Although considered one of Europe’s best twentieth-century poets, Rainer Maria Rilke is often remembered for his nonfiction book, Letters to a Young Poet. The letters in this book were written by Rilke to nineteen-year-old Franz Kappus, who was attending Rilke's alma mater and similarly was studying poetry. Kappus requested that Rilke critique his work, but Rilke refused. Instead the then twenty-seven-year-old Rilke wrote ten letters to the younger writer, counseling him on how to look at life through the eyes of a poet. Kappus retained the letters, which were composed between 1902 and 1908, and then had them published in 1929, three years after Rilke’s death. Letters to a Young Poet has since become a classic teaching tool for writers.
Rilke covers many diverse themes in his letters, including love, feminism, and career choices. But the most interesting themes for young writers are those involved with creative writing. The poet encourages authenticity, for example. He impresses upon Kappus (as well as any young writer who reads this book) to search for his or her own unique voice. That was one reason why Rilke did not believe in critiquing Kappus’s or any other writer’s work. A writer should work hard at the craft and face his or her challenges in order to discover personal truths, Rilke states. Each writer has a different way of engaging with the world and therefore has a perspective that is distinctive. Rather than mimicking another poet, Rilke tells Kappus to dig deep inside himself and then learn to express the voice he discovers there.
Another theme is that of solitude and how it is essential to a true artist. It is only through solitude that a writer will learn personal truths. Rilke told Kappus he must learn to trust his feelings, to face what is difficult, and to do this with a deep sense of both humility and patience. Only then will he be able to write poems that affect those who read them.