In 1902, a nineteen-year-old aspiring poet named Franz Kappus wrote to Rainer Maria Rilke, then twenty-six, seeking advice on his poetry. Kappus, a student at a military academy in Vienna similar to the one Rilke had attended, was about to embark on a career as an officer, for which he had little inclination. Touched by the innocence and forthrightness of the student, Rilke responded to Kappus’ letter and began an intermittent correspondence that would last until 1908.
Letters to a Young Poet collects the ten letters that Rilke wrote to Kappus. A book often encountered in adolescence, it speaks directly to the young. Rilke offers unguarded thoughts on such diverse subjects as creativity, solitude, self-reliance, living with uncertainty, the shallowness of irony, the uselessness of criticism, career choices, sex, love, God, and art. Letters to a Young Poet is, finally, a life manual. Art, Rilke tells the young poet in his final letter to him, is only another way of living.
With the same artistry that marks his widely acclaimed translations of Kafka’s The Castle and Amerika: The Missing Person, Mark Harman captures the lyrical and spiritual dimensions of Rilke’s prose. In his introduction, he provides biographical contexts for the reader and discusses the challenges of translating Rilke. This lovely hardcover edition makes a perfect gift for any young person starting out in life or for those interested in finding a clear articulation of Rilke’s thoughts on life and art.
Letters to a Young Poet is one of Rilke’s most popular books…well known to poets in their youth and an ideal handbook for beginning writers. Mark Harman’s burnished, elegant new translation is the fifth English version, and likely to become the standard one… Above all, these letters give the lie to the idea of Rilke as hopelessly self-regarding and cut off from authentic, ‘ordinary’ life. His tone may be elevated and his manner at times that of a dandy—he was elevated, he was a dandy—but the advice purveyed in these letters, and the observations and aperçus that they throw off, contain true wisdom, and are anything but platitudinous. Franz Kappus was a fortunate young man to have found such a correspondent, and we are fortunate in his good fortune.
The perfect gift for any aspiring poet or, indeed, for anyone interested in good writing, is Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, newly translated by Mark Harman. In this elegant little volume, Rilke writes to 19-year-old Franz Kappus about literature, life, and the poet’s vocation with wisdom and penetrating insight.
This fresh translation of Rilke’s famous letters reminds us anew that Rilke is addressing not just his young correspondent but everyone, and that his advice is not only about how to write poems but how to live a deliberate, meaningful life. In these overly excited times, it is inspiring to listen to the patient counsel of this meditative man, this champion of solitude.
If I could recommend only one book to a young writer, it would be Rilke’s perpetually fresh and penetrating Letters to a Young Poet, especially in Mark Harman’s lucid new translation, which so capably captures the original’s radiant intimacy. This small but inexhaustible volume belongs on every writer’s bookshelf.
- 112 pages
- 4-3/8 x 6-3/8 inches
- Harvard University Press
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