You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before . . . You are looking outside and that is what you must avoid right now. Go into yourself . . . 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? . . . And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity . . . even in its humblest and most indifferent hour.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet arouses the buried “poets” within each of us, inciting us to find enough inner stillness to listen for and to express the truth of who and what we are. These ten letters, written in 1903, were addressed to a student who sent his poems to the German poet Rilke and asked for advice on the creative process; Rilke’s responses speak to any profound journey of the spirit. Like Stephen Mitchell, who has done a beautiful new translation and preface, I felt on first reading these letters as if they were written for me. At seventeen, long before I had begun a meditation practice, Rilke introduced me to the dharma.
Rilke has the gift of saying to us what we already know, but we didn’t know we knew. Over the years I have been drawn back to these letters unaccountably, like an amnesiac who returns to find her way. Each time Rilke reminds me, I recognize where I am. Again I recover an inkling of some lost self and remember the direction I had once known I needed to follow.
I’ve returned most often to the passage quoted above. I’m still searching to articulate for myself what it is that these words continue to teach me.
You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before . . . You are looking outside and that is what you must avoid right now. Go into yourself.
Perhaps the first reminder is for a homecoming, to welcome myself back into my own silent and spacious home. After this amnesia, to look around, (after all I’ve barely peeked inside), to trust that everything is here. So often, outside, I’ve let the judgments of others, or my projected versions of those judgments, determine how and what I think or understand or dare imagine.
. . . 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?
The boldness of Rilke’s challenge stuns and stops me at each reading. In honesty I ask myself, Would I? Must I? Who am I, anyway? What really matters to me? Is there anything I would indeed die for? (Or is it that I die a little each moment I’m not living completely who I am?)
And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity . . . even in its humblest and most indifferent hour.
Build your life in accordance with this necessity. This is the line that comes back to me so often, as if a message from my amnesiac’s dream. If indeed I am serious . . . about writing . . . about practice . . . mustn’t I strip to the essentials, rebuild to reflect what matters?
In Rilke’s journey of the spirit he has chosen a discipline which demands renunciation through solitude. Solitude, its pain and its gifts, is the main theme of these letters. According to Rilke, solitude (“to walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours”) is necessary for creative work.
And if what is near you is far away then your vastness is already among the stars and is very great . . .
Solitude becomes a universe to be explored.
To accept solitude involves an acceptance of the truth of our aloneness—a first step in the process of recognition of who we are.
We are solitary. We cannot delude ourselves about this and act as if it were not true. That is all. But how much better it is to recognize that we are alone; yes, even to begin from this realization.
Once the terrain of solitude is established Rilke urges us to be attentive and patient and to have faith in our quests. Rushing ahead for answers is useless, as the point is to fully experience each step. He teaches us to live the questions.
. . . I would like to beg you . . . to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language . . . . Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
How often this image—”as if they were locked rooms”—has returned to me as I’ve traced my blind fingers over the cold marble knob and brushed the dust from the door jamb with loving familiarity.
Again and again we are reminded to trust the difficulties that arise, as it is only through living through the difficulties that we sound our own depths, and become more completely who we are meant to be.
. . . but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition.
Always flipping the enemy over to reveal its humanness, Rilke writes:
Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
Reading this, each time I am disarmed. A shift in perspective allows compassion and transformation.
These letters speak most poignantly to us when we are lonely, desperate or unhappy. Rilke reminds us to experience the rich underside of the painful moments. He teaches us to value aloneness, to trust our sadnesses and to welcome doubts as our allies. He helps us turn suffering into an opportunity for learning, deepening, transformation.
Living the questions in vast solitude while trusting in what is difficult prepares the way for the new. In the vast and all-accepting solitude, image and/or insight arises. The process seems to have a movement of its own to which one can attend. I am reminded of the Taoist “fasting of the heart” with its accompanying unfolding of insight.
And when the faculties are empty the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you, that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind. Fasting of the heart empties the faculties, frees you from limitation and from preoccupation. Fasting of the heart begets unity and freedom.
Renunciation through silence, like “fasting of the heart,” can lead to the natural unfolding of understanding.
Everything is gestation and then birthing. 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: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.
Whether it be to live as an artist or to live as a shaman, to open to the imagination or to open to the spirit—this process leads to a recognition of truth, and to freedom.
Letters to a Young Poet is the kind of book which can be read over and over again year after year, and like a good dharma talk, each time new images will resonate, new insights be experienced. Over the years I’ve given away more copies of this thin volume—to friends, students, my sister, my mother—than any other single book; I never seem to have one of my own. It’s exciting now to give away (and also I hope to keep) Stephen Mitchell’s new translation, which, in eloquent language, redirects us toward our various journeys home.