Rainer Rilke and Oft-Tattooed Reasoning

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Words by Jessie Kraemer

Illustration by Megan Goldfarb

“In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?” – Rainer Maria Rilke from “Letters to a Young Poet”

The quote above is tattooed on Lady Gaga’s left arm. Rainer Rilke permeates odd corners of American pop culture, but in his native home of Germany he’s a monument. You get the sense he thought writing came from beyond; understandable, considering his lifelong struggle with mental illness. Like many things in his life, writing must have seemed beyond his control. He remained open to forces of inspiration. For this reason he declined psychological help, with another oft-tattooed reasoning: “Don’t take my devils away, because my angels may flee too.” The myth goes, in the middle of a storm, struck suddenly by a resounding crack of thunder, he scribbled “the Duino Elegies” in a frenzy, each coming to him complete. They just came to him. But in the modern day, how best do we find the poem? Do we or don’t we go to grad school, to therapy? As Lady Gaga and Rilke know, maybe there’s only the one question: “Must I?”

Rilke

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