Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Poems From a Poet's Soul 7


St Mary's Hospital where my mother resides
For some reason these slow snowy days I linger with the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke as they do catch my mood - reflective, contemplative and meditative - a mood tinged with a little regret for what remains unachieved in my life.  As an intense and philosophical sort of person I am drawn to equally intense and philosophical sorts and the works or writings thereof.  I pick up a depth and profundity of spirit in the words of Rilke, words a little heavy with his intensity and profundity.  Then there is always an existentialist twist to his words and to his themes.  One line might bring me on a romantic flight of fancy while the next one trips me up in my flight by no little realism tinged with a sadness and a regret.  To this extent he mirrors my feelings and sympathies.  This makes him a complex poet who is struggling to make sense of life.  That he makes some sense of it is beyond doubt, yet we are always in the presence of a searcher who has not found his "pot of gold" or in the presence of a weary traveller who has not as yet reached his destination.  Rilke's poems are not for those who lack courage.  He will always bring us deeper into more lonely corners of the soul, but on the way he will have shone a little light to guide our footsteps.  When I read him I find I am always in good company - with a strong and courageous soul ready to shoulder whatever pain or suffering life brings.  Also we will learn to see the Beauty and Truth at the heart of everything in Creation (or nature).  In his company we will learn to see anew but deeper into the very reality of things.  Today's poem which I offer you is called Heartbeat:

Only mouths are we. Who sings the distant heart
which safely exists in the center of all things?
His giant heartbeat is diverted in us
into little pulses. And his giant grief
is, like his giant jubilation, far too
great for us. And so we tear ourselves away
from him time after time, remaining only
mouths. But unexepectedly and secretly
the giant heartbeat enters our being,
so that we scream ----,
and are transformed in being and in countenance.

Translated by Albert Ernest Flemming


I have quoted Archibald MacLeish's famous line: "A poem should not mean, but be" many times in these posts.  Ever since I was at school I have always dreaded so-called paraphrases of poems as we had a teacher in fifth year who insisted on paraphrasing poems so that we might understand what they were about.  He killed every poem dead for me, and I'm sure for most of the other young students.  As boys, however, we never ever discussed poetry.  We were more likely to discuss soccer or films or TV programmes.  Luckily we got a new more enlightened teacher when that poor sad gentleman passed away.  This new teacher opened up poems in a more profound and intriguing way as he never sought to explain them or give us his meaning.  No, he taught us to make our own of the poems and to let them speak to us as powerfully as they really should.  I gradually learned to let the poem reveal itself by reading it aloud, by letting the words tease my imagination by asssociations and resonances.  In short, poems became more real, more rooted in experience, more rooted in the senses, more alive in my imagination as one image sparked another and another and so on.  In other words, I was more content to let them be and do their work on me, rather than seeking to impose a meaning on them or to kill both them and me in strenuous efforts of unravelling.

I love Rilke opening sentence which comprises four words: "Only mouths are we."  I suppose we could substitute any part of the human body for the second word in this sentence according to what we might want to emphasize about the human condition.  Mouth is a metaphor for much in humankind's life: for all his oral and written culture, the second aspect of which may in turn may be read aloud.  It also has connotations of attempting to put order and meaning on things by giving them expression in either oral or written form.

Then what is the centre of things?  What is a thing in itself?  We have obvious hints of, if not allusions to the
philosophies of Kant and Schopenhauer here in this?  What is reality?  Who knows, but the question is worth asking philosophically and also poetically as it is here.  Then the poet in us gets deep resonances with the works of the Romantics, especially Coleridge and Keats who sought to hold opposites in a healthy tension - The Coleridgean theory of opposites and the Keatsian theory of Negative Capability, both of which I have discussed before in these pages.  Likewise, those of us who read poems will be reminded of Yeats' "centre that cannot hold," that "things fall apart" on us if we have no passion, no vision and no commitment to the Truth and Beauty at the heart of things.  I believe that this poem is about just that - the Truth and Beauty at the Heart of Things.   Without a doubt humankind has lost its way - and all because of the greed that lies at the heart of the growing minority of rapacious capitalists who seemingly cannot be sated in their desires for more and more wealth.

This Truth and Beauty at the Heart of Things, Rilke equates with God, whom he does not name, but calls "He" and so we assume that it is the great Christian deity that he has as subject of his next line:   "His giant heartbeat is diverted in us into little pulses."  We each of us, as it were, are the smaller beating hearts of the larger Heart which is the Godhead.  But this is no Romanticism at its most flighty, oh no, for our poet introduces the sobering thought that there is both "giant grief" and "giant jubilation" at the very heart of the Godhead or of the Deity, both of which feelings are far too great for our small spiritual and bodily vessels, our human Body-Soul.  Here we have Rilke at his best - a transitional poet caught between the more esoteric and ecstatic feelings associated with Romanticism and the many pains and sufferings expressed in more modernist terms.  That is what I mean by saying that at his best Rilke is very existentialist in tendency and sympathy.  He seasons his higher and deeper thoughts with the salt of the realism of everyday life.

Winter scene, Phoenix Park, Dec 2010
Like moths attracted to the burning flame we are attracted to the centre of centres, but realising that we cannot survive such heat we turn away.  There is a line somewhere in the Old Testament that goes: "We cannot look on the face of God and live," and hence we must needs fly away from His countenance:  "And so we tear ourselves away rom him time after time, remaining only mouths."  This last metaphor is once again very potent - we are only mouths - somehow disembodied.  I am reminded of a video made about some work that Samuel Beckett had written - I saw this some years back at a Beckett exhibition in the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris - which featured only moving lips - a disembodied mouth.  It would seem that Rilke is getting at something like that.

However, we cannot escape this "centre of centres", this "Heart of Hearts" because it pursues us almost ruthlessly and terrifyingly: 
"But unexepectedly and secretly the giant heartbeat enters our being, so that we scream ----," But this is a transformation or transfiguration beyond our human imagining.

All of the above is but a personal, indeed a very personal, teasing out of the possible connotations, implications, associations and resonances of this beautiful little lyric offered for our edification by Rainer Maria Rilke. That it is so good in translation only makes me more deeply regret that I cannot read his poems in German.

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