Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke (Stephen Mitchell Translation)

Unsurpassed in their importance to every young poet.

Rilke is Rumi, Kabir, Gibran of German language. As a poet, as a seeker, he explored the limits of his knowledge and belief. He translated his solitary thoughts into poetry which has music, meaning and agelessness. What this prose, these letters contain is a faithful, forthright, candid and very modest, searching, guiding voice of Rilke. In these letters, written to a younger poet, who sought Rilke's guidance, Rilke chalks out his whole ideology of what poetry must be, and how a poet must reach above, beyond and deep within himself, to arrive at the inevitable verse, which is both timely and timeless, not only for himself but also for the reader.

As a craft, poetry is full of solitary devotion. The premium and investment in terms of poet's emotional and intellectual effort is seldom rewarded. A poet lives on the edge, and always runs the danger of tipping into the pits of self-pity, destruction and death-like poverty. The world seldom honors a poet in his prime, rather the best of the best poets compose their work in spite of the social, political and economic obligations they need to fulfill, obligations that motivate poetry, as well as impede the writing of it.

Sheer talent is not enough, mere vocabulary does not quite make you one, rhyming words and dedication are mere abilities, knowledge of published works is important, and yet what Rilke strove for, what Rilke achieved and what he advises the readers/poets to seek is a state where all these attributes synchronize to produce a poem that is at once lyrical and philosophical, understated yet powerful, terse yet tactful, and most importantly, honest and heartfelt.

There are very few books that have touched the poet in me thus. Maugham's Of Human Bondage and Tolstoy's War and Peace come to my mind when I think of effectiveness of Rilke's prose. Yet Rilke, like his Russian idols, is bathed in realism, he seeks for life outside cities and savors spirituality that he most probably carried within him. Selected Poems of Rilke translated by Robert Bly is a recommended resource, as is The Book of Hours (new translation is only couple of years old).

I will encourage every writer, who takes his vocation with seriousness to read Rilke. Like Neruda, Shakespeare, Kalidasa, Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Goethe, Tagore, Pushkin, Ghalib, Hafez, Basho, Dinkar, Tulsidas, Homer, Milton and Lorca, Rilke is a must read poet for everyone interested in poetry and life. This book is a collection of letters, so is not to be confused with Poetry Handbooks or Guides that are available everywhere. These letters are personal admissions and advice of Rilke to a younger poet. Rilke started writing these when he was in late twenties, and was still groping for his voice, his intention, his ability. The letters are moving and touching. They are like streams of thought that will shape the terrain they flow through, assuage the thirst of ones who arrive at them and if you let yourself go, carry you to the ocean of consciousness.


Vivek.Sharma said...


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Vivek Sharma comments: on 24 Jul 07 16:02:00 PM
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I guess what life and works of people like Rilke and Neruda teach us is that writing well requires an intensity and toil which we need to invest in our every composition.

Yet the idea is to reach out to as many people as possible. If you can do that, your task is nearly done.

There is no greatness in being an academic poet. Similarly, there is no guarantee that praise of twenty odd people will turn you into an able person and a poet.

We will benefit most by being true to our work, as well as by being truly critical of our own work. Public sensibility is strange and fickle at times, but a great piece of art knows how to attract it, entice it, keep it engaged and show it the perspective it may have not seen otherwise.

We are both beginners in the pursuit of a good poem. I am sure many years hence our experience and efforts will propel us towards the pedestal we seek.


supriyad comments: on 24 Jul 07 15:21:00 PM
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You really are a poet. Maybe I am a fake. Yuou know all the right names and all that right moves. And I go in circles.

I did read your explaintion on Ork. Made sense to me.

Vivek.Sharma said...

From blogliterati:

Vivek Comment By : Vivek
Posted On : Jul 24 07, 09:23 PM
I assure you my friend that Sahir Ludhyanvi, Majrooh, Gulzar, Kaifi Azmi, Faiz, Neeraj, Faraz, Yogesh and Javed Akthar were and are very well read.

Gulzar adopted Shakeapeares Comedy of Errors as Angoor, and later wrote lyrics for Omkara (Shakespeare's Othello), which was directed by Musician Vishal Bharadwaj who also made Maqbool (based on Macbeth). Gulzar started his career with the likes of Hrishikesh Mukherjee (Abhiman, Anand, Khoobsurat, Anupama and so on) and Bimal Roy (Madhumati, Do Beegha Zameen, Parineeta, and so on). Both these directors themselves were well read and adopted several great books in their movies.

Sahir wrote lyrics for Phir Subah Hogi (based on Crime and Punishment by Dostovesky) and insisted on having a music director who had read that novel, so Khayyam came in. Kabhi Kabhi, the famous song was based on Sahir's original difficult poem, part of which Amitabh recites in his interview in the movie. Saleem Javed always wrote great dialogue as they both were poets. Gurudutt's Pyasa is one of the greatest movies made in India and it is about a poet. Yash Chopra had poet as protagonist in Kabhi Kabhi and Silsila, and he used best artists possible (Sahir, Khaiyyam, Shiv Kumar Sharma).

Amitabh is son of Harivansh Rai Bachchan, recites his poem in Agnipath and imitates his had in various roles of poet.

Satyajit Ray was not only a short story writer, but also adopted great novels for his movies, be it Shatranj ke Khiladi or Appu Trilogy.

Shyam Benegal adopted Discovery of India into Bharat ek Khoj, and countless other books, including Dharamveer Bharati's novel into Sooraj ka Satwan Ghoda.

the list is long, will post a blog about it

Publish | Delete

Hebrew Princess Comment By : Hebrew Princess
Posted On : Jul 24 07, 08:30 PM

One more thing Vivek - okay, am I harassing you now ;)))

Where does innate spark fit into all of these - we have seen, in our times, some really good poets as lyricists and song writers - they have the depth and the charisma and their words are real. I doubt if they have read any of these. Where do they fit in??

:))) Okay I am harassing you, yea?

Vivek.Sharma said...

more from

Vivek Comment By : Vivek
Posted On : Jul 24 07, 11:28 PM
Rock stars fall into two categories. The poets among them include Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springstein, Simon Garfunkel, and I assure you these were not only well read and traveled across the countries, they also had life experiences that took them to the edge and beyond. When Ray Charles song was adopted by state of Georgia, when Johnny Cash transitioned from being a Gospel singer to a singer who used poems and letters written by Jail inmates, when Bruce Springstein gave voice to common man of Jersey, when Bob Marley captured the spirit of Caribbean, when U2 sang Ground Beneath her feet written by Salman Rushdie, they all were paying tribute to their tradition, folklore, and literature.

Jimi hendrix and Beatles listed to Ravi Shankar. Patti Smith publishes books of poetry. Madonna draws inspiration from everywhere, including chants from India. African American artists, hiphop starwarts are known to lead bizarre life, and yet many of them know Bible and ancient African myths inside out. Have you heard Iron Mariner sing Rime of Ancient Mariner?

My dear friend, the list is unending and decidedly rich. Be it Pink Floyd or Led Zepplin or Elton John or Nirvana or Rolling Stones, the best work in music and lyrics was a consequence of years and years of practice, struggle and study of artists before them. Nirvana's most famous MTV CD contains tribute to artists before them, so does the famous melodies of Metallica (for example Turn the Page) or Guns and Roses rendition of Knocking on heaven's door, etc.

Even Kalidasa, Shakespeare, Neruda, Ghalib, Hafez, Rilke, Pushkin , Tagore had their share of reading and influences (and in their own languages they are next to none, sometimes pioneers poets, who established rules and broke them too). We are mere mortals.

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Hebrew Princess Comment By : Hebrew Princess
Posted On : Jul 24 07, 09:31 PM

Boy! You are well read - I AM impressed!

Okay - so cool about them.

But what about err... rock stars ;)))

Vivek.Sharma said...


Tusar N. Mohapatra
July 24, 2007
11:32 PM

Sri Aurobindo is excluded from the author's list of recommendations. His Savitri is a marvel.

July 25, 2007
02:10 AM

Aurobindo does not find mention because as a poet he is quite an unknown entity; perhaps he deserves more attention than he has managed so far, but fact of the matter is that the poets I mentioned here are not only the most celebrated authors in their languages, in most cases they are the most influential thinkers, writers, poets of their age and their appeal is universal.

I should have included Valmiki, Ved Vyas, Ovid, and some Chinese poets as well as poets from many other languages.

July 25, 2007
04:44 AM


rilke is a must read

it can also be read here CLICK

July 25, 2007
07:50 AM

Isn't it incredible that Rilke was writing these letters when he was only 27? No wonder he rose to become one of the greatest poets of twentieth century. He had a fascinating life. When 21, he dated a 35 year old woman who have had an affair with Nietzsche, and she was his muse and guiding light for years to come. He traveled to Russia with her. Then he worked with Rodin, as a secretary. And he was writing through and after the first world war!!

Thanks temporal for the link.
I have the online version bookmarked.

mcunningham said...

Thanks for this fine discussion of Rilke and his famous letters. You will likely be interested in the new novel LOST SON, based on Rilke's life and work. The story includes Rilke's writing of these letters to Franz Xaver Kappus, and also explores in depth the poet's relationship to Lou Andreas-Salome, Rodin, and Paula Modersohn-Becker. LOST SON appeared in bookstores last month.


John said...

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