Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Marina Rilke

By Eugenia Brotons Batista

For those who are familiar with Rainer Maria Rilke, excuse the naiveté of my review, I could not help but be stunned by my first experience of his writing.

I picked up Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet fortuitously, as I was sifting through the set of Penguin Clothbound Classics in search of Bonjour Tristesse, my initial pretext for making an appearance at Waterstones on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Bookstores are a perfect site for aimless activity: I tend to pick up books (which I have no intention of buying), read a few pages, and put them down. 

This is what I expected of Rilke’s Letters. But once I read the first letter, I could not close that dratted pink book. I flipped to the next letter, and the next, barely aware of bodies awkwardly shuffling past me as I stood in the middle of the aisle for 45 minutes, devouring the pages in the slim volume.

Rilke writes his letters to Franz Xaver Kappus, a 19 year-old Austrian officer cadet and aspiring writer, aiming to guide young Franz in the early stages of his journey as an artist, a poet specifically. Franz sends him poems, Rilke gives him feedback; most of it not on his writing, but on how Franz ought to carry himself through life. Rilke tells him about how to feel uninhibitedly, to be able to turn to the page and express pure, raw emotion – of the kind that is required for good writers – to move readers.

But Rilke is not really writing to Franz or any young poet for that matter. Rilke is writing to his younger self. He writes what he wishes he would’ve known as a young adult, in times when he was faced with the struggles of existence: its absurdity, its loneliness, its pain. He writes the words one needs in times of solace, sadness, and desperation – when the world seems to fall apart, piece by piece. He writes to rebuild hope and direction from the ruins of frustration and purposelessness. 

I placed the book back on the shelf and walked limply towards the exit; ravished, overcome by the weight of my emotions finally spelled out on the pages before my eyes. I did not buy the book that day, because I had already read it. But I bought it the day after, because I needed to read it again. For those ever feeling slightly lost in insignificance, I encourage you to do the same. 

Managing Editor, Eugene, shares with us the transformative experience she had reading Rilke's letters in Waterstone


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