New York musician Holly Miranda explains how poet Rainer Maria Rilke changed the musician's approach to just about everything.
In the early 2000’s I lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in a building called the “Astral”. It was a huge building filled with musicians. Kyp Malone (of TV On The Radio) lived on the top floor and would often knock on my door when he locked himself out.
I lived on the 3rd or 4th floor (it’s all blurry) and below me was Ellie Everdell (of The Hundred in the Hands). I can’t remember the conversation but one day Ellie handed me a copy of “Letters To A Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke. I had no idea who Rilke was. My band at the time, The Jealous Girlfriends, had even played a show with the band Rainer Maria and I still had no idea who Rilke was.
It was probably partly due to my massive crush on Ellie (oh, we all had a crush on Ellie) that I poured myself into this book as quickly and completely as I did, but it was the content that kept me there. I carried this copy of the book in my pocket for years (it was small enough to fit in my pocket; we didn’t wear skinny jeans then), underlining my favourite parts, making notes next to passages and then one day I gave it away. I have since done this no less than 100 times. Really, I should buy stock.
If you don’t know this book let me give you a synopsis. It is a collection of ten letters from Rainer Maria Rilke, the Austrian poet, to Franz Xaver Kappus, a 19 year old cadet at the same military school that Rilke had studied in the 1890’s. A mutual teacher had connected the pair.
The letters span from 1903 to 1908 and after Rilke’s death from leukemia in 1929, Kappus published the collection in 1932. The two never met in person over the course of this exchange. Kappus wrote Rilke seeking advice on his own poems, wanting to know if he was any good. What he/we got is timeless advice on writing, criticism, solitude, relationships; Rilke even predicts feminism.
This tiny book has undoubtedly affected my work, because it changed the way I live and seek: “I want to be with those who know the secrets, or else alone." It changed the way I approach everything. Below are a few of my favorite passages, but I do hope you will buy your own copy, get it worn in your tight little pocket, underline what moves you and give it away to someone else who needs it. May it be “the future working in you, long before you know what to call it.”
Rilke on criticism
Paris February 17, 1903
“Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism : they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life”
“This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your while life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose.”
Paris The day after Christmas, 1908
“Art too is just a way of living, and however one lives, one can, without knowing, prepare for it; in everything real one is closer to it, more its neighbor, than in the unreal half-artistic professions, which, while they pretend to be close to art, in practice deny and attack the existence of all art — as, for example, all of journalism does and almost all criticism and three quarters of what is called (and wants to be called) literature. I am glad, in a word, that you have overcome the danger of landing in one of those professions, and are solitary and courageous, somewhere in a rugged reality. May the coming year support and strengthen you in that.”
Rilke on being an artist
Viareggio, near Pisa (Italy) April 23, 1903
“In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”
Rilke on patience, trusting nature and solitude
Worpswede, near Bremen July 16, 1903
“If you trust in Nature, in the small Things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge. You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. for those who are near you are far away, you write, and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast. And if what is near you is far away, then your vastness is already among the stars and is very great; be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust. Avoid providing material for the drama that is always stretched tight between parents and children; it uses up much of the children’s strength and wastes the love of the elders, which acts and warms even if it doesn’t comprehend. Don’t ask for any advice from them and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like and inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”
Rilke on feminism
Rome May 14, 1904
“Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully, and more confidently, must surely have become riper and more human in their depths than light, easygoing man, who is not pulled down beneath the surface of life by the weight of any bodily fruit and who, arrogant and hasty, undervalues what he thinks he loves. This humanity of woman, carried in her womb through all her suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she has stripped off the conventions of mere femaleness in the transformations of her outward status, and those men who do not yet feel it approaching will be astonished by it. Someday (and even now, especially in the countries of northern Europe, trustworthy signs are already speaking and shining), someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only life and reality: the female human being.”
Rilke on self-love
Rome December 23, 1903
“What is happening on your innermost self is worthy of your entire love; somehow you must find a way to work at it, and not lose too much time or too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people.”
“As bees gather honey, so we collect what is sweetest out of all things and build Him. Even with the trivial, with the insignificant (as long as it is done out of love) we begin, with work and with the repose that comes afterward, with a silence or with a small solitary joy, with everything that we do alone, without anyone to join or help us, we start Him whom we will not live to see, just as our ancestors could not live to see us. And yet they, who passed away long ago, still exist in us, as predisposition, as burden upon our fate, as murmuring blood, and as gesture that rises up from the depths of time”
Rilke on love and relationships
Rome May 14, 1904
“It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time ahead and far on into life, is—; solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent—?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances. Only in this sense, as the task of working on themselves (“to hearken and to hammer day and night”), may young people use the love that is given to them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must still, for a long, long time, save and gather themselves); it is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives are as yet barely large enough”
“It is true that many young people who love falsely, i.e., simply surrendering themselves and giving up their solitude (the average person will of course always go on doing that — ), feel oppressed by their failure and want to make the situation they have landed in livable and fruitful in their own, personal way —. For their nature tells them that the questions of love, even more than everything else that is important, cannot be resolved publicly and according to this or that agreement; that they are questions, intimate questions from one human being to another, which in any case require a new, special, wholly personal answer —. But how can they, who have already flung themselves together and can no longer tell whose outlines are whose, who thus no longer possess anything of their won, how can they find a way out of themselves, out of the depths of their already buried solitude?
They act out of mutual helplessness, and then if, whit the best of intentions, they try to escape the conventions that is approaching them (marriage, for example), they fall into the clutches of some less obvious but just as deadly conventional solution. For then everything around them is — convention. Wherever people act out of a prematurely fused, muddy communion, every action is conventional: every relation that such confusion leads to has its own convention, however unusual (i.e., in the ordinary sense immoral) it may be; even separating would be a conventional step, an impersonal, accidental decision without strength and without fruit.”