Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (published in 1929)
Book Review and Commentary April 11, 2017
“Rodin lived inside his art.”
First, this book is not about poetry. If you are an artist, novelist, sculptor, painter or poet, or creative nonfiction writer then you probably have had moments, perhaps even weeks or months, when you entered a period of despondency and thought “What is this all for? Why bother? Maybe I should give up.” Art and struggle go hand and hand for most of us. You’ve probably read all the pep blogs about following your passion and keeping the faith, recognizing the common Van Gogh blues, blah, blah, blah.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke tell us that the famous sculptor Auguste Rodin “lived inside his art.” Who cannot look at The Thinker and not ruminate with him. Rodin and Rilke were the deepest of friends and comrades in creativity.
Whatever kind of artist you are, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet is a voice worth listening to. The letters were written in the early 1900s when Rilke was about 30 years old. He wrote ten letters to a young poet named Franz Kappus, offering not only advice and inspiration, but a philosophy on how to cultivate the creative spirit and be true to yourself and your art.
Rilke’s book is such a refreshing look at why a person writes or creates art at all. He addresses doubt, loneliness vs solitude, nature, love, patience, demons and dreams, absolute conviction, and passion. This is probably one of the most impressive of books I’ve read on this subject. The thoughts in this little 100-page book is a true source and one to keep on the night stand. I love to open a page at random and see what Rilke has to say to me for the day. Page 61 told me that “We must embrace struggle. Every living thing conforms to it. Everything in nature grows and struggles in its own way, establishing its own identity, insisting on it at all cost, against all resistance.”
This book is for any artist who wants validation to soldier on and inspiration on how to live as an artist.
[This edition was translated by Joan M. Burnham, published by New World Library, 2000, ISBN 1-57731-155-8]
In you are fascinated by Rilke and want more of his insights about his life as an artist, you would probably enjoy You Must Change Your Life by Rachel Corbett. This is the biographical story of Rilke and the artist Auguste Rodin, their friendship, their heartbreaking rift, and the reconciliation. Unforgettable portraits of both creative masters.
REVIEW: “Much more than the story of Rilke as a young man serving as the personal secretary and confidante to Rodin. Laced with first-and second-hand accounts of the artists and their milieu, You Must Change Your Life is an examination of the gritty how and why of artistic creation, as well as an acknowledgement of the costs of such a life.” (Sarah Roffino – Brooklyn Rail)
My Recommended List of the Best Writing Books I’ve Read.
Mystery and Manners, The Nature and Aim of Fiction by Flannery O’Connor (book review here).
How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career by James Scott Bell (book review here)
Creating Characters, The Complete Guide to Populating Your Fiction, by the Editors of Writer’s Digest
(book review here)
Dialogue, The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, & Screen, by Robert McKee (book review here)
The Annotated Dracula (Bram Stoker), Annotated by Mort Castle (book review here) (Also The Annotated Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) Annotated by K.M. Weiland)
How to Write Like Chekhov, Advice and Inspiration, Editor Brunello and Lencek (book review here)
Steering the Craft, A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin (book review here)
Writing Wild, Tina Welling (book review here)
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg (book review here)
Method Writing, Jack Grapes (book review here)
Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury (book review here)
On Writing, A Memoir, Stephen King (book review here)
More Craft Books I’ve Read and Recommend:
Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway. All the basics of how to write: the writing process, show vs. tell, characterization, fictional atmosphere and place, story structure and plot, point of view, theme, and revision.
Story, Robert McKee
Story Trumps Structure, Steven James
The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass
The Art of Fiction, John Gardner (I reread this book once a year, it’s that good)
Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern
The Art of Character, David Corbett
Getting into Character, Brandilyn Collins
The Secret Miracle, the Novelist’s Handbook, edited by Daniel Alarcon
Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande
The Faith of a Writer, Life, Craft, Art, Joyce Carole Oates
If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland
Reading like a Writer, Francine Prose
Elements of Style, Strunk & White
Best Editing Books for Writers:
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne & Dave King
A Dash of Style, Noah Lukeman
The Grammar Bible, Michael Strumpf & Auriel Douglas
Line by Line, Claire Kehrwald Cook
The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Second Edition, Ernest Gowers
Chicago Manual of Style
Words Into Type, Third Edition, Skillin & Gay