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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Do Not Write Love Poems

You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple, “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it. Then draw near to Nature. Then try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose. Do not write love-poems; avoid at first those forms that are too facile or commonplace: they are the most difficult, for it takes a great, fully matured power to give something of your own where good and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity. Therefore save yourself from these general themes and seek those which your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty — describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity, and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory. If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place. And if you were in some prison the walls of which let none of the sounds of the world come to your senses—would you not then still have your childhood, that precious, kingly possesion, that treasure-house of memories? Turn your attention thither. Try to raise the submerged sensations of that ample past; your personality will grow more firm, your solitude will widen and will become a dusky dwelling past which the noise of others goes by far away. And if out of this turning inward, out of this absorption into your own world, verses come, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses. Nor will you try to interest magazines in your poems: for you will see in them your fond natural possession, a fragment and a voice of your life. A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgement of it: there is no other. Therefore, my dear sir, I know no advice for you save this: to 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. For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself.
Rainer Maria Rilke
February 17th, 1903

Extracted from Letter to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

10 Responses to “Do Not Write Love Poems”

  1. L Marcker. says:

    Rilke deserves to be read. He wrote in German. M.D. Herter Norton translated his letters into English. Translators deserve to be named.

  2. Sue Guiney says:

    Yes, I have read this before, but I had forgotten it and did need reminding. I think it is seen as “outré” to talk about yourself as an artist. But the advice to “Search for the reason that bids you write” is an important one. The frustrations of the commercial world are so great, and it is so easy to get sucked up into them (and I’m sure these frustrations felt just as real in Rilke’s time)that it is important to revisit that question periodically, and then to reassess. Thank you for reminding me.

  3. john baker says:

    Ouch. But point taken.

  4. Jim Murdoch says:

    I’ve just written a rather long comment on the subject of writer’s block and how it’s often misdiagnosed, if that’s the right word. A lot of the time, with me anyway, not writing is as important as actually writing. In her book on writing, which I’ve just reviewed, Scarlett Thomas talked about waiting a good year between books until she was fit to burst and then putting pen to paper. I’m sure like you and I she could sit down and rattle off a thousand words on any given topic any day of the week but just because we can write doesn’t mean that we should. Do we have something that really, really needs to be said? Which is why I have so few love poems in my canon and don’t expect to write many (if any) more. What more is there left to say? I can barely remember the dizzying states I used to get into when I was a teenager in love. I wonder indeed if this will be the last love poem I ever write:

    The Old Codger

    My wife is not dead. Good.
    I listen for her breaths—

    in and out, puff and wheeze—
    all of the proof I need.

    The patina of love
    has worn thin like patience

    and the drab truth revealed;
    I do not want to die

    alone. I go to pee,
    sitting down these days and

    wonder why so long for so
    little but, hey, that’s life.

    Back in the bed I check
    again. Just to be sure.

    Friday, 08 June 2012

  5. Emily Tanner says:

    “describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty — describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity, and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment”

    Wow its too beautiful to be ignored, simply delightful.

  6. Susan Malter says:

    Oh, you do still exist! You cannot imagine how happy I am that you still write. I was so disgusted with Don Juan’s mother that I stopped reading Byron, but that makes no sense. He is wonderful and created a character that was real enough to upset me.

    Outre or not, your comment helps self-indulgent writers like me who cast about for approval. I sometimes love my work. Then I send it around for others to see how wonderful it is. Then, when they say, “What the hell is this?” I no longer love what I wrote. By editing, I destroy what made me happy and, later, thank my old document for preserving what I liked in the first place.

    Writing is a mess.

  7. Susan Malter says:

    Oh. You said to try to be cool, and then I referred to Rilke’s comment as yours. For the record, I want you to know that I did try. My shame knows no bounds.

  8. john baker says:

    Not only your shame, Susan. We can all go over the top with that.

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