The Poet's Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke

The Poet's Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke. Written by Rainer Maria Rilke; edited and translated by Ulrich Baer; Modern Library, 2005; 215 pages; $19.95.

FROM THE DUST JACKET: In this treasury of uncommon wisdom and spiritual insight, the best writings and personal philosophies of one of the 20th Century's greatest poets, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), are gleaned by Ulrich Baer from thousands of pages of never-before-translated correspondence.

The result is a profound vision of how the human drive to create and understand can guide us in every facet of life. Arranged by theme -- from existence with others to the exhilarations of love and the experience of loss, from dealing with adversity to the nature of inspiration -- here are Rilke's thoughts on how to live life in a meaningful way:

Life and Living: "How good life is. How fair, how incorruptible, how impossible to deceive: not even by strength, not even by willpower, and not even by courage. How everything remains what it is and has only this choice: to come true, or to exaggerate and push too far."

Art: "The work of art is adjustment, balance, reassurance. It can be neither gloomy nor full of rosy hopes, for its essence consists of justice."

Faith: "I personally feel a greater affinity to all those religions in which the middleman is less essential or almost entirely suppressed."

Love: "To be loved means to be ablaze. To love is to shine with inexhaustible oil. To be loved is to pass away; to love is to last."

Intimate, stylistically masterful, brilliantly translated, and brimming with the wonder and passion of Rilke, The Poet's Guide to Life is comparable to the best works of wisdom in all of literature and a perfect book for all occasions.


Publishers Weekly: Rilke had much to say about the process of living, and Baer is right to find inspiration in his thoughts...

Library Journal: Rilke's beautiful poetry has inspired people for decades, and now his unique prose reflections, gathered in this illuminating new collection, can guide us to a fuller, more conscious life. Reminiscent of Rilke's enormously popular Letters to a Young Poet, this work is chock-full of practical advice and philosophical musings. Editor and translator Baer has pulled nuggets of wisdom from 7000 letters by Rilke to create a thoughtfully organized collection of 13 sections on such matters as illness ("Pain Tolerates No Interpretation"), childhood and education ("The Joy in Daily Discovery"), and faith ("A Direction of the Heart"). The result is a contemplative "user's manual to life" that can be read in one sitting or consulted as a ready reference. Many of the sections read like a story or a friendly piece of advice from an old relative (e.g., "Time and again one hears of someone who has said things that one had thought only obscurely.... Such things make you grow"). A lengthy and insightful introduction by Baer and an index of first lines round out the text.


Ulrich Baer was born in 1966 in Berlin. On the afternoon that we talked, he from Manhattan and I from California, he said that he attended school in Germany until he was 16, then came to the States to Philadelphia for a year of high school. "I finished high school in Germany and moved back to the States when I was 19."

Professor Baer's father was a professor of law and his mother a translator and, later, a university administrator.

"So you came to translating early?"

"I did. It was around me."

Professor Baer was a constant reader. "It was maybe because my parents were academics that reading was normal. I don't think I read anything of major significance, but I read a lot. I don't think I read early. I was one of five kids, and I don't think anybody remembers when I learned to read. I was the fourth of five. It was, 'Oh, you can read too, that's good.' "

Baer attended university in the United States. He spent one year at UC Berkeley and then transferred to Harvard, where he took his B.A. He received his Ph.D. from Yale in comparative literature.

A scholar of modern German, French, and American poetry, Professor Baer is the author of Remnants of Song: Trauma and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Célan and Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma. He is the editor of 110 Stories: New York Writes after September 11. Baer is associate professor of German and comparative literature at New York University and acting chair of the German department.


"When did you become interested in Rilke?"

"I've always had an affinity for poetry. I like poems because you can take them with you. I like novels, but sometimes I need something shorter. I loved Rilke for a long time. I didn't connect with him as a teenager. It was my early 20s when I started relating to Rilke. His work seemed to me a way of understanding the world without taking recourse to any higher principle. "I was brought up in a secular environment. Paul Célan thought there was a need to explain the world in somewhat greater terms than an atheist or agnostic way. So I have no organized religion. Rilke was able to understand the world as something greater than we are, that exceeds us, without having to take recourse to a notion of God or divinity in a rigid way. That was important for me. And I always appreciated his love of poetry. He is one of the greatest poets of love."

"He was a demanding lover."

"He was demanding, but he also gave himself freely. The relationships he had were with remarkable women and were not one-sided. There was give-and-take. The women were accomplished and serious, and he took them seriously. There was balance in those relationships. He also demanded much of himself. His notion of love is that you can realize your potential by allowing yourself to be loved and by loving someone else."

"When I was a young woman and first read Rilke, I thought he was a 'love 'em and leave 'em' fellow."

"But when you read the letters, there is give-and-take in his relationships. For him loving someone is terrifying. When you open yourself up, you make yourself vulnerable. There is always that next step, which is to leave them. That's always there, the possibility, because you are exposing yourself so much that you may not want to go any further because you've become too vulnerable. I found that compelling that he was willing to take that risk."

"Rilke," I said, "understood early on that to be a great artist was not necessarily compatible with the clatter of domestic life."

"No, and the woman that he married, Clara, a sculptor, essentially felt the same way. Rilke and Clara separated and left their daughter Ruth with Clara's parents. The grandparents had a farm, and theirs was a better situation. The young Rilkes were poor; they couldn't make money: he couldn't make money off his writing; she couldn't make money off her sculpture. They devoted themselves to art rather than to parenting -- a questionable choice, but a better choice in some ways. I don't feel I'm in a position to judge Rilke.

"For what it's worth, Rilke's daughter never said anything bad about her father. Ever. She was devoted to him, she was close to him, and she became responsible for editing his letters. Ultimately, she and her husband -- and their daughter and her husband -- all lived off Rilke's writings for two generations. So in a weird way, he provided for them. He paid alimony to his wife until the end of his life. Even when they weren't getting along, he was always thinking this is important; he made this commitment at some point. So that being an artist wasn't compatible with domestic life, but he didn't completely walk away from his responsibilities."

"Someone said, making a joke, that Rilke in the days before Guggenheim fellowships and NEA grants and the MacArthur 'genius awards' had financial-aid sources of his own -- women."

Professor Baer laughed. "I made a joke recently also, that some of Rilke's letters are the first fund-raising letters we know. Because he wrote these incredible letters to mentors or donors or sponsors, these educated industrialists, these rich people. Some of the letters are so beautiful and funny and entertaining that you think you'd rather get a letter like this than spend money on another fur coat. These people had so much money, and at that point in time, it was possible to support an artist, with little money, for an entire year. So they gave him a stipend for the entire year, and then they could live their expensive lives. There's a moment in 1912 when Rilke's living in Berlin and he spends three months in a fancy hotel.

"It's such a great moment. And this guy who has given him money writes to Rilke about his choice of hotels, and Rilke immediately responds, he doesn't miss a beat, and he says, 'Oh, no, no, no, no. This is completely appropriate. I cannot be expected to be living in a tiny little pensione; people would know who I am. I would be disturbed in my peace.' Rilke's sponsor accepted that. He wrote back, saying, 'Well, you're the artist. You should know. I don't know. I'm not the artist. I don't know how these things work. I guess you'll be doing your poetry.'

"They had faith in Rilke. He didn't publish a thing for ten years. That's become more rare. Now people are expected to come up with a new title every two years. People had patience then."

"How," I asked, "did Rilke move between German and French?"

"German was his native language. He was brought up in Prague, where German was the minority language. His German is sometimes slightly inflected by dialect, a certain use of words that you wouldn't necessarily use elsewhere -- idiomatic expressions. His French was not perfect. His French was exactly at the level that I can recognize mistakes in it, and my French is solid and quite good, but it's not perfect. But if he makes mistakes that I can notice, that means they're mistakes.

"He identified strongly with French culture [Rilke lived, off and on, in Paris from 1902 to 1912, working for a time as secretary to Rodin]. He wanted to be French. He learned French relatively quickly. But he did not know French as a child, or he had no exposure to it to speak of.

"He read Valéry in French. That was much later, in the '20s. Rilke formed an incredibly strong identification with Valéry, and he started writing French poems. By that time he moved comfortably in the French language, and André Gide was one of his close friends. In the '20s, Rilke moved with ease in Paris in those circles. He was celebrated by people who couldn't read his poetry because they didn't read German. Rilke would give someone like Gide an inscribed book, and Gide would respond and say, 'Beautiful, but I have no idea what it says.' Gide couldn't read German."

Rilke, I said, was Czech, born in Prague.

"Exactly. So somehow people could relate to Rilke without having to have that baggage of the French-German conflict. So he was German, but not German for them. He was a celebrated poet in this beautiful language of poetry, but he wasn't associated with that culture.

"In the '20s, someone attacked Rilke for starting to write in French, saying that he was betraying his native language. This is the only time Rilke asked friends to defend him. He made a point never to read reviews of his work. But he read that, and he said, 'I need to be defended, this is outrageous. I have no identification with the language whatsoever. One cannot identify with a language; it has nothing to do with politics or nationality.' In another letter that was published later, Rilke wrote, 'I feel the least connected to the Germans of all people. I just happened to write the language.' He ultimately said, 'I am inventing this language for them anew. I'm giving them their language back. They don't even know what they have and what they speak.' He actually gave the Germans what they didn't have, which was German beyond nationality."

"It must be odd to have a language as one's mother tongue and feel the way that Rilke did about that language."

"It is strange. The poet I worked on for a long time before this was Célan, who was a German poet who was not German either. He was writing poetry about the Holocaust in German to a German audience. He lived in Paris too. There is a strong tradition of German-speaking poets --- Heine, Rilke, Célan -- going to Paris to write their work and sending those works back to Germany."

"Cleansing the mother tongue."

"It is like that. For Célan it became an impossible project. Rilke has achieved this incredible beauty; of course, Célan was much more fractured. But Célan didn't give up German. He held on to it and said he wanted to save this language from itself or from its own history. I haven't thought about this much, but maybe I needed to get to Rilke through Célan."

"That makes sense..."

" ...of the detour, because in some ways I'm also reading a German poet not in Germany."

I had not been aware until I read Professor Baer's introduction to The Poet's Guide to Life how many letters Rilke wrote -- literally thousands. "I was stunned," I said.

"It's unbelievable. Someone said to me this morning, 'Rilke, he just wrote all day.' I said, 'No, actually, that's not true.' He had an active love life, and he enjoyed life. He did a lot of things. He traveled all the time. He was conscious of his body. He was a Californian before there were Californians; he would walk barefoot on the grass, and he was a vegetarian. For a while he had eight cups of coffee a day, and then he couldn't sleep, and someone pointed out to him maybe he should cut the coffee, so he had four cups. But he was a gifted sleeper. He slept eight hours every night. He always said, 'I'm a talented sleeper, and I love to worship at the altar of the god of sleep.' "

Physically, the professor said, Rilke's letters are beautiful. "I should have put a facsimile of one of his letters in the introduction. They're breathtaking; they are like calligraphy. If there were one little tiny ink spot or mistake, he would rewrite the whole page. He wouldn't cross anything out."

Rilke used the best of paper for his writing. "He was fastidious about this," said Professor Baer, "and he would have this paper ordered from a certain stationery store. He would also request particular inks and ask his rich friends to get him this and that, please. They were shopping for him."

Professor Baer writes in his introduction:

Every morning the poet sat down at his desk to work. Everything had been carefully prepared: he had dressed in shirt, tie, and a dark tailored suit; eaten breakfast at the table (whenever possible, there was real silver and heavy linen); sipped his good coffee; and kept most of his language to himself, expending it only to address his discreet housekeeper with a brief comment about the weather or how the cut flowers were nicely holding up. Now he faced the two pens before him. One pen was reserved for work -- the few volumes of poems that he had published and the single novel that had won him some acclaim -- while the other was the pen for dispensing with bills, requests, and letters, the sort of things that required words and language but did not qualify, as far as the reading public or his own exacting self were concerned, as poetic "work."

I asked about the two pens. Professor Baer explained, "The two pens were a trick he played on himself. He knew but didn't want to recognize it immediately that he would write these letters and that they were his work also. He could send them off and pretend that he didn't write them.

"But he did, before his death, write over 600 poems, which for most poets is a major accomplishment. He wrote at least 7000 letters. For most people this would be a lifetime achievement.

"Rilke went to a fortune-teller in 1911 in Paris, and this fortune-teller said to him, 'You have the gift of being able to write automatically without the need for anybody else around you.' And he said, rephrasing, 'Yes, I have this liquid, this fluid inside of me.' It was like his blood was ink."

As a young man, he was persuaded by an older woman, also his lover, to change his name from René to Rainer. He then set about developing an elegant signature that incorporated this new name.

"He invented himself," said the professor. "He was both incredibly talented and born to be a poet, but he also made himself into this name, which was in a way a modern phenomenon, the way people invent themselves. He was a celebrity in a certain sense."

"There was a bit of Andy Warhol about his reinvention," I said.

"Completely. I found that moving. I admire Andy Warhol greatly. He's brilliant. There's something brilliant about recognizing that art is also inventing oneself. Through writing he's becoming someone else, and this is where the most helpful things in the book are for me, the writings that show that you can change yourself. Which is what Rilke did. He invented himself, he became Rilke, he became famous."

"He became, too," I said, "a fop and a dandy."

"Of course, the gloves, the vest, the hat, the overcoat, all of that, yes. He was a want-to-be aristocratic rich person. The wealthy liked him around because he was this creature who produced beautiful things. There was something compelling about that. If you're surrounded by people who make money all day -- nothing against them; that's good for them and good for everyone else if they give it away -- but there is something different about people who are creating something. They recognized that. Rilke allowed himself to be invited to their dinner parties, and I always think, 'Where is the sin in that?' He would stay at people's estates. He would spend the winter in their summer houses and have a few rooms to himself. Which doesn't always sound too exciting. He had this enormous capacity for solitude. This is what he needed to do his work and to become himself."

"You might say," I suggested, "that Rilke was finding a way of carving himself out of silence."

"Yes. He did subject himself to weeks of silence, because only then does something become audible to him. There's this noise going on, and he can't hear himself. In January of 1923 he writes a mini-storm of letters to many people. He says, 'I'm writing to you quickly right now. I have a lot of people to write to, but I will stop writing letters on February 1. I'm preparing myself for something. I can feel something is coming on.'

"He has one friend he continues to write to, but on February 1, he stops his correspondence. Within four or five days he writes the Duino Elegies. He had some fragments, but he essentially completes the ten elegies and then waits three days, and then in five days he writes the Sonnets to Orpheus. It is truly incredible.

"If someone can write 50 sonnets in five days, that is a little beyond what we know people do, and Rilke did it. So he was preparing himself, as you said, to carve himself out of silence. He stopped everything, and he said, 'I heard something and I tried to listen to it.'

"He threw one sonnet out. He said one wasn't exactly perfect. The other ones he all left. He didn't change a word. And this is the only time when he's writing, when he writes the elegies. I looked in the archives of some of the manuscripts, and sometimes there's only one word on a page. He was basically taking notation. He was taking dictation, just writing it down, and it's just rapid, and he just writes a word and then he goes on, he goes on. He didn't eat for days. His housekeeper would open the door and put the food on the floor, and in the evening she would come and take the food back out. She didn't speak to him at all because she knew not to interrupt.

"And then he writes all these beautiful telegrams to his friends and says, 'For several days I was standing like the captain at high seas, receiving signals from outer space and just responding. '"

Professor Baer notes that many Rilke scholars wish to make the poet only ethereal and pale. "But he wasn't," said Baer. "And why would he have been? Why would he have not been an embodied person? In one of the letters -- which is funny but which outrages some people -- Rilke wrote that to prepare for one night of love, you have to prepare for five full days. He would make dates a week in advance. He had to gather himself. After the night, he would get up and make omelets."

Asked by another interviewer, "What inspired this book?" Professor Baer said, "In November 2001, my father passed away after a long and difficult illness, and I wanted to read a poem at his funeral in Germany. But instead of a poem, I found a letter by Rilke where he speaks about the 'responsibility to complete what a deceased person had begun.' This passage helped me in coping with the events of that difficult fall. I then translated the passage for my wife, who does not read German, and simply continued translating from Rilke's letters for myself after that. By the time I began talking about a book project, I had already translated about a third of what is now in this book."

"Were the letters difficult to translate?" I asked.

"Yes, they were difficult to translate. They were my life for the last three years. I had to read them and let them resonate within me and then translate. Technically they are not overwhelmingly difficult, because it's fairly accessible prose. They are letters; they're not arguments, they're not philosophical writings, they're not trying to be difficult at all. They're not abstract. They're so lively. But they're profound. That combination isn't easy. You could translate them straight into English, and then they would sound like German translated to English."

Readers have responded to Professor Baer's translations. "I had someone read the section on love, and she said, 'God, this is like describing my relationship.' And I said, 'Is that helpful?' And she said, 'Yeah.' And then someone else said, 'I need to send this to a friend who's sick because this may be helpful for her.'

"It was moving to me. I think, 'This is nice to do a book for someone where it actually may matter. She may actually read it and it may matter. It's not a question of help, but it may matter to her to read this. And she wouldn't have perhaps reached for Rilke because he's not the obvious poet. He seems daunting and difficult, and people mostly don't read poetry.' "

"What do you read in English, what poetry?"

"I love Emily Dickinson. And I love some of Wallace Stevens. I love parts of it, and then there are moments when it's cold. And other parts I think are incredible. They're difficult poems but powerful."

"You have to give yourself to Stevens's poems," I suggested. "Any attempt to 'understand them' is to ruin them."

"That makes sense. You have to surrender to the poem. To see the whole thing. "

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