Growing up in San Francisco I learned how to live with the wind and the fog and a brilliant soft natural light.

Treasures from a Poet About How to Live: Rilke 1/4

Reading Time: Just under 6 minutes
How to Live: You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you—no one . . . 

San Francisco fills with wind and fog. Brilliant, soft light soften’s the colors. The city rests by the sea, so salt cleans the air. Breezes blow through eucalyptus groves. Waves break on sandstone cliffs. The ocean fans over beaches. Foghorns low. And nearby in the Sierra Nevada mountains, trails wind through pine forests to alpine lakes set within plateaus of polished granite. Trout-filled rivers and streams thread the mountains and valleys and Sequoias fill Marin and Santa Cruz parks. 

How to Live

I first read Rilke’s letters in San Francisco when I was 16 years old. Two passages, in particular, have stayed with me, deepening in meaning as I live.

In the first passage, Rilke writes to a military student, Franz Xaver Kappus. Franz wants to be a poet, and sends his poems to Rilke for feedback. And over the course of ten letters, Rilke responds. 

Letter #1

The following extract is taken from the first letter of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, sent from Paris, dated February 17, 1903. This version is translated by Stephen Mitchell.

“You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you—no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong simple, ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious traditions exist in abundance. 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. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds—wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance.—And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear sir, I cannot give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.” 

 To save or print this extract from Letter #1 click here: Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet   

Rainer Maria Rilke’s Ideas in Practice 

Rilke’s advice to “go into yourself,” influenced my outlook on life and moved me to take ordination as a Buddhist monk. As well, his advice to organize one’s whole life around that which one tells one’s self they must do.

I believe many people before and after me have similarly been taken by Rilke’s letters, so I offer in the three posts that follow some of the problems I ran into while following Rilke’s advice, and how I worked through them. That is, how did I find clarity about what I must do in life and how did I follow through with the doing of  it.

In the next three posts, I’ll look at what Rilke says about how to live as well as some of the problems and pitfalls inherent in what he says.

Next week, we’ll look at what it means for Rilke to  live in accordance with that by and for which one must live  — “even into its [your life’s] humblest and most indifferent hour.”  

I look forward to getting started.


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