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.

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.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Poems From a Poet's Soul 4

The Dalai Lama - one of the best known Buddhists
Buddha in Glory

Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond self-enclosed, and growing sweet--
all this universe, to the furthest stars
all beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.

Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
your vast shell reaches into endless space,
and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
Illuminated in your infinite peace,

a billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.

Rainer Maria Rilke

This time I have begun this post with another poem by Rainer Maria Rilke.  On this occasion the poem has at its very centre a Buddhist theme.  If meditation is anything it is about getting to the Still Point of Existence - to use an appropriate metaphor.  That Still Point is another word for the central point or hub about which the wheel of life spins.  Yeats informs us in one of his poems that when the "centre cannot hold" the world become a place of anarchy and chaos without any semblance of order:

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(WB Yeats, The Second Coming)
If spirituality is about anything, it is about getting a centre of gravity for the Self, the Psyche or the Soul.  It is all about being centered, abound having an undisturbed and almost undisturbable equanimity.  Quite by chance as I was listening to some tracks from the late great and wonderful Jeff Buckley to relax before I wrote these lines here, I chanced to find his official site on the internet and also discovered this wonderful insight into his music and spirituality:

The truly centered one - The Buddha meditates!

"I don't have any allegiance to an organized religion; I have an allegiance to the gifts that I find for myself in those religions... I'd rather be non-denominational, except for music. I prefer to learn everything through music. If you want divinity, the music in every human being and their love for music is pretty much it. It's the big indication of their spirituality and their ability to love and make love, or feel pain or joy, and really manifest it, really be real. But I don't believe in a big guy with a beard on a throne, telling us that we're bad; I certainly don't believe in original sin. I believe in the opposite of that: you have an Eden immediately from the time you are born, but as you are conditioned by your caretakers and your surroundings, you may lose that original thing. Your task is to get back to it, to claim responsibility for your own perfection." (See this link here: jeffbuckley)

In my book Jeff Buckley's Eden is quite simply Rainer Maria Rilke's "centre of centres," and Yeats' centre that does not hold, the Still Point of our being which we may achieve through Buddhist meditation techniques.  If spirituality is about anything it is about connection and connectedness to that Still Point, to that Point of Equanimity, to that Centre of Centres.  It is also about the unity of things, the oneness of all reality about us, and the more one meditates the more the Ego disappears and the oneness of all things becomes foremost in the meditator's mind.  The Ego dies away and the Real Self comes to the fore, the Self as a conscious drop in the great ocean of consciousness or Truth.  And so, because the centre of centres or Still Point is so important for us, I repeat here  Rainer Maria Rilke's wonderful little Buddhist poem:

Buddha in Glory

Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond self-enclosed, and growing sweet--
all this universe, to the furthest stars
all beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.

Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
your vast shell reaches into endless space,
and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
Illuminated in your infinite peace,

a billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.

Poems From a Poet's Soul 3

This person left the bench... December 2010
I suppose if there is one thing particular to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is that it is nothing short of existentialist in its expression and in its significance.  This poet lived at a very experiential level and reflected profoundly on that lived experience.  However, his musings are no mere speculations couched in poetic or lyrical terms.  In fact, his poems are not musings at all.  They are an attempt to come to grips with the reality that life faces each living being with.  That reality involves ageing, illness, love, hate, breakdown of relationships, and facing our own finitude in our various frailties and in our very extinction in death.  And so Rilke's poems are always real.  Love is never that false, ersatz or schmaltzy Hollywood love.  Rather it is a vibrant alive love often tinged with sadness and sorrow.  For Rilke as for the great pre-Socratic Milesian philosopher Heraclitus reality is a balance and a tension of opposites: good/evil, joy/sadness, life/death, day/night,  light/dark and black/white.  The path up the hill and the path down are one and the same path as Heraclitus put it, and I feel our poet Rilke would agree.

This evening I offer a very short existential poem for the reader's edification.  It is a startlingly simple poem about love, but it is a passionate love rendered somewhat fragile by the images of death in life that abound around it.  This is sheer existentialism at its best.  The themes of finitude, mortality, freedom and determinism, the transitoriness of life, and yet passionate love can only exist in this wonderfully frightening and yet inspiring poem when it is coupled with its opposite state, that is, extinction in death.  And yet we know that our poet was a spiritual soul who believed in a God who created this mysterious world.  Be that as it may, Rilke is at his best here in this poem wherein, like all his poems, he offers absolutely no didacticism, no doctrinaire stances, no easy answers and absolutely no dogma.  In fact he both uplifts us and frightens us at the same time, which, to my mind, is at the heart of all existentialist writing, because simply that is the nature of such writing - it presents us to ourselves as we are, warts and all in our finite, oh so mortal garb as beings with a finite beginning and a finite end who are travelling through a world that will outlast us.  Today's poem is called "Again and Again, However we know the Landscape of Love."

Again And Again, However We Know The Landscape Of Love

Again and again, however we know the landscape of love
and the little churchyard there, with its sorrowing names,
and the frighteningly silent abyss into which the others
fall: again and again the two of us walk out together
under the ancient trees, lie down again and again
among the flowers, face to face with the sky.

Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Poems From a Poet's Soul 2

Camera-man goes for a walk in the snow - December 2010
Once again these winter days, especially Sundays, I go for a walk with my brothers Patrick and Gerard.  This evening we walked through the grounds of Malahide Castle shortly before the half-light of twilight began inviting darkness to cover the cold land of winter Ireland.  Here and there, there were large mounds of ice and compacted snow, and in places where no sun ever gets the paths were still slippery with ice.  Walking is good for body and soul or for the body-soul if one takes it, as I do, that they are both unified in the oneness of the self, rather than some Cartesian inner dynamism that works like a battery in a clock. 

Once again, I should like to offer the readers of this blog another meditative poem from Rainer Maria Rilke, a poem about the very subject of my opening paragraph, i.e., a walk.

A Walk

My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave...
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.

Galway Hooker, Kinvara, June 2008 - Ready for a soul-journey
Translated by Robert Bly
What I love about this poem is its sense of walking in the light, of journeying towards an onward destination.  I also like the fact of its mysteriousness and mystique.  It is not too clear as to what lies ahead save the image of the sunny hill, and perhaps the sunlight or even the sun itself is a symbol of inner personal truth or even of more overt theistic truth - for, our man, Rainer Maria Rilke was a staunch believer in God, whatever his Christian allegiances were.  However, not being a didact, he leaves out any doctrinaire sentiments, thankfully.  His continual lack of dogmatic and doctrinaire stances would have endeared him to his reading public.  Rilke is always more spiritual than religious, and this is what saves his poems from being in any sense partisan or doctrinaire.  Hence, they always have an edge and a mystery and a mystique about them.

As I have said this poem is about a journey, an inner as well as an outer journey.  Even if we do not get to our destination which is far away, but very much in sight, we are drawn thither as he expresses in these four wonderful lines: "So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;//it has inner light, even from a distance- //and changes us, even if we do not reach it, //into something else, which, hardly sensing it.."  These lines bring in a mystic touch, a soul-ful embrace, and yet, despite this mystic touch we feel the strong and bitter wind in our faces.  The soul, for Rilke, as for all modern psychology, can never be separated from the body which is uniquely intertwined with it.

Poems From a Poet's Soul 1

My brother Pat on the Cliffs of Moher, June, 2008
Now that a slow thaw has set in and that we have come out of a snowy and freezing snap that literally stopped us in our tracks - and that is no harm at all, no harm at all - there is need in our poor souls for some poems to warm those cold spaces.  Rainer Maria Rilke is a great poet of the soul, and I love dipping into his poems for insight and inspiration, but also for challenge and a little provocation, because trhe soul needs that, too, lest it become complacent or stagnant.  And so here, I should like to share with my redaers poems from the pen of Rilke which I consider inspiring and insightful on the one hand and challenging and provoking on the other.

Another view of the Cliffs of Moher, June Bank Holiday, 2008

Exposed On The Cliffs Of The Heart
by Rainer Maria Rilke

Exposed on the cliffs of the heart. Look, how tiny down there,
look: the last village of words and, higher,
(but how tiny) still one last
farmhouse of feeling. Can you see it?
Exposed on the cliffs of the heart. Stoneground
under your hands. Even here, though,
something can bloom; on a silent cliff-edge
an unknowing plant blooms, singing, into the air.
But the one who knows? Ah, he began to know
and is quiet now, exposed on the cliffs of the heart.
While, with their full awareness,
many sure-footed mountain animals pass
or linger. And the great sheltered bird flies, slowly
circling, around the peak's pure denial.--But
without a shelter, here on the cliffs of the heart...

I am not going to even suggest what this poem might be about, because to do so is a travesty.  All one can do is quote the words of the great American poet, writer and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish (1892 – 1982) who that a poem should not mean, but rather be.  In other words paraphrases of poems are definitely out, as well as long-winded explanations.  If the poem can be improved by its author's explanations, it should never have been published in the first place, he averred.  MacLeish is associated with the Modernist school of poetry, and he received three Pulitzer Prizes for his work.  His poems, too, are beautifully crafted modernist.

Enough to note here the predominance of images from nature in Rilke's poem.  I have already indicated in a previous post that he falls in a transitional period or era between Romanticism and Modernism.  The image of cliff and mountain I have noted also in a previous post because these images indicate heights and indeed depths which taken together or singly, depending on perspective, refer to the spaciousness, indeed the very lonely frightening spaces of the self.  Such frightening spaces have resonances with the "Pensées" of Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662) and a well-known poem by Robert Frost about the frightening spaces of the mind. I love especially Rilke's metaphor "the cliffs of the heart" and the fact that the self/soul/psyche can often lie totally exposed on this cliff - one feels the sheer frightening drop to the jagged rocks below whose edges are in no way blunted by the foamy waves that break over them.  Then, there is the mystery or enigma of "the great sheltered bird."  What an image!  Is it foreboding danger like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's albatross in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner?  Then the image of "the peak's pure denial" is also stark and startling.  Let's not ask what these images mean.  Let's savour them as we would a good wine or good food.  Truly poems like these are food for the soul and sustenance for a heart grown weary of the world.