Searching for the ‘Better Word’

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke


“You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have already asked others. You send them to journals. You compare them with other poems, and are set when certain editorial offices reject your efforts. Now (since you’ve permitted me to give you advice) I ask you to abandon all this. You look outside yourself, and that aloe all else is something you should not do just now. Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There’s only one way to proceed. Go insider yourself. Explore the reason that compete you to write; test whether it stretches its roots into the deepest part of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would have to die if the opportunity to write were withheld from you. Above all else, ask yourself at your most silent hour of the night: must I write? Dig inside yourself for a deep answer. And if the answer is yes, if it possible for you to respond to this serious question  with a strong and simple I must, then build your life on the basis of this necessity; your life, even at its most indifferent and attenuated, must become a sign and a witness for this compulsion. Then, as if you were one of the first men, try to say what you see and experience and love and lose. Do not write love poems. At first, you should evade those forms that are too familiar and ordinary; they are the most difficult, for it takes great, mature strength to produce something of one’s own where there already exists an abundance of good, and, in some cases, illustrious traditions. So escape from general subjects to those present in your everyday life; describe your sorrows and wishes, your fleeting thoughts and belief in beauty of any sort–describe all this with inner, silent, unassuming honesty and in seeking to express yourself draw on things in your surroundings, pictures in your dreams and objects in your memory.” (page 30)

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