For a book so small, so infinitesimally unassuming, I found incredible depth and a joy that comes with reading an artist’s frank expressions in the book “Letters to a Young Poet”. This book is a collection of letters from the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke to a young military officer and aspiring poet, Franz Xaver Kappus. It was, in fact, Kappus who, despite what the cover might tell you with only Rilke’s name adorned, assembled and published these letters. In the introduction of the copy I had, you could still find the writing of Kappus. However, his words have otherwise become cannon in obscurity.
Kappus’s life makes for an interesting meta-lesson for those writers seeking the comfort of sage advice. Kappus initiated the conversation that ensued between the two, as he was looking, among other things, for guidance. He was conflicted to either pursue a career in the military, of which he was already a cadet, or to seek work as a poet. The letters never come to answer this question, though they hint around at it enough. What is more unanswered, unless you seek the biography of Kappus, is whether Kappus continued with his military career or sought writing. As it turns out, the answer he did both. He served for 15 years in the Austro-Hungarian army. Throughout the course of his life, though he has worked more than as an officer. Newspaper editor, journalist, poet, short story writer, novelist, and screenplay writer are all titles that sought Kappus’s attention. Included in his bibliography are 7 published novels and 5 screenplays. Kappus, within all reasonable metrics, was a successful writer, but is largely ignored by literary history.
So, what is the meta-lesson? That you could live a successful literary life (read: published, more than once) and still become an obscure name in just a few generations. What I’m getting at here is that: one, you can do everything right and people still won’t regard you, and two, that it’s okay to write and enjoy yourself as a writer even if people a few decades removed don’t end up knowing your name. That is the meta-lesson. There are, of course, intentional lessons for us to ponder from these gracious benefactors.
The first lesson was one of sensitivity and awareness. It is common within the lot of writers to be considered the “sensitive type” especially when we are young. Many, myself included, despised this claim while we were young but found as time went on, that it was the only truth. It is apparent to Rilke as it should be to any aspiring artist that putting your effort in ignoring these sensitivities is not only a waste, but ultimately detrimental to the organism called artist. Artists, using this term to its widest application, are a sensitive beast. Rilke attempted to enlighten Kappus on what it means to be sensitive. It’s not that artists are all similarly sensitive, rather, we are all differently sensitive. Some are sensitive to noise, some are to images, some are to words, and so on (note: these sensitivities don’t necessarily indicate which art you would be “best at”. I.e. one who is sensitive to sound might not make the best musician but may instead become a writer) Rilke advised Kappus to pay attention to the world, to let the details soak into his psyche. This is the secret to harnessing your artistic sensitivities. It is counterproductive to allow your mind to be taken as hostage by every impulse, sight, sound, or emotion. Our sensitivities are the guides to which we can tune our attention and attenuate the rest.
The vitality of quiet and contemplation is the second and final major lesson from Letters. The above paragraph on sensitivity makes an artist a keen observer of whichever area they drive their interest, but it does not suddenly morph them into an artist. What Rilke expressed was that it is quiet contemplation proceeding observation that makes an artist. It is that rumination that allows the artist to construct symbols and other artistic conveyance out of our direct experience. Silence, in this Rilkean perspective, is a synthesizer between artist and experience.
Letters to a Young Poet is an exploration of what it means to be an artist, with all its warts and blemishes. What it leaves the reader with is a way forward, a method, although subtly expressed, of how to navigate a world with the mind of an artist. I recommend the work to any and all artists with a particular foot stomp toward those who are still aspiring and are looking for guidance.