“Letters to a Young Poet” is a very short book first published in 1929. The book is comprised of ten letters written by Rainer Maria Rilke, a German speaking Bohemian-Austrian poet who died in 1926 from leukemia at the age of 51. The letters in the book were written from 1903 to 1908, as Rainer reached his 30’s. They were compiled from a series of correspondence between himself and another Austrian named Franz Kappus, a 19-year-old aspiring poet studying as a cadet at a military academy, who had originally wrote to Rainer for advice.
The letters from Rainer were published posthumously by Franz, who did not include his own letters to Rainer, but from Rainer’s written responses you can determine what the correspondence was about. What unfolds in the letters is that Rainer takes on the role of an older brother and offers advice to Franz about poetry, art, love, and life in general. Though Rainer was already a published poet before ever corresponding with Franz, his letters to the young cadet are still some of his most beloved and famous works more than a century later, due to their eloquence and sincerity.
I recently finished reading the M.D. Herter Norton translation of “Letters to a Young Poet.” Nearly two years ago I had heard the actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt recommend it in an interview as his favorite book. I bought it in October of 2019 based solely on his recommendation, but was waiting to read it until I had finished my stack of other books first. However, I felt compelled to skip the others and start it early and within the first few pages I just really felt a connection to Rilke in the letters he wrote and I couldn’t stop reading.
After a quick YouTube search looking for more information about him and reading recommendations, and after viewing a short documentary film from the year 2000 about his life, it seems quite apparent to me that Rilke suffered from bipolar disorder, a mood disorder. While I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist and can’t diagnose anyone, I am a behavioral health advocate who has spent many years educating myself, and I’m a former certified peer specialist on mental health conditions and recovery who has assisted others, but most importantly I am someone who lives with bipolar disorder type-two.
I’ve never felt so connected to someone’s words before, each verse like a mirror showing the unfiltered me to myself, like someone flinging open the window curtains in my room and letting in the light to both illuminate and cast shadows upon me as I search for myself through this recent phase of major depression that I’ve been experiencing. Like Rilke, I too become extremely productive when I experience phases of mania, and when I’m going through major depression phases I yearn to return to mania because I feel like that’s when I can do my most extensive work. But also like Rilke, I find inspiration in the heavy cloud of depression that feeds my creative outlets. Recently I’ve been unable to find the words to explain my current experiences and reading Rilke’s letters and learning more about his life and struggles has helped me through.
Rilke has many other collections of poetry and prose. If you go to YouTube and type his full name into the search you will find book recommendations and some incredibly profound readings from his works by some YouTube users. Here are two of my suggestions…
Documentary film about his life with selected readings of his work:
Profound audio exploration of his work and legacy:
I have purchased two other collections of his works: “The Poetry of Rilke” by Edward Snow which is a collection of some of Rilke’s most beloved poetry and prose and “The Dark Interval” by Ulrich Baer which is a collection of Rilke’s letters on loss, grief, and transformation. If you know anyone who struggles with mental health issues I encourage you to introduce them to Rainer Maria Rilke if they have never heard of him. Nearly 100 years after his death, he’s still deeply impacting people’s lives. No poet or author could ever want for anything more.