I’m in the midst of reading Letters to a Young Poet and it’s a testament to how beautifully written it is that it’s a short book and I’m not even near half of it. Now on the face of it, that seems to defy the very definition of page-turner, but the best analogy I can think of (surprise, surprise, it’s food related – but hey, you write what you know!) is when you take a bite of something so delicious that from the get go, you force yourself to slow down and savour every bite. It isn’t only that every phrase I’ve read uses words that feel so deliberately chosen and lyrical (hehe, like how a great chef chooses every ingredient of his dish), but Rilke's advice itself is nothing short of insightful.
I confess that I've never consciously read any of his poems, but that's definitely going to change. Although his letters went to an aspiring poet that he got to know, they are just as applicable to any one of us. Here's one of my favourites:
“to keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your while development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to question that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.”
Yes, yes, and yes.
As he shares his advice, he holds little vanity for the help he offers. In his words, “many things must happen, many things must go right, a whole constellation of events must be fulfilled, for one human being to successfully advise or help another.” Sure, this doesn’t necessarily gel with my job of giving out legal advice, but when we look at how people receive advice, often it has to come at the right situation, with the right words, at the right time for it to really hammer home. Recognising this reality takes away so much of the pressure with giving advice and even in receiving it.
It must be incredible to write with the passion with which he does. He implores the recipient of his letter to seek the reasons for which he writes, to see if it has “spread its roots into the very depths of his heart”, and if so, would he “would have to die” if he were forbidden to write. Whoa, right? I don't know if such an intensity even exists. There's hardly anything I can find myself dedicating months to, yet alone an entire lifetime. But let's say we've found this passion, this thing of which we could not live without; Rilke then advises that we “build our life in accordance with this necessity, and turn our life, even in its humblest hour, as a witness to this impulse”. Purposeful living at its finest. His words ring with a religious rigour and have roused a desire in me to seek out things I’m passionate about, rather than pick out the life that brings the most comfort. How rewarding it must be to pursue passions and yet know that the validation we seek isn’t external.
I’m not sure if Rilke intended this, but I find his words so inspiring in my exploration of Christianity. When asking us to seek out what we would die for and to dedicate our lives to it, it gives a little insight as to how the disciples must have felt when sharing the gospel. Looking away from external validation reminds me to look to God because it’s not about what the world thinks. And as I learn more and more about this faith, I stumble across so many hurdles and am by no means done learning. Rilke has this to say about growing:
It's not like “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. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast.”
Maybe if I had read this sooner, I wouldn't have written my previous post the way it turned out. Because I have dedicated many thoughts on adulthood and growing up, and if I just trust in it and do as Rilke suggests, maybe I'd be less concerned with who I want to be, and instead, be more interested in who I am.
It’s such a great book, with a pdf available online here for those who are interested. Highly recommended for anyone who's stuck in the millennial conundrum of who to listen to now that real life is rearing its head. If you’ve read it, do let me know your favourite bits and we can start a conversation.
Till next time!