Letters to a Young MFA: Sarah Lawrence Faculty Add to Rilke’s Advice

Written by Kristina Bicher


                                                              Paris

                                                              February 17, 1903

Dear Sir:

            Your letter arrived just a few days ago…

And so began a brief but remarkable correspondence between the brilliant poet Rainer Maria Rilke and a young military student/aspiring poet Franz Xaver Kappus, the collection now known as “Letters to a Young Poet.”

Writers: do you remember the first time you came across this slim volume so light on the palm?

Throughout the ten letters penned between 1903 and 1908, Rilke gives his mentee not only practical advice but consoles with wisdom (though he was only 27 at the time) and confidence. It is a philosophical work of passion, authenticity, and sincerity.

Rilke deplored literary criticism and was leery of irony. He urged us to write about what our everyday life offers, our desires, the thoughts that pass through our minds “as if no one had ever tried before.”  While Rilke is best known for his famous “must I write?” test-question for would-be authors, here are a few other of his utterances.

On the topic of patience: “Everything is gestation and then birthing. Let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion in the dark, in the unsayable, in the unconscious.”

On solitude: “To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours, that is what you must be able to attain. Love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.”

Sarah Lawrence Faculty Weigh In

I asked our seasoned, talented faculty members at Sarah Lawrence for their advice to young writers and here is what they had to say.

If you don’t HAVE TO write, then don’t–it’s financially insecure. But if you DO HAVE TO write, from the depths of Rilke’s “necessity,” then write your heart out, and never ask “is this good enough?” If you must write, then it’s good. Keep in mind Van Gogh’s early self-portrait which was purchased by a farmer and stuck in a corn field to scare the crows away.

-Kate Johnson

Don’t bureaucratize yourself. Don’t “craft” “strategies” to “generate material.” Keep your relationship to your work edgy, argumentative, passionate.

-Dennis Nurkse

If you are obsessed with language, read everything you can get your hands on since the best teachers are on the bookshelves. Write about what everyone overlooks and as Pound says “go in fear of abstraction.”

-Kevin Pilkington

Practice receptivity to the world around you. Let the deepest concerns that rise out of your own history and heart drive your work.

-Marie Howe

Don’t write like a “professional” poet. Write towards what makes you uncomfortable.

-Cathy Park Hong

We ought to, as writers, be willing to risk. We ought to risk. To not be afraid to appear stupid, out of it. To be clumsy in our writing. To not be afraid to be embarrassed by the writing. And this is connected to writing out of not-knowing, also very important: to write out of a blindness; write to move nearer the thing we do not yet understand. Let writing be this act, this movement toward.

-Cynthia Cruz

Rilke had no idea how his advice would impact the young Herr Kappus, let alone writers 100 years later.  In his own words, “whether my letters really are a help, I often doubt. Just accept them and let us wait for what wants to come.”

The late actor Dennis Hopper was inspired by Rilke; German director Hermann Vaske filmed Hopper reading from “Letters to a Young Poet” in 2007.

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