I think you obviously need is hard mental discipline. . .”
That discipline is difficult to maintain at any stage of the journey, and especially at the beginning. As Hyam Plutzik progressed from journalism and radio to teaching, and to publishing his three poetry books, “the young poet” of the letter obviously learned that universal lesson. I am sure he also must have passed it on to his students at The University of Rochester, where he served as Professor of Rhetoric and Poetry.
Rilke advises his young poet, Franz Kappus, to avoid journalism and criticism if he wants to be a true artist. Kappus served as an officer in the Austrian army for fifteen years, then worked as a newspaper editor and journalist and wrote in every form imaginable – short stories, novels, sketches, screenplays – and even poetry! Plutzik, too, wrote short stories, a novel, “movie serials,” journalism, and served as a radio music commentator, before settling in as a professor – a profession that Rilke must surely have approved as ideal work for a poet. It is the work that most of our well-known poets have found the most congenial for their art.
I was fortunate to have a poet as one of my own great professors at Columbia, Mark Van Doren. He taught a course in Don Quixote that gave me the most important advice I had as young writer (and still serves as an important reminder to an old writer.) “The lesson of Don Quixote,” Van Doren said, is that “To be a knight, you do the things a knight does.” You don’t even have to live in the era of knighthood, as Don Quixote, Sancho Panzo and their faithful horse Rosinante proved. Pots and pans can serve as helmets and armor. There are always beautiful maidens to whom you may dedicate yourself. If there are no other knights on horseback to joust with, you can joust with windmills. You can “do the things a knight does.” Cervantes’ great novel proved it.
The theorem applies to every profession: to be a writer, you do the things a writer does: you write.