Letters To A Young Poet: Ripen Like A Tree

“Being an artist means not numbering or counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, standing confidently in storms, not afraid that summer may not come.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), considered the greatest modern poet in the German language, responded by letter in 1903 to a young man seeking critiques of his poetry. Rilke discouraged him from asking for or reading criticism, and instead advised him to trust his inner judgment.

Rilke eventually wrote ten letters – focused on themes of trust and patience – collectively known and much published as Letters to a Young Poet.

“They are heartfelt advice from a successful (but still struggling) artist to another who was deeply mired in self-doubt. The classic language of these letters soars in beauty as well as lofty good sense. His idealism is applicable today to all who might pursue any sort of creative activity.” – Robert Genn, painter

Genn lists, partly in direct quotation and partly in condensed summation, some of Rilke’s ideas:

  • Your work needs to be independent of others’ work.

  • You must not compare yourself to others.

  • No one can help you. You have to help yourself.

  • Criticism leads to misunderstandings and defeatism.

  • Work from necessity and your compulsion to do it.

  • Work on what you know and what you are sure you love.

  • Don’t observe yourself too closely, just let it happen.

  • Don’t let yourself be controlled by too much irony.

  • Live in and love the activity of your work.

  • Be free of thoughts of sin, guilt and misgiving.

  • Be touched by the beautiful anxiety of life.

  • Be patient with the unresolved in your heart.

  • Try to be in love with the questions themselves.

  • Love your solitude and try to sing with its pain.

  • Be gentle to all of those who stay behind.

  • Your inner self is worth your entire concentration.

  • Allow your art to make extraordinary demands on you.

  • Bear your sadness with greater trust than your joy.

  • Do not persecute yourself with how things are going.

  • It’s good to be solitary, because solitude is difficult.

  • It’s good to love, because love is difficult.

  • You are not a prisoner of anything or anyone.

“All progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this is what it means to live as an artist.”


Inspiration for the Article: The Painter’s Keys

The Painter’s Keys is the online extension of Robert Genn’s Twice-Weekly Letter. Creative folks from more than 115 countries visit this website for information, inspiration, artist advice, friendship and connectivity.


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