The Relationship between Travel and Creative Writing

Regensberg Cathedral in Germany.

Certainly, there is safety in remaining in one’s own hometown, circle of like-minded friends, or familiar spirituality. Remaining in a place or state of ease requires little experience of discomfort. Yet this complacency rarely affords one the powerful experience of being an adventurer, of stumbling upon ideas, truths, and perspectives that challenge one’s own closely-held worldviews. As William Wordsworth famously declared, “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility” 1 The excitement and adventure of taking the plunge into an entirely new culture, mindset, field of study, or profession is an experience that yields the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” that one can eventually “[recollect] in tranquility.”

In other words, encountering a space or idea that opens one’s eyes to a new world results in thoughts and feelings that can fuel creative writing–in this article, specifically poetry. These thoughts and feelings, when reflected upon and written about after pondering the provocative experience, give way to art that captures the phenomenal experience of discovery.

Rilke’s Life

A poet that demonstrates this is the German Rainer Maria Rilke, whose most poetically prolific era was from the year 1899 to 1922. By the age of seven, Rilke was no stranger to exploring the colliding worlds within his own self. Grieving the loss of a daughter, Rilke’s mother, Phia, often dressed him in long girl’s dresses and encouraged his femininity, with which he felt uncomfortable. 2

At ten years old, Rilke became further accustomed to the experience of entering a world beyond one’s prescribed comfort zone. During the tender years of his youth, after having been forced to attend a military academy against his own desires, Rilke often sequestered himself away to a place of safety: the infirmary. Emotional and creative, it was there that Rilke first began to seek refuge in poetry. 3 While he later considered these early poems to be the embarrassing efforts of an amateur mind, the seed had been planted. 4 Rilke had discovered the art of turning his experiences as an outsider to feelings-driven poetry.

As his life wore on, Rilke began to seek adventure of his own volition. “Trust uncertainty” was a theme that practically radiated from Rilke’s writings. 5 While studying in Munich in 1987, young Rilke took advantage of the opportunity to visit two other countries with cultures vastly different from his own: Italy, where he discovered the hues of the Renaissance art that taught him that “the holy can be rooted in the body and in human relationship;” 6 and Russia, the landscape- and architecture-rich country of his fifteen-years-senior lover, Lou Andreas-Salomé.

During these years, Rilke penned The Book of a Monastic Life, which became the first installment of his greater work, The Book of Hours. 7 While Rilke would later reject his Catholic faith and therefore eschew much of the philosophy reflected in the Italian Renaissance art he observed, these years and experiences led him to contemplate deeply the role of art and faith, a world that would not have opened up to him had he not sought it outside the confines of his hometown and his parents’ dreams.

Rilke’s Poetry and Experiences

“We must not portray you in king’s robes, / you drifting mist that brought forth the morning,” Rilke’s fourth poem in The Book of a Monastic Life declares (1-2). 8 Having grown up in a Catholic home, 9 Rilke here encapsulates much of his frustration with the organized religion of his childhood. Rather than lauding the lavish stained-glass windows and paintings of the Gospel stories with which he was familiar, Rilke further exclaims,

Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you. (6-9) 10

With “you” referring to the God Rilke so desperately pursued, we read here Rilke’s belief that (albeit often well-meaning) attempts at restricting God to the cliches of organized religion “hide” rather than reveal God.

Stained glass image of Christ

Later, in his sixth poem of The Book of a Monastic Life, Rilke muses of God, “If you should be thirsty, there’s no one / to get you a glass of water” (6-7). 11This view of God–this pleading to provide a celestial Being with a glass of water that Rilke believed necessary–differs drastically from the all-powerful, impersonal God that Rilke had grown up believing.

“I have begun my life,” Rilke penned in his journal as he thoughtfully transcribed his heart’s musings into the poetry that would complete his book’s first section. 12 It was not to his first breath as an infant that Rilke ascribed his beginning; rather, it was to the unfolding quest of venturing into previously unconsidered views of life and God. “I have hymns you haven’t heard” (1), 13 Rilke promises in the fortieth of The Book of a Monastic Life‘s poems, foreshadowing the coming years in which his mind and art would continue to expand as he sought out new worlds and experiences.

Now that Rilke had traveled outside his own culture and religious upbringing, he moved into the next section of his life from which The Book of Pilgrimage–the second segment in The Book of Hours–sprang. The years that produced this fresh array of poetry were born of Rilke’s marriage to Clara Westhoff, a woman who was a new world in and of herself. 14 She was quite unlike Rilke’s previous serious relationship in that he believed she was less complicated and more inclined to enjoy the daily activities of a typical housewife. 15 Their union bore a daughter named Ruth, who inspired much of Rilke’s second phase of poetry. 16

In the second poem of The Book of Pilgrimage, the very title of which points to travel and discovery, Rilke writes of his period of self-discovery, “I am strange to myself, as though someone unknown had poisoned my mother as she carried me” (3-4). 17

Again and again, the theme of pregnancy and childhood informs Rilke’s poems: in the fourth poem, addressing God, “I love you as I would love a son” (2); 18 in the sixth poem, once again addressing God, “I will know you / as one knows his only beloved child” (18-19). 19 Ideas of parenthood and generating life flow from this second book of poems. Rilke writes in the second poem,

I’ve been scattered in pieces,
torn by conflict,
mocked by laughter,
washed down in drink. (4-7). 20

By this time, Rilke had experienced much of the uncertainty that a traveler’s life has to offer; these years began with the traveling of a human from single to married, from childless to parent. They eventually ended when Rilke and his wife, mutually deciding to devote their time almost solely to artistic production, left Ruth in her grandparents’ care. 21

The third installment of The Book of Hours is titled The Book of Poverty and Death. Rilke once again opened himself up to travel and wrote this third book during a stay in Viareggio, Italy in 1903. 22 Much of this was inspired by the self-denial of Saint Francis, whom Rilke studied throughout this new adventure. 23 Rilke turned his Franciscan studies, his experiences with the tumultuous storms of Viareggio along the seaside, and a solitude that he found more lonely than freeing 24 into the tragedy- and hardship-themed final book. We read in his first poem a sense of desperation that his previous poetry often did not include:

I can’t see the path or any distance:
everything is close
and everything closing in on me
has turned to stone. (6-9). 25

Sea storms of Rilke’s inspiration.

Further on, in the fourth poem, Rilke shares with God his opinion of modern society: “Lord, the great cities are lost and rotting. / Their time is running out” (1-2). 26 These final poems usually recount feelings of bleakness in contrast to the previously life-focused and wonderstruck feelings of before. He muses in the eighth poem, “Lord, we are more wretched than the animals / who do their deaths once and for all, / for we are never finished with our not dying” (1-3). 27 He considers our human state to be worse than those of non-human creatures, as our poverty-stricken experiences subject us over and over again to a life worse than death.

In the final poem, even though it reflects a lightening of the tempest of emotions Rilke experienced as he wrote the third book, he writes,

I thank you, deep power
that works me ever more lightly
in ways I can’t make out.

The day’s labor grows simple now,
and like a holy face
held in my dark hands. (1-6) 28

God is not a personal Being now; rather, Rilke refers to God as a “deep power” who is “like a holy face” (emphasis mine) rather than an actual being possessing an actual body. In this way, Rilke ends The Book of Hours by rendering God a being that is far less human than the one with which the book began.

Travel as Prompting Transformation

One need not wonder what would have happened had Rilke remained within the limits of his parents’ dreams for him, excluding himself from the adventures that marked his life. While perhaps he still would have found his voice as a poet, he would have lacked the experiences that led him to understand God in unconventional and ever-changing ways. Each period of travel shaped each period of his poetry: his travels to Italy and Russia shaped The Book of a Monastic Life, his travels to and from parenthood shaped The Book of Pilgrimage, and his travels to solitude and back to Italy shaped The Book of Poverty and Death.

Through it all, Rilke’s understanding of God and God’s world was ever shifting, ever changing, yet one thing remained constant: he never stopped questioning, seeking, reevaluating. Each new journey resulted in a new book–each new discovery was the result of travel-provoked “emotions recollected in tranquility.”

Pondering Rilke’s poems and their implications for the importance of travel to creative writing, I reflect upon my own experiences as a traveler. As I encountered Italian Renaissance art, just as Rilke did, I found myself moved. I studied the work of famous artists, such as Donatello and Brunelleschi and Michelangelo, and I was struck by these artists’ understanding of God. A devout Christian myself, the tenderness and humanity revealed through these masters’ depictions of famous Biblical characters like Mary and Jesus challenged my previous perceptions of saints and God as untouchable, remote beings.

Like Rilke, I turned these discoveries into poetry of my own. Later, I spent a year and a half in a small town in Sonora, Mexico and was, once again, challenged in my understanding of God. For example, many of my friends there used the informal “tú” rather than the formal “usted” (“tú” and “usted” are Spanish pronouns for “you”) when addressing God, a linguistic difference that does not exist in English because we only have one all-encompassing word for “you.” They furthered the idea of an approachable God, a theme that has since reappeared more often than not in my own writing. And now, as I reside in Tokyo, Japan, I am witnessing ways of worship and devotion that continue to prompt me to “recollect” these emotions into personal spiritual poetry. Relocating to new cultures has been necessary for these new discoveries, as I would not have as frequently encountered these sources of inspiration within my hometown in Illinois.

Rilke’s travel was not only geographic, nor has mine been. Sometimes, traveling for me refers to crossing oceans and experiencing other countries; other times, I “travel” by picking up a book that challenges my personal philosophies or by pursuing a friendship with someone who possesses worldviews quite different from my own. These experiences lead me to work out my thoughts and beliefs through poetry. I have found that traveling, whatever the form, is a crucial element to my creative writing process–a sentiment that Rilke, too, would confirm.

Works Cited

  1. 3.2.3 : Definition Of Poetry – Literary Theory and Criticism
  2. Freedman, Ralph. Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke. Northwestern University Press, 1998.
  3. Rilke, Rainer Maria. Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, ed. Barrows, Anita. Riverhead Books, 2005.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Corbett, Rachel. You Must Change Your Life: the Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin. W.W. Norton and Company, 2017.
  6. Rilke, Rainer Maria. Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, ed. Barrows, Anita. Riverhead Books, 2005.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Freedman, Ralph. Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke. Northwestern University Press, 1998.
  10. Rilke, Rainer Maria. Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, ed. Barrows, Anita. Riverhead Books, 2005.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Corbett, Rachel. You Must Change Your Life: the Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin. W.W. Norton and Company, 2017.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Rilke, Rainer Maria. Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, ed. Barrows, Anita. Riverhead Books, 2005.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Freedman, Ralph. Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke. Northwestern University Press, 1998.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Rilke, Rainer Maria. Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, ed. Barrows, Anita. Riverhead Books, 2005.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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28. American married to a Japanese man. Lover of language learning and literature. Come talk to me about (a) faith in writing and/or (b) the glorious taste of peach rings.

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  1. M. L. Flood

    This is a very interesting and thorough article! You’ve done a great job analyzing Rilke’s poetry in relation to his travels and life experiences. I also enjoyed learning about your own travels and how they have influenced your writing. Thank you so much for sharing this with us!

  2. Thank you so much for such an in-Depth analysis of one of the most underrated masterminds of all times!

  3. Rainer Maria Rilke happens to be one of my all time favorite poets.

  4. I love his work from the beginning, and the reason behind that is because of the philosophical undertone and the fact that one can easily recognize oneself in it. I’ve noticed many new insights because of your article that I didn’t notice whilst reading Rilke.

    • rachelsakashita

      Thanks for your comment! I’m glad the article was helpful to you.

    • I love Rilke’s exposition on the bodily delight as a resource of infinite learning, but its being muddied in its clarity, or made more of a stimulant in excess in attempting to alleviate what he called “the tired places of most people’s lives”. It’s the perversion of simple, natural needs.

      The solitary man as being the one who hears the silence of “Things”. I think this is what he meant by the mystery of being… to take heavily what most take lightly of the little things in life.

      Indeed, most don’t realize just how terrible the burden really is in paying it no mind. This is where the gulf between the isolated person who, while close to others, nonetheless feels worlds apart from them. It’s a personal growth, a vastness, that must unfortunately be, at bottom, traveled alone.

  5. Pat Poole Comment:

    Have really loved learning about Rilke through this piece. Somehow I missed him on my prior existentialism binges. Ive always lived in solitude and really liked learning what it means to develop as a person of solitude. Thank you again.

    • rachelsakashita

      “Existentialism binges”–haven’t we all been there! 🙂 Thanks for your comment–I’m glad his poetry can keep you company now.

  6. Rilke’s a lifesaver. He was my first enjoyable experience in Western literature.

  7. I haven’t read much poetry, but I will have to definitely check Rilke out.

    • rachelsakashita

      You should! I highly recommend the English translation that I read, edited by Anita Barrows. Her insights made an excellent companion to Rilke’s work.

  8. I was born in Czech Republic so Rilke is my countryman. I picked up a thin worn-out 1962 M. D. Herter Norton edition of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet in a second-hand book store some time ago and have been on and off it since then. I can relate to everything Rilke conveys that I stay off this work as it overwhelms me sometimes but then I run back to it to find some sense of reassurance in life. Your article is very inspiring, thank you.

    • rachelsakashita

      I know what you mean. I only read his work every once in awhile, now, because I don’t want to lose the sense of wonder I feel when I read his poetry. Thank you so much for your comment.

  9. Could you recommend the best translated work by Rainer Maria Rilke? There are so many..

    • rachelsakashita

      It truly depends on what you’re looking for in a translation. The translation I chose, in the work edited by Anita Barrows, attempts to capture the original feeling and meaning of the poetry and therefore takes some (limited) liberties with Rilke’s poems, such as lineating the poems differently than he did or choosing a word that’s less literally accurate to the original than another. However, because the translator seemed to understand Rilke’s journeys and intentions so well, I trusted the heart of her translation, liberties and all.

      If you’re looking for a translation that pays more attention to exact line-by-line translation of Rilke, many scholars recommend Stephen Mitchell. I’ve also heard people praise Edward Snow. Of course, no translation is perfectly exact, and even Mitchell and Snow make artistic choices that change the sound and the verbiage of the original syntax. That’s one of the unavoidable consequences of translating a poem from its heart language.

      And this is all coming from a non-German speaker. I’d love to hear what a native German speaker thinks of the English translations of Rilke.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • For ‘The Duino Elegies’ I recommend Steven Mitchell’s translation.

    • Brent Black

      There is no “best” translation. Different people like different translations, for different reasons

  10. I enrolled in German classes just to be able to read Rilke in the original. That’s how much I love him.

    • rachelsakashita

      That’s a fantastic reason to learn German! I’d love to hear your thoughts sometime on how the original Rilke compares with the translated Rilke.

  11. Thank you so much for this piece.

  12. It has always bothered me a bit that Rilke is a believer. Whether his god is mysterious or as visceral as people claim he/she is today. I just have a hard time trusting philosophers and theologians who place conviction in something that is pure conjecture. Kierkegaard is another example. Beautiful writing and worth every word, just like Rilke. But there is always a grain of salt hanging over their ideas for me. I’m not an atheist. I just consider myself another piece of the universe and feel no need to go any further. I don’t seek the presence of anything but grace, love, and silence. But I end up afraid that a thinker who tries to deify life and nature is simply filling an empty space without stopping and considering that maybe they shouldn’t. Thoughts?

    • Mary May

      Sounds like something you’ll need to work through on your own. Or not.

    • rachelsakashita

      h0mer, I really appreciate this comment. I can understand your skepticism because I, too, would wrestle with committing wholeheartedly with something that is, as you described, “pure conjecture.” As a person of faith myself, I read works of Rilke, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, etc. and see how they believed what they believed because they had experiences and insights that led them (and me) to believe that faith is not entirely conjecture. Something that fascinates me about Rilke, and that I have found myself emulating, is that he sees divine qualities in ordinary things, and vice versa. In my eyes, he isn’t deifying life and nature so much as teasing out the sacred that already exists within them.

  13. Rilke isn’t a man he is a unique person.

  14. Letters to a Young Poet is intended for its audience: the young. Those who are more innocent, more sensitive (read: “Emo”), more curious, more questioning, and more hopeful than how some of us have become. Those who feel like they have their whole life ahead of them to reflect and ponder and wait for the questions to reveal their true meanings and for the fruit to ripen on the tree– as opposed to the adult who feel like they have no time to ponder, have already wasted the years as it is, and would really, really like to just grab the fruit and run with it however green and sour it may be.

    • rachelsakashita

      I haven’t studied “Letters to a Young Poet” in isolation yet–I’ve only focused in depth upon the particular works I’ve pulled out here. Thank you for your thoughts on his other work.

  15. Very insightful.

  16. This article is absolutely fantastic. I really love deep dives into poetry especially when it focuses in on a particular body of work as this one does. You approach the subject matter both with a very strong knowledge base and the love for the poetry which is also crucial. Really enjoyed reading this!

  17. very insightful

  18. I think that this is exactly what I needed to make my day, satisfying.

  19. I also live the heavy life of a traveler and have realized that yes, my life started 26 years ago but a new and invigorating one with keen realizations and truths is the reason I sometimes feel reborn. I absolutely believe that you have to get out of your comfort zone to change to evolve and that it’s crucial that we do. I challenge all of my friends to go out and see how other people live, how other cultures thrive and to find a way to incorporate that into their lifestyle. Maybe not fully, but at least the appreciation of it.

  20. A fantastic analysis of Rilke and his poetry. It was interesting to read how you interpret travelling as not always having to go to a different country, but just challenging yourself and presenting yourself with ideas different than your own is travel as well. Overall a very thought-provoking take, for sure.

  21. Some time ago a colleague of mine met me by the water as I was reading Rilke. He spied a sailboat nearby. Not knowing whose boat it was, he took it and went for a brief sail on the water. I was a bit taken aback by his nerve and his joie de vivre. I have never presumed to ‘borrow’ a sailboat to travel. Rilke’s poetry provides a good deal of opportunity for mental and spiritual travel. As Emily Dickinson once wrote, “there’s no frigate like a book” to take us miles away.

  22. Joan Didion’s work was the first travel writing I ever read, and I fell in love with it because of her. Super interesting reading about Rilke, I wasn’t familiar with him prior to this article!

  23. I really enjoyed reading your article. It gave a deep perspective of the experiences that come from travel and you connected it to Rilke and his poetry very well.

  24. The way that you followed this poets work and journeys was interesting. I got to study abroad in Ireland and learn about the well known poets and writers there and it was a wonderful experience. It, too, shaped my writing from what I learned as well as being immersed in such a wonderful culture and environment. It is amazing what travel can do for a person writing.

  25. Dr. Vishnu Unnithan

    All aspiring writers need to travel, a lot. I have found that to be one of the most effective remedies to overcome writer’s block. I was not aware about Rilke prior to reading your essay and now look forward to exploring his works.

  26. The hardest thing for me about writing and traveling is to just do it…actively sitting down and writing our your experiences vs. just recording it on your phone is an issue that has come up in myself time and time again

  27. majorlariviere

    A very interesting piece that speaks to a crucial fact of writing: one must learn to trigger their imagination. This can be done through all the sense, whether it’s traveling to see new sights and hear new sounds or trying new foods to acquire new scents and tastes. Our minds – like the computers that we build – require information as an input in order to generate output. Adding to one’s library of experiences serves only to enrich the work one is capable of creating!

  28. I truly enjoyed this. I had not heard of Rilke previously, and am glad to now have an insight to his works and story. I get so fixed in the notion that travel and experience must be geographic. I appreciate your point that our travels can stem from experiences at home, meeting those unique from ourselves, and from something as simple as reading a book. Cheers.

  29. This reminds me of a quotation from Jorge Luis Borges: “”A writer — and, I believe, generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”

  30. The job of the travel writer is to go far and wide,to make voluminous notes, to tell the truth. – Paul Theroux

  31. Lance Lewin

    Well, to be frank, the title and opening paragraph did not prepare me for a talk about Rilke. I must suggest, writings like this should introduce the theme (or subject/s) within the “Introduction”. This said, the piece was very deep and informative.

    My initial reason to read this article was the title: in this sense I looked forward to a more domestic appreciation between vacationing and creative writing: how we document the wide scope of experiences from both local and of course, World travel. This conversation is also close to the relationship between Travel Photographers, and for example, fine art photography. The former, revealing how the medium of writing acts as a conduit for sharing experiences and emotions experienced through travel, the latter defining the unique differences and exploits the photograph. Thank you.

    Lance A. Lewin Fine Art Photographer/Instructor/Lecturer
    Georgia USA

  32. Such a great post!

  33. Reading poetry in translation is a risky activity.

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