Dennis Hopper Reads From Rainer Maria Rilke’s Timeless Guide to Creativity, Letters to a Young Poet

For almost a cen­tu­ry, writ­ers and oth­er cre­ative peo­ple have found inspi­ra­tion and a pro­found sense of val­i­da­tion in the Bohemi­an-Aus­tri­an poet Rain­er Maria Rilke’s posthu­mous­ly pub­lished Let­ters to a Young Poet. Many a sen­si­tive soul has felt as if Rilke’s let­ters, writ­ten to a young man who had asked him for advice on whether to become a poet, were addressed direct­ly to him or her. One of those peo­ple was the actor Den­nis Hop­per.

“Rilke’s Let­ters to a Young Poet is a great book,” Hop­per says in this short film from 2007. “For me the let­ters are a cre­do of cre­ativ­i­ty and a source of inspi­ra­tion. After read­ing Rilke it became clear to me that I had no choice in the mat­ter. I had to cre­ate.” The ten-minute film, Must I Write?, was direct­ed by Her­mann Vaske and pho­tographed by Rain Li. Hop­per reads the first of the book’s ten let­ters, in which Rilke tells the young man to stop seek­ing approval from oth­ers:

You are look­ing out­ward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can help and coun­sel you, nobody. There is only one sin­gle way. Go into your­self. Search for the rea­son that bids you write; find out whether it is spread­ing out its roots in the deep­est places in your heart, acknowl­edge to your­self whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all–ask your­self in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into your­self for a deep answer. And if this should be affir­ma­tive, if you may meet this earnest ques­tion with a strong and sim­ple “I must,” then build your life accord­ing to this neces­si­ty; your life even into its most indif­fer­ent and slight­est hour must be a sign of this urge and a tes­ti­mo­ny to it.

Hop­per is read­ing from the 1934 trans­la­tion by M.D. Hert­er Nor­ton. There are a few minor slips, in which Hop­per devi­ates slight­ly from the text. Most seri­ous­ly, he inverts the mean­ing of a pas­sage near the end by adding (at the 7:23 mark) the word “not” to Rilke’s phrase, “Per­haps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist.” That pas­sage, one of the most mem­o­rable in the book, reads:

A work of art is good if it has sprung from neces­si­ty. In this nature of its ori­gin lies the judge­ment of it: there is no oth­er. There­fore, my dear sir, I know no oth­er advice for you save this: to go into your­self and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the ques­tion whether you must cre­ate. Accept it, just as it sounds, with­out inquir­ing into it. Per­haps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that des­tiny upon your­self and bear it, its bur­den and its great­ness, with­out ever ask­ing what rec­om­pense might come from out­side. For the cre­ator must be a world for him­self and find every­thing in him­self and in Nature to whom he has attached him­self.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Den­nis Hop­per Reads Rud­yard Kipling on the John­ny Cash Show

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