The first-year book at my campus this year--the one that incoming students are encouraged to read and reflect on over the summer--is Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. I was asked to contribute a brief reflection on the text to get discussion going, and I thought I'd share it here, too:
I've always thought of Rilke as a poet for grown-ups, a serious poet, and I can date my respect for him back to the summer that I graduated from high school. I was a dishwasher in a small café in Seattle, getting ready to move East for college. There was a waiter there, a very handsome man, smart and curious about the world--maybe he was an actor--about thirty, divorced, with a small child. He was a real grown-up and it meant a lot to me that he treated me with respect, asked me questions, and encouraged me to take my life seriously. Before I left for school, he invited me to his apartment for dinner: a very adult occasion for me, and he gave me a copy of Rilke's Selected Poems, translated by Robert Bly. I didn't know about Rilke, but coming from that smart grown-up who seemed to think I was smart made me think Rilke important. It's a dual language edition, with German on the left page and the English on the right. On the inside cover, he had painted a funny cat wearing glasses and written: "Anne: CONGRADUATION!"
I devoured Letters to a Young Poet when I was in college, eager then, as now, for any and all advice for how to live a great life, be an artist, express myself in the best and most authentic way. My friend knew I was about to change my life by moving away from home and getting an education. In giving me Rilke, he armed me with a little courage to use my education to make a real change.
Looking back through my copy of the poems tonight, the bookmark rests half way through, at Rilke's great poem, "Archaic Torso of Apollo," the one that ends: "You must change your life."