Ranier Maria Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet

These letters represent an important autobiographical document that facilitates
a clear understanding of Rilke’s poetry.

Rilke’s first letter (out of the ten he wrote to the young poet) deals with the request for comments on the latter’s poems.

The letter begins stating how difficult it is to say things in art without their resulting in misunderstandings. He states his own abhorrence to criticism. Things are so unsayable as they happen in a space that exists beyond words, those mysterious existences that endure beyond the transience of life.

Rilke then says rather bluntly that the young poet does not have a style of his own. Most of the things have already been said and it is difficult to rise above the banality of human expression unless one rescues oneself from the general themes and draws images from the life around even if there is poverty in it.

Ask yourself in the most silent hour of the night: “Must I write?” …….A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. This, in fact, is the essence of Rilke’s poetry.

Quietly the poet debunks the accepted theories of poetry prevailing then which placed a lot of reliance on the technique and craft of poetry and the so called purity of the subject. The subjects for poetry were , for Rilke, more to be drawn from within than from external sources A very important component of the poetical experience is , in the case of Rilke, the imagery which at times assumes the central place in the scheme of things leaving the intended theme in the background . The reader’s own experience gets mixed up in the “atmosphere” created through the use of familiar images invested with uncommon significance.

This way the reader comes closer to the Rilke experience.-

The second letter of Rilke to the young poet deals with the use of irony as a poetic technique. His advice is not to use it too much especially in uncreative moments . The modern poets used irony extensively and it was considered an essential part of the poetic technique the poet could not do without. Irony meant a clearly stated world -view based upon mistrust of the existing system .The rhythms of poetry were therefore largely drawn from a judgmental perception in the context of the socio- political turbulences of the time.

The modern poets who came much later use irony extensively to make their poetic statements. A classic example is T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot effectively uses irony to describe the post-war despondency drawing from the rich resources of Christian as well as Oriental myths. Myths represent the collective conscious of humankind and provide extremely effective symbols useful in any form of art for the creation of irony.

Rilke’s poetry marks an important departure from the poetic tradition of the time in that he advocated a genre of poetry which meant a straightforward poetic statement:

“…So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember…”(Letters to a Young Poet -The First)

Rilke has of course not entirely ruled out the use of irony in poetry. He only warned the young poet against the use of irony in uncreative moments. Poetry then degenerates to an intellectual game, a game of poetical one-upmanship, which alienates the reader from the poet’s world of intensely personal experiences- “emotions recollected in tranquility”.

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