It was as if they were age-old concerns, that I was following generations of people before me who had likewise wondered, "When it all comes down to it, and I am alone, is what I love enough?"
I came across Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet as a 21-year-old college junior in a class on poetic form. My copy of the book is small, barely breaking one hundred pages of double-spaced text on slim pages. There's not really much there — but the copy of Rilke's Letters that gets a greatest-hits spot on my coffee table is also underlined, dog-eared and Post-It-noted. It's the book I've picked up, on more than one occasion, during a conversation, and read aloud to friends. I return to this set of 10 letters because they taught me the importance of structuring my life around that which I must do — the meaningful work that leads, ultimately, to fulfillment.
Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet who, beginning at the age of only 27, engaged in correspondence with Franz Kappus, a 19-year-old student seeking advice and criticism on his poems. The origin of these letters alone intrigued me the first time I picked up the book; it seemed unreal that a poet with Rilke's skill would take the time to invest in a young poet (even though he himself was a young poet) so thoughtfully and authoritatively. The only other example of this type of generosity I knew (although I'm sure there are more examples) was fiction writer Dan Chaon's life-changing correspondence, as a young man, with Ray Bradbury.
But Rilke's correspondence with Kappus is almost otherworldly; it never feels as if he is writing only to a particular young poet or even to young poets in general. Part of what is so touching about these letters is the distinct feeling I got, only pages in, that Rilke was somehow writing to me. The tone of these letters is deeply caring and wise — undoubtedly one factor in their profound influence on me — as if their writer sincerely believed what he said and cared whether his reader followed his advice.
Going after what will fulfill us looks like university degrees and dream careers at times, but it also looks like circles of strong friendships and bookshelves so full that there are piles of more books in front of them.
In the first letter, Rilke questions Kappus' dedication to writing: "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."
Though he tailored his advice to writing, which happens also to apply to me personally, Rilke addresses one of my deepest general questions — one I hadn't yet articulated when I read these letters for the first time. It was as if they were age-old concerns, that I was following generations of people before me who had likewise wondered, "When it all comes down to it, and I am alone, is what I love enough?" Rilke combines and responds to two terrifying notions: that we must, ultimately, make our decisions alone, and that our lives may not automatically fulfill us.
But Rilke also teaches me that finding what fulfills me is quite possible. He suggests how to do it: to utilize moments of solitude as opportunities to determine what I must do, what flows out of my values and passions, and what I am unwilling to give up. He challenges me to let opinions from others fall away and to know myself in ways that depend only on what I know to be true of my life at my deepest, most honest moments.
It wasn't about what would make me the most money or even what we would make me happy. It became about doing what was deeply fulfilling. For me, that's writing and reading lots of poems — and waking up early or staying up late, often, to do it.
From there, Rilke demands that we do something even more difficult than identifying what we must do. The real work begins when he calls us to build a life around that underlying passion. A profound inner knowledge of self, achieved only in solitude, gives us the ability and space we need to build that life. He suggests that our lives must be about identifying what we want but then also chasing after that dream, even in the smallest moments. Going after what will fulfill us looks like university degrees and dream careers at times, but it also looks like circles of strong friendships and bookshelves so full that there are piles of more books in front of them. Rilke asks us to consider that our whole lives can point to one underlying passion, and that was something that changed my life impermeably and forever.
From the first time I read the letters cover-to-cover as homework in a dorm room, my life was no longer about a conventional version of success. It wasn't about what would make me the most money or even what we would make me happy. It became about doing what was deeply fulfilling. For me, that's writing and reading lots of poems — and waking up early or staying up late, often, to do it. It's moving away from family and friends to take hold of opportunities that move me closer to my dreams. Throwing myself wholly into the pursuit of a career based in creative writing is grossly impractical, on some levels, of course, but I'm doing what I love and what I think is deeply valuable — and that's enough.
Perhaps Rilke's letters were especially meaningful to me because I am also a young poet; it is true that, for some poets, this slim collection is a sort of sacred text. But I hold that Rilke isn't just teaching young poets; he is advising all young people. Following his advice means, for me, creating a new way of being in the world that is worth considering — because the world simply needs more people building lives around doing what they love.