Letter to a Young Poet

“But perhaps you have hit upon the ideal of being a poet because you see a poet as an original, a perceptive and a pious man, pure in heart, with delicate sensibilities and an exalted emotional life, a man who is capable of awe, who yearns for an inspired, in some way ennobled existence. Perhaps you see the poet as the opposite pole to the money-man, to the man of power. Perhaps you strive for a poet’s career not on account of the verses or fame but because you feel that the poet only seems to enjoy a certain freedom and isolation but actually is responsible in the highest degree, and must dedicate himself totally if his poetic vocation is not to be a masquerade.

If this is so, then you are following the right road with your verses. But in that case too it is of no consequence whether in time you become a poet or not. For these high qualities, tasks, and goals which you ascribe to the poet, that loyalty to himself, that awe in the face of nature, that acceptance of unusual self-sacrifice, that responsibility which is never satisfied with itself and gladly pays the price of sleepless nights for a successful sentence, a well-turned phrase — all these virtues (if we may call them so) are the hallmarks not only of the true poet. They are the hallmarks of the true human being per se, of the unenslaved, unmechanized man, of the reverent and responsible human being, no matter what his profession.

Now if you have this ideal of a human being, if you are not inspired by a desire for notoriety and fame, money and power, but rather desire a life centered in itself and unshakable by worldly influences, then, to be sure, you are not yet a poet, but you are the poet’s brother, you belong to the same species. And then too there is profound meaning in the fact that you write poetry.

For writing poetry, especially when one is young, does not just have one social function, that of bringing pretty works of art into the world and through them delighting ot exhorting; rather, writing poetry can have, completely independent of the worth and possible success of the poems produced, an irreplaceable value for the poet himself. In earlier ages writing poetry was as a matter of course considered part of the development of a young man’s personality. To follow the way of the poet, not simply to practice the use of language but to learn to know oneself more profoundly and more accurately, ro advance one’s individual development farther and higher than the average of mankind succeeds in doing, through setting down unique and wholly personal psychic experiences, to see better one’s own powers and dangers, to define them better — that is what writing poetry means for the young poet, long before the question may be raised as to whether his poems perhaps have some value for the world at large.”

Hermann Hesse, “Letter to a Young Poet”