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Letters to a Young Poet Paperback – August 1, 1993
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It would take a deeply cynical heart not to fall in love with Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. At the end of this millennium, his slender book holds everything a student of the century could want: the unedited thoughts of (arguably) the most important European poet of the modern age. Rilke wrote these 10 sweepingly emotional letters in 1903, addressing a former student of one of his own teachers. The recipient was wise enough to omit his own inquiries from the finished product, which means that we get a marvelously undiluted dose of Rilkean aesthetics and exhortation.
The poet prefaced each letter with an evocative notation of the city in which he wrote, including Paris, Rome, and the outskirts of Pisa. Yet he spends most of the time encouraging the student in his own work, delivering a sublime, one-on-one equivalent of the modern writing workshop:
Go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside.Every page is stamped with Rilke's characteristic grace, and the book is free of the breathless effect that occasionally mars his poetry. His ideas on gender and the role of the artist are also surprisingly prescient. And even his retrograde comment on the "beauty of the virgin" (which the poet derives from the fact that she "has not yet achieved anything") is counterbalanced by his perception that "the sexes are more related than we think." Those looking for an alluring image of the solitary artist--and for an astonishing quotient of wisdom--will find both in Letters to a Young Poet. --Jennifer Buckendorff
"...I cannot think of a better book to put into the hands of any young would-be poet, as an inspirational guide to poetry and to surviving as a poet in a hostile world." Harry Fainlight, The Times
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M.D. Herter Norton's translation (Letters to a Young Poet), Letter 8, reads: "How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are the beginning of all peoples? The myths about dragons that, at the last moment, turn into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses, who are only waiting to see us, once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest being, something helpless that wants help from us. So, you must not be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises up before you, larger than any you have ever seen. If a restiveness like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening to you. That life has not forgotten you. That it holds you in its hand. It will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you do really do not know what these states are working upon you? ..."
Compare this to Charlie Louth's translation of this same passage in Letter 8 (Letters to a Young Poet):
"How can we forget those ancient myths found at the beginnings of all peoples? The myths about the dragons who at the last moment turn into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses, only waiting for the day when they will see us handsome and brave? Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help. So, dear Mr. Kappus, you shouldn't be dismayed if a sadness rises up in front of you, greater than any you have ever seen before; or if a disquiet plays over your hands and over all your doings like light and cloud-shadow. You must think that something is happening with you; that life has not forgotten you; that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why should you want to exclude from your life all unsettling, all pain, all depression of spirit, when you don't know what work it is these states are performing within you? ... "
Note that word order in changed in by Louth to give a different meaning, and this is often the case.
Also, compare to Stephen Mitchell's translation of the passage in Letter 8 (Letters to a Young Poet (Modern Library) and (Letters to a Young Poet):
"How could we forget those ancient myths that stand the beginning of all the races, the myths about dragons that are at the last moment transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love. So you mustn't be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises up in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why to you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression. since after all you don't know what work these conditions are doing inside you?...."
Really, "that wants our love"? Our LOVE? No reason for this translator's license, none at all. Mitchell's translation likewise strips the Letters of poetry, and, of note, his introduction to the Letters is somewhat bizarre.
If one goes further back in this letter, to Rilke's discussion of solitude, the demarcation between the beautiful and the mediocre translation is equally clear. I find M.D. Herter Norton's translation by far the most beautiful, poetic and meaningful, although reading other translations can add to the reader's understanding, or else, show the reader which translation speaks to him.
On the other hand, here is an opportunity to compare, free of charge, three translations. I have chosen to confine myself to the translation by M.D. Herter Norton's of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, since I don't want to interrupt the flow of reading as I study these great letters, and feel it is best to choose one. It is a shame the M.D. Herter Norton translation is not currently in print in hardcover. Still, there are used copies to be found and I'd rather buy several paperback copies of Norton's than have a nice looking hardcover of a mediocre translation.
I had no idea that this is a true chest of treasures. I purchased the Kindle version to go along with listening to this audiobook (the narration of which is outstanding). I kept placing bookmarks on the audible version and then highlighted the text in Kindle. This is quite a futile endeavor because, as I found, well over half deserves special emphasis.
I will share only my favorite quote, after saying that this book of letters, and particularly this translation into English, is worth a credit in my opinion for its encouragement of creativity and a love of life and for the testimonials from the great artists over the past decades who have been deeply and positively affected by these letters.
"... try, like the first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose. Don't write love poems; avoid at first those forms which are too familiar and habitual: they are the hardest, for you need great maturity and strength to produce something of your own in a domain where good and sometimes brilliant examples have been handed down to us in abundance. For this reason, flee general subjects and take refuge in those offered by your own day-to-day life; depict your sadnesses and desires, passing thoughts and faith in some kind of beauty--depict all this with intense, quiet, humble sincerity and make use of whatever you find about you to express yourself, the images from your dreams and the things in your memory. If your everyday life seems to lack material, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to summon up its riches, for there is no lack for him who creates and no poor, trivial place."