Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet,” ostensibly a series of reflections about and advice regarding the inner-life of an accomplished poet, reveal as much about philosophical and moral attitudes as those attitudes or concepts which are commonly associated with literary theory and literary technique. In fact very little, if any, evidence of traditional literary criticism exists within the series of letters; Rilke, in fact, comments in the first letter that: “”Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism : they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings” (Rilke, 1).
With that quite clear admonition as a sort of preface to his ensuing reflections and advice, Rilke establishes a far more urgent and profound set of considerations regarding creative expression, considerations which arise out of the human capacity for self-exploration and spiritual odyssey. To begin with, Rilke advises young artists to eschew traditional “markers” of success, such as publication and critical acclaim. Such things are aspects of what he terms the “outer” world and have little to do with the composition of poetry.
Instead of looking outward for signs of success, the aspiring poet should look within: “”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” (Rilke,1). While it is relatively easy to comprehend Rilke’s meaning here that an aspiring poet should not allow themselves to be judged by outside sources for fear of losing their individuality, the method by which one attempts to “go into yourself” (Rilke,1) are both complex and dependent upon th aspiring poet’s level of devotion and patience.
It is not certain that a turning inward, alone, will produce the emotional and intellectual response that feeds into the creation of great art, but without such a turning inward, great art can not be accomplished at all. When Rilke comments that “if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not” (Rilke, 2) he is beginning to introduce the most crucial point in his set of principles and advice for young artists.
This first, and most important, concept is that: artists are self-reliant. This means that not only do artists plumb their own depths of emotional response for themes and techniques with which to advance self-expression, but the process of turning inward makes of any potential artist, a sort of “exile” within their own respective societies, a loner who must accept, first, subjective experience and response, and only later consider the repercussions of their journey.
The searching into the deep and personal subjective reality of the artist is not only a search for self-identity, bit a search for an escape from irony. And here, Rilke makes an amazing and very profound point regarding the “pose” that many people adopt to their lives. It would be easy to recognize this pose, say, in a corrupt politician who espouses love for his fellow-citizen but steals for personal wealth and empowerment from the taxes which are meant to improve his society.
Equally easy would be to recognize the irony and hypocrisy of literary critics who pontificate about works without ever bothering to understand them. However, Rilke takes the idea of irony and hypocrisy to an additional level and views it as one of the primary obstacles, as well as primary instruments, of creative expression. To dwell in irony may make for quick expression and readily comprehensible art, but it is also a path to the trivial.
Rilke writes “Search into the depths of Things: there, irony never descends” (Rilke, 3) and so, lack or irony, and hence — honesty — is also a hallmark of the odyssey of the artist. Once the prospective artists has made the decision that they could simply not live without being an artist, that they must plumb the depths and take on the journey within, the ensuing time of solitude and reflection will allow the artist to slowly replace conventional modes of logic and thinking with modes of logic and thinking that are far more conducive to artistic expression.
It is important to remember that Rilke states plainly that anyone who imagines that they can live without being a poet should not bother to write at all. This is a key point in his overall vision because Rilke regards poetry and artistic expression not as crafts or vocations, but as a “calling” not unlike that which is commonly associated with religious traditions.
The poet or artist has no choice but to be a poet or an artist; there is no-one to teach them craft or skills, there is simply the immersion into one’s “soul” and the re-emergence as an artist with a unique voice and vision. The thought process of the artist is “To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born” (Rilke, 5).
In this statement Rilke places great emphasis on the erosion of the ego in the artist, signifying that it is not the artist’s conscious ego which creates art, nor learned technique, but submission to unconscious processes, and openness to sensation and understanding: “this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating” (Rilke, 5).
Along with the substitution of a new “logic” for the old, Rilke mentions that perception of linear events, such as time itself, are not the business of the true artist: “Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come” (Rilke, 5). Along with self-reliance and patience, internal emotional, spiritual, and psychic growth are aspects of an artist’s journey.
Simply by removing oneself from the “mainstream” (and often ironic) flow of common society and common thinking, the artist becomes something apart from human society and something which is more in touch with Nature nd the processes of natural growth. Such a diversion from the ordinary means that the poet or artist will carry with them the additional burden of being misunderstood, possibly envied, and likely written off as a “crank” because the diversion of vision, mission, and personal bearing is radical enough to cause visible manifestation.
For this issue, Rilke advises “be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend” (Rilke, 9). The prospect of internal joy and a magnificent experience of one’s self and of nature are the artist’s true rewards, not notoriety and publication, just as self-reliance, patience, and honesty — rather than technique, theme, and medium — are the important aspects of composition.
In the long run, the journey inward which is made by the prospective artist will reveal itself to be a journey toward a deeper and more complete communion with God. Of course, Rilke avoids any dogmatic interpretations of precisely what God is or is not, but he advises young poets to understand that art is a spiritual, rather than a material or commercial, process.
He mentions that it is very helpful for an artist to view God as “the one who is coming, who has been approaching from all eternity, the one who will someday arrive, the ultimate fruit of a tree whose leaves we are” (Rilke, 10). This latter observation sums up, quite readily, the ultimate “thrust” of Rilke’s advice: that any prospective artist should view the process of becoming an artist as something more akin to religious than material experience.
Art is not only a way of life, it is life and for a true artist, there is no other path. Rilke’s letters are important not only for their veracity and honesty, but for Rilke’s insistence that the artist be regarded, rightfully, as a visionary rather than a craftsman, especially in an age which values above all else, reduction of human experience to merely material principles.
Work Cited Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet, W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.
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