“Now here’s a copy of Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet,’ which I already have but in hardback. This is a paperback. Fits perfectly in a coat pocket, and it’s only a dollar. I’m torn. Opinions?” – Rory, Gilmore Girls season two, episode 15
Ever since we started the Gilmore Girls reading challenge, I’ve been poring over the list of reads referenced in the show and struggling to choose which to read next – so hard to decide! So I make lists. I jot them down on the backs of crumpled receipts I find at the bottom of my bag while waiting in line at the grocery store. I type them into the “notes” app on my iPhone and email them to myself. I write them on the back pages of notebooks. When I compare them, I find the books on these lists overlap only sometimes. Often they don’t.
However. Two books that recur across multiple lists are “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens and “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke. I’m currently reading “David Copperfield” and fully expect to read all 900 plus pages, even if it takes me four boxes of Kleenex to get through them. (I’m getting misty just thinking about the novel – so beautiful and so sad!)
In the meantime, I finally read Rilke’s “Letters,” a short but engrossing and meditative book. The young poet of the title was Franz Xaver Kappus, a 19-year old military student who wrote to Rilke seeking his advice about writing poetry. “Letters to a Young Poet” is a collection of Rilke’s responses to Kappus (whose letters are not included).
I had never read the book in full but am well acquainted with a passage that’s often quoted:
"I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."
In this passage, as he does throughout their correspondence, Rilke essentially encourages Kappus to embrace being alive, even when it is painful, uncomfortable, or scary. The letters, deeply moving and poignant, advocate humility in the face of life’s great, and terrible, mysteries: "[I]f you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor; then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling." Rilke’s guidance is wise about so many things, including the inevitability of suffering and the way we can use up energy fruitlessly pushing against it instead of letting it work itself out. He understands, too, how unnecessarily we punish ourselves: "It is so often the name of an offense that a life shatters upon, not the nameless and personal action itself, which was perhaps a quite definite necessity of that life and could have been absorbed by it without any trouble."
Of the 339 books referenced in Gilmore Girls, “Letters to a Young Poet” is one that seems very much to echo a theme of the series – finding a way to accept the life that you have and to continue growing in that life. We see this especially in the three generations of women portrayed on the show: in Lorelai and her struggle with her family and their expectations, in Rory as she makes her way to adulthood, and in Emily Gilmore as she battles, unsuccessfully, to shape her daughter and granddaughter to meet her visions for them. We see it also in the way these women grow into their relationships with each other, learning to embrace one another despite their flaws, mistakes, and differences.
To watch series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and the cast discuss the show’s literary references on YouTube, click here. The discussion begins around the four-minute mark.