May 21, 2011

Go into Yourself

Rainer Maria Rilke

There is only one thing to do. Go into yourself. Examine your reason for writing. Discover whether it is rooted in the depths of your heart, and find out whether you would rather die than be forbidden to write. Above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night, have I no choice but to write? Dig deep within for the truest answer, and if this answer is a strong and simple yes, then build your life upon this necessity. Your life henceforth, down to its most ordinary and insignificant moment, must prove and reveal this truth.

Paris, February 17, 1903
Letters to a Young Poet


  1. How I remember first reading this passage, a couple of years after quitting the booze-nights, finding mental doors opening to vast rooms below, and words for those places blooming on my tongue ... Do I dare write of these things? I wondered. How can you not? Rilke asks. And if you cannot keep pen from paper, then what a field you must plant and tend and slowly, slowly harvest. To build a life on that necessity, as Rilke says.

    Peter Meinke, a wonderful poet from Tampa who I had come over to Orlando to do several readings over the years (back when I staged readings), told me over dinner once this thing about learning to write poems: "It takes decades." What a bummer for the overambitious young poet I was then! But what solace those words have become, 20 years later, as I see a career which will never pay a cent yet provide for my spiritual needs for the rest of my life.

    Only this: there's no knowing what fruits that field will yield -- strange, unsettling, unexpected, unknowable fruits ... Rilke thought "Elegies" would be the masterwork, but the greater genius was revealed in the smaller "Sonnets to Orpheus." But that's what keeps it fun, eh?

  2. Great stuff, Brendan, simply the stuff of our life, incredible looking back. I remember first reading this in the early '90s, like it was yesterday, or a lifetime ago. I was just starting to write poetry. I know now that what I wrote then was just the craft of words, but not yet of the heart, though it was all part of it what needed to happen. As your friend Peter said, it has taken decades. Only this past year can I truly say I have no choice but to write. And it is in big thanks to this writer RMR.

  3. I listened yesterday to an interview with Philip Roth, who just won the Man Booker Prize; he commented on knowing that no one "makes a living" from writing; yet, because he was "overwhelmed" when he "discovered" literature in college, he resolved then to write (instead of being a lawyer), not knowing what an author was or how to write a novel. He said he's spent his entire life learning how to write. His is the kind of devotion to which Rilke addresses himself in the quote above; you give up everything else to write and everything you do becomes matter for your writing.

  4. A great quote and very true! Thanks.

  5. My complexity needs an exit from myself... I can only help him out by writing... (even though sometimes I prefer to lay down on Freud's sofa and talk to my fish).


"Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night."

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Go ahead, bloom recklessly!