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Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of letters written by Ranier Maria Rilke, the famed 20th century German poet, to a young man named Franz Kappus. Kappus had attended the same school that Rilke attended some years prior, and he wrote to Rilke seeking criticism of his own poetry and a little guidance on how best to pursue his life. Rilke responded with an energy and a beauty of prose that makes Letters to Young Poet one of the foremost treatises on the act of writing and creative inspiration, interspersed with Rilke’s philosophy on a variety of subjects.
Letters to a Young Poet only features ten letters to Mr. Kappus, and none of Kappus’ letters to Rilke. Yet even without Kappus’ letters, Rilke’s responses are treasured by generations of readers and by any writer seeking inspiration. Rilke not only encourages Kappus to continue writing, but also to assess why he must write, and to think about his place in the world and what it means to be part of the human experience.
Introductions to Letters to a Young Poet nearly always cite that Kappus’ first letter made Rilke uncomfortable, reminding him of his experiences at the military boarding school Rilke attended, and that Kappus, at least in the beginning of their correspondence, was attending. Rilke had had a terrible, isolated time at the school, and finally left it, very ill and with a lack of direction.
Since Rilke’s father was in the military, Rilke assumed this would also be his career path. Instead he became a writer, though there was certainly some suffering involved in making this decision. Yet Letters to a Young Poet never rebukes Kappus for making contact with Rilke, and instead generously encourages Kappus to keep corresponding, even though his choice of subjects would at times pain Rilke.
Surprisingly, Letters to a Young Poet has very little to do with literary criticism. In fact Rilke urged Kappus to ignore criticism and keep aiming for what was the best and true in his poetry. Instead, the letters suggest a few books that Rilke thinks essential to all writers, and offers a great deal of advice.
There’s some very interesting subject matter in the letters as Rilke discourses on feminism, envisioning a time in the not distant future — he was writing in the early 20th century — when women would become the full and true equals of men. He also approaches subjects like sexuality and atheism with a light touch, offering quite good advice to his younger correspondent. A consistent theme in Letters to a Young Poet is dealing with loneliness, and the way in which loneliness can lend fire to creativity.
If you know a teen writer or a young adult writer who is seeking guidance, Letters to a Young Poet makes for the perfect gift. Rilke is better known for these ten short letters, especially outside of Germany, than he is for much of his triumphant poetry. Writers often praise Letters to a Young Poet as special insight into Rilke’s writing process and his gentle genius.