The fame of “Letters to a Young Poet” has been known to me for some time, though from the negative aspect primarily. Most people complained about the condescending way in which Rilke wrote to Kappus, and how his words are easy to throw away because one if not willing to listen to someone who thinks they’re better than everyone else. For a long time, I didn’t feel compelled whatsoever to pick it up, primarily due to a personal lack of interest. However, having recently been given a copy as a gift, it looks like my avoidance of Rilke has come to an end.
Rilke’s words are valid and quite far from condescending. I wonder now how many of the people who complained about that were actually writers themselves. Rejection emails can easily come with snarky feedback, the same with submission guidelines to a handful of literary journals. Rilke’s words are more honest and level than they are judgmental, and they have quite some weight to them. The question of “must you” is particularly valid, now more than ever I think, given the changes that have occurred in the publishing industry and the image that has been built around writing, art, and other creative forms. There were parts where his writing got a little dull, and the eighth letter in which he talks about God was the one I paid attention to the least due to my own thoughts on the matter. But he, overall, gave very simple yet honest advice, admitting that he is not in the position to give any formal guidance and stating what is, really, the basic truth of writing: you should feel the compulsion to do so and follow it, knowing fully well that you’ll have to create a path for yourself.
To those who wish to write in order to build a name or profit for themselves, Rilke’s words will no doubt wound the ego. For those who perhaps do not take the writing process and writers themselves seriously, his words will be a joke. Those who are neutral or not familiar with the industry will see his advice as cruel and “privileged”. But as a writer myself, I felt Rilke speak to me honestly and calmly, reminding me of everything I already knew, and slightly reassuring me that the burning desire I have within me to create is a good thing.