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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."

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