836: Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

by Gerard


836.912: Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. Translated by M.D. Herter Morton. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1962. 123 pp. ISBN 0-393-00158-X.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 800: Literature
  • 830: Literatures of Germanic languages
  • 836: German letters
  • 836.9: 1900 to present
  • 836.91: 1900-1990
  • 836.912: 1900-1945

In 1902, 19-year-old cadet Franz Kappus wrote to Rainer Maria Rilke for his thoughts on some poems he had written. Rilke was known for a few acclaimed books of poetry and was beginning to really hone his craft. Kappus wanted genuine criticism and was trying to decide between a career in the army or a life as a writer. The ten letters he saved and subsequently published as Letters to a Young Poet are some of the most genuine and honest assessments of the field of poetry and the duty of the poet.

Morton’s translation of Rilke letters is all at once succinct, plain, and gorgeous. Rilke needs few words to impart to Kappus the importance of poetry and how one should go about writing it. “Nobody can advise you and help you,” he says, “nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.” Rilke decries the professional critic, the editor, and even the friend who seeks to help the poet. All poetry must come from a place free of outside judgment. Rilke also helps Kappus through a series of crises, including ones of sexuality, intimacy, and professionalism. Rilke takes a little longer to respond to each letter, almost trying to ween Kappus off using him as a critical crutch. In ten simple letters, Rilke gives a very good master class in poetry. If you’re a writer or a lover of poetry, this one will make for a grand and quick read.