Friday, December 17, 2010

Poems From a Poet's Soul 5

What Makes a Good Poem


O Connell Street, Dublin, Christmas 2006
Writing or making poems is an ancient craft.  I should like to imagine that it is as ancient as the crafts of stone masonry and carpentry.  Before societies became literate,  people would listen to the makers of poems recite their compositions.  Hence the genesis of poetry is in the human voice which sought to give shape in sound to the feelings and thoughts of the authors.  In other words,  poems were originally oral and aural and not written.  So the magic and the wonder that lie in a good poem are somewhat akin to the magic and wonder of a good song.  Indeed, very often people put, and indeed still do put, music to the words of poems.   So poems are made primarily, though not completely, for the ear.  Some are made for the eye, while many engage as many of the senses as they possibly can through the magic of words.  That is why poets like Gerald Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas appeal to this present writer because their poems were made to be read aloud, to plumb the depths and heights of the spoken human voice and through its natural rhythms and cadences attempt to hang some meaning on the frail boughs of human sound in words printed on a page.  This is also why Rainer Maria Rilke appeals to me, though I very much regret that I cannot enjoy his poems in the original German.  Some of my friends who can speak this language inform me that his poems in translation are in no way as good or as effective as his poems in his mother tongue.  I readily agree, because I speak, read and write Gaelic as fluently as I do English.  When I read, or indeed write a poem in Gaelic, I never wish to translate it because so much of its native cadences would be lost if I did so.  Therefore, when I offer here another poem from Rilke, I am only too aware that the translation, while good, must be a paler reflection of the original.  Still, we would be so much the poorer for not knowing the wisdom, mystery and wonder which this great poet expressed in his original written works.  For this, we must remain eternally grateful to that small band of able and passionate translaters worldwide who bring such gifts to the monoglotal world.
   
Evening


The sky puts on the darkening blue coat
held for it by a row of ancient trees;
you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight,
one journeying to heaven, one that falls;


and leave you, not at home in either one,
not quite so still and dark as the darkened houses,
not calling to eternity with the passion of what becomes
a star each night, and rises;


and leave you (inexpressibly to unravel)
your life, with its immensity and fear,
so that, now bounded, now immeasurable,
it is alternately stone in you and star.
           (Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

Evening Lamp, Phoenix Park, December 2008
Here I am transfixed by how Rilke manages to weave a sort of magic spell where things come alive and are spiritualized almost.  This is most certainly what he meant by writing what he called "Thing poems," poems which bring everyday things alive in a mysterious and haunting manner.  I have pointed out before that Rilke lies somewhere between the Romantics and the Modernists both in time and in mentality.  His Romanticism isn't that of a Coleridge or Wordsworth where all things in nature sing of the beauty and truth of the deity, that is, Rilke was no pantheist.  His world of nature is dark as well as bright and includes also so many shades of gray in a more modernist sense.  There is always something dark and threatening as well as spiritually sustaning in his poems.  It is this "dark and threatening something" that adds the appeal for this present writer here and that gives a strength and realism to what would otherwise be mawkish and schmaltzy rubbish or kitsch.  With this in mind let us re-read the last stanza aloud and I place it hereunder a second time so that we may let the "stone and star" in us hit home in a marvellous spiritual realism or in an equally marvellous realistic spirituality. 


and leave you (inexpressibly to unravel)
your life, with its immensity and fear,
so that, now bounded, now immeasurable,
it is alternately stone in you and star.

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