‘Sky within us’ by Rainer Maria Rilke

Oh, not to be separated,
shut off from the starry dimensions
by so thin a wall.

What is within us
if not intensified sky
traversed with birds

and deep
with winds of homecoming?

Rilke must be a sister-soul of Rumi. There is (I think) a tingling stillness about his poetry that also pervades Rumi’s verse, and, like Rumi, he loves to confuse and cross-infuse spirituality with human love. His wisdom, so beautifully expressed (and here so beautifully and musically translated) continues to stun me as I weave through the wonderful Letters to a Young Poet and his poems, which I have been reading on and off for the past few months.

Sky within us is to me extraordinary because of its understanding of many forms of eternity and many forms of love. For me, this piece can be about knowing God, attaining the sublime through art, or attaining perfect love in its human form. Rilke begins with the timeless cry of Man’s soul: “Oh, not to be separated”. Isn’t much of human endeavour an attempt to shake off our sense of separation? When we create religions, or search for God, aren’t we seeking to sever a barrier between ourselves and eternity (or at least some higher truth or purpose)? And when we write poetry, or paint, or sculpt, or compose music, aren’t we doing the same thing, as well as trying to connect with others – to break barriers and truly communicate – which is so hard? And when we fall in love, and have strong connections of love with others, aren’t we continually fighting against the distances, walls and seas between us, endlessly trying to understand and be understood – to get through to the soul that’s seemingly encased within the body of the other?

As Rilke points out, the barriers we long to break are “so thin” – we are always so tantalizingly close to bliss. Rilke understands this, and he also understands that there is greatness in us. He called the poem Sky within us. He tells us that we contain “intensified sky/ traversed with birds // and deep/ with winds of homecoming”. What a beautiful image. Though we are endlessly searching to break through to something exterior, Rilke suggests that perhaps eternity, higher truth and purpose, love and the ability to communicate and connect to others, are in fact already very much within our reach – and exist in our own incredibly powerful minds, within our souls.

I will end with the extract below from in Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which I thought was quite appropriate when thinking about this poem.

“A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvellous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

birds-and-blue-sky

‘The Stolen Child’ by William Butler Yeats

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that dropp their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.      

This was one of my favourite Yeats poems as a child. It is the refrain – the voice of those faeries – that is, I think, so entrancing about the piece. I remember reading that refrain to myself over and over, and knowing that the music of those words was just the most powerful thing in the world; it was like a spell — a magic spell. I think that this is what really drew me to poetry as a child, and what rekindles and rekindles my excitement about it even now; it is the way in which words (those ordinary things that are stamped all over the back of ready-meals) placed one in front of the other in a certain way, can create magic and music, and transport us.

The Stolen Child is essentially the call of the faeries — their voices call the child (and the reader) to go with them to their beautiful “leafy island”, away from the world that is so “full of weeping” and so “full of troubles”. On an initial surface reading, perhaps, we are simply charmed by the sounds and romance of the poem. We long to follow the faeries to the “waters and the wild”; we are perhaps too enthralled by the charm of that alliteration (“the word’s more full of weeping than you can understand“) to consider its meaning, or question why we should be incapable of understanding the world’s difficulties. Hypnotised by the spelling music, we long to dance the “olden dances” and forget everything else. However, on a second reading, you might detect some slightly unsettling things…

I think The Stolen Child is about the many temptations that surround the poet. Yeats wrote in another poem, “All things can tempt me from this craft of verse”. Perhaps the faery voices represent the call of a life of indolence – or even the call of oblivion through alcohol. I say alcohol because this poem reminds me greatly of part of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale: “That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,/ And with thee fade away into the forest dim:// Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget/ What thou among the trees hast never known/ The weariness, the fever and the fret…” In Yeats’ poem we are at least being called to a world without thought – to a disconnection from the world. The faeries are coaxing the “child” (the poet), trying to lure him away from the world of “weeping” to a world of magic. They tempt us with their “reddest stolen cherries”; these are apparently rather impish faeries, for they have stolen these cherries, and wish to steal the child too… They dance with “Mingling hands and mingling glances”. The use of “glances” to me immediately raises suspicion; a glance is something furtive, and breeds an aura of mischief here.

Indeed, we must distrust these faeries who seek out “slumbering trout” only to whisper in their ears, and give them “unquiet dreams”. What are they whispering to the trout? Why do they wish to trouble their sleep? There is something sinister here that sounds like dark, mischievous spells. Moreover, the repetition of the word “human” (“Come away, O human child!“) draws attention to the fact that the faeries are not human, and makes us distrust them even more.

Finally, when we reach the last stanza, it seems the faeries have managed to persuade, or hypnotise the child into coming away with them: “Away with us he’s going,/ The solemn-eyed”. The child is not rejoicing to be joining the faeries, he is “solemn”. And now (that the child has been successfully “stolen”) they are more up front about where he is going, or at least what he is leaving; “He’ll hear no more the lowing/ Of the calves on the warm hillside/ Or the kettle on the hob/ Sing peace into his breast”. The child is leaving the comforts of home — not the world’s weeping. He has been tricked by the faeries.

All in all, this poem is beautiful, mysterious, and quietly but naggingly sinister. For me, it has the quality of an olden fairy-tale, such as of the brothers Grimm.  I hope it is enjoyed by all!

fairies

 

 

‘Forgetfulness’ by Hart Crane

Forgetfulness is like a song
That, freed from beat and measure, wanders.
Forgetfulness is like a bird whose wings are reconciled,
Outspread and motionless, —
A bird that coasts the wind unwearyingly.

Forgetfulness is rain at night,
Or an old house in a forest, — or a child.
Forgetfulness is white, — white as a blasted tree,
And it may stun the sybil into prophecy,
Or bury the Gods.

I can remember much forgetfulness.

In his essay General Aims and Theories (1925) Hart Crane quoted Blake’s lines “We are led to believe in a lie/ When we see with not through the eye”.

Forgetfulness is a poem that certainly offers us a vision of experience seen through the eye, by which I mean that Crane has tried (to quote his own words in General Aims) to establish the poem as “free from [his] own personality”; it is “a stab at truth” – its aim is “not toward decoration or amusement, but rather toward a state of consciousness, an innocence (Blake) or absolute beauty”. Rather than telling us what forgetfulness is, he invites us to inhabit forgetfulness, and to discover via our own senses what it is. He offers us the possibility of perceiving the truth and essence of things rather than their arbitrary, disposable, surface forms.

Crane admitted that it is probably impossible to write a poem that sees purely through and not with the eye (for the ‘I’/’eye’ always has something to say!), however, he tries to realise his ideal of poetry by choosing his terms of expression “less for their logical (literal) significance than for their associated meanings”, thereby creating what he called a “‘logic of metaphor'”, which “antedates our so-called pure logic, and which is the genetic basis of all speech, hence consciousness and thought-extension”.

Forgetfulness is a poem that presents us with a world that wants understanding through the senses and (very appropriately) through our own memories and associations. Of course, the notion of forgetfulness can have various interpretations. Initially, I thought of it in terms of forgetfulness in old age – afflictions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease – and for me this gives an extremely poignant reading of the poem. However, we might also think in terms of deliberate forgetfulness – the purposeful forgetting of painful memories or past happiness that cannot be recovered. There is also room, I think, for reading this piece as being about choosing to forget (or rather ignore) certain literary conventions or traditions. This latter concept was something that Crane was much concerned with, as I will discuss later.

“Forgetfulness” begins the poem “is like a song/ That, freed from beat and measure, wanders”. I love this opening; this is such a unique and brilliant notion – that forgetfulness can be something beautiful and uncontrolled. Crane here certainly evokes a lack of logical coherence, but he also suggests a liberation from the constraints of structure and the prison of Time. There is also an ambiguousness (principally brought about by the word “wanders”) about whether the forgetful person is sad and lost or just happily, obliviously drifting. The overwhelming sensation for me in this first stanza is that the poet favours the latter option (notice the words “song”, “freed”, “wanders”, “bird”, “outspread”, “unwearyingly”…)

The idea of forgetfulness being a “bird whose wings are reconciled,/ Outspread and motionless” could be read negatively in the sense of passive resignation, however, reconciliation is necessarily a positive thing – a coming to peace – and this and all my senses tell me Crane is suggesting more of a relaxing into the gentle currents of forgetfulness, allowing the mind to travel – to “coast… unwearyingly” on the wind. The word “motionless” is very important. A lack of motion of course denotes an absence of progression. But there is a strange, deceptive stillness about this image; the bird is gliding or “coasting” – and this is not an image of letting go or of resignation but of allowing oneself to be carried.

This stillness is the same that I feel in the mention of the “rain at night” – a moving, wakeful, secret stillness. There is also an undeniable feeling of loneliness here, delivered by the “old house in the forest” and “a child”. These symbols of loneliness are importantly disparate, however the loneliness of age and the loneliness of a child are quite similar in the respect that both children and the elderly can be isolated by being unable to communicate or by inhabiting a different (emotional) world from those around them. I do not think that these images of the old house and the child are purely negative, however. There is something rather quaint or romantic about an old house in a forest – something secret and wonderful – like the “rain at night”. A child, too, is not only connected with loneliness – far from it – children give up images of wonder, joy, and again – secrets. A secret, exclusive, fleeting and wonderful world.

Crane also describes forgetfulness as “white” and “white as a blasted tree”. I love these images. White delivers the obvious notion of purity and innocence (easily reconcilable with the image of the child). It also makes me think of a blank page, a terrifying vision of what it might be like to remember nothing at all – when all memory has gone. But white is so different from blackness – white is not nothingness, it is not annihilation – it is something beautiful, clear and pure, something good. It is not non-being, it is not death. Even the “blasted tree”, which injects the notion of a victim here, is not such a terrible one because it is white. A black, blasted tree would be burned, but this one is white and retains its beauty, its purity.

Taking the image of the blank page now (that dreadful “white”), I would like to discuss the way in which I think this poem is exploring the notion of using new forms of (or rather formless) poetry. Crane writes that forgetfulness may “stun the sybil into prophecy,/Or bury the Gods.” When I read these lines they instantly struck me as concerned with the writing of poetry. If “forgetfulness” is ignoring old conventions (the “beat and “measure” we were freed from in the first stanza) then I think Crane is saying here that choosing to use free verse will either stun – shock, stimulate – the poet into “prophesy” – make him a visionary poet – or else “bury” him. Using free verse – abandoning the crutch of strict form – separates the ‘men from the boys’ as it were (or the true poets from the amateurs).

Hart Crane saw himself as the direct inheritor of, and was enormously influenced by, Walt Whitman, the great master of ‘free verse’. As he set out in General Aims and Theories, “it is part of the poet’s business to risk not only criticism – but folly – in the conquest of consciousness I can only say that I attach no intrinsic value to what means I use beyond their practical service in giving form to the living stuff of the imagination”. Another poet who would have agreed with Crane was of course Keats (“if poetry does not come as easily as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all”).

I think I will end this post, however, with a quote from Allen Ginsberg, another inheritor and spiritual brother of Whitman, who wrote in his essay When the Mode of the Music Changes the Walls of the City Shake (1961) that

“The only poetic tradition is the Voice out of the burning bush. The rest is trash, & will be consumed”.

This for me really encapsulates all that I wanted to say about Crane’s poem. Whether we are talking about an elderly person suffering from dementia, somebody purposefully forgetting a painful memory of violence or lost love, or else the chosen forgetfulness of ignoring certain poetic forms or constraints, what lasts, what matters; what will never be consumed is the “Voice out of the burning bush”. That voice is love and it is the human spirit.

 

Hart Crane

Hart Crane

‘High flight’ by John Gillespie Magee

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of; wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sun-lit silence. Hovering there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air;
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew —
And while, with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

I wanted to post a poem that was entirely new to me today and I found this piece in an anthology that (very surprisingly) fits into that category. High flight totally floored me with its easy-seeming, dazzling-bright description of the sublime freedom and pure joy of flying above the clouds. The story of its author and journey to publication fascinated me further and heightened its significance so that I just had to share it with you.

This poem was written by an evidently rather exceptional 19-year-old American called John Gillespie Magee who, in 1940 (before the US entered World War 2) joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in order to fight the Nazis. He is reported to have sent this poem to his parents while training as a Spitfire pilot in the UK, saying “I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day… It started at 30,000 feet and was finished soon after I landed”. I wonder how many poems have been written at such an altitude! Only a few months later Magee was tragically killed when returning to base with his squadron after a training exercise. His Spitfire collided with another aircraft, resulting in the deaths of both pilots involved in the accident.

It was Magee’s family that endeavoured to have his poem published, and once they succeeded this unlikely, one-hit American poet became famous overnight. High flight is still one of the best-known poems of World War 2.

I love the effect of carefree, boyish joy that is achieved by Magee’s diction. Take the dancingly beautiful first line: “I have slipped the surly bonds of earth”; the combination of sibilance and the assonance of “surly” and “earth” here makes for such a musical opening. The ensuing images of the “laughter-silvered wings” of his Spitfire, and the “tumbling mirth/ Of sun-split clouds” are gorgeously ecstatic. I also find extremely touching the way in which there is a tone of almost bragging as this young pilot tells us he has “done a hundred things/ You have not dreamed of” (and later on that he has flown “Where never lark or even eagle flew”). If one remembers that he sent this poem only to his parents (and perhaps wrote it principally to them), one can almost hear in these proud claims his need for their approval and admiration.

This poem is clearly about the pure joy of flying, and is a wonderful expression of a pilot’s passion for his job. However, I think there is also (isn’t there always?) room for other interpretations. I personally feel that this piece can be read to describe any activity that allows you to feel a version of this pure joy – this bliss being described where you feel such elation that you might “put out [your] hand, and touch[..] the face of God”. For me, this makes me think of writing poetry (or any artistic endeavour). I think Magee had poetry in mind as well, and he gives this away by referring to his “craft” (I adore that phrase – “flung/ My eager craft through footless halls of air”).

This idea of soaring above the mundane world, adventuring into unchartered territory, and being so close to bliss that he could reach out and touch the divine… makes me think of the joy that can be found through any form of artistic expression (particularly musical forms, perhaps), but could also be read as referring to other forms of human endeavour such as scientific or mathematical discovery or even falling in love.

John Gillespie Magee

John Gillespie Magee

Magee, 19 years old

Magee, 19 years old

‘Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York,1957’ by Mary Oliver

Once, in summer
in the blueberries,
I fell asleep, and woke
when a deer stumbled against me.

I guess
she was so busy with her own happiness
she had grown careless
and was just wandering along

listening
to the wind as she leaned down
to lip up the sweetness.
So, there we were

with nothing between us
but a few leaves, and wind’s
glossy voice
shouting instructions.

The deer
backed away finally
and flung up her white tail
and went floating off toward the trees –

but the moment she did that
was so wide and so deep
it has lasted to this day;
I have only to think of her –

the flower of her amazement
and the stalled breath of her curiosity,
and even the damp touch of her solicitude
before she took flight –

to be absent again from this world
and alive, again, in another
for thirty years
sleepy and amazed,

rising out of the rough weeds
listening and looking.
Beautiful girl,
where are you?

In this enticingly titled poem Mary Oliver takes us, as she loves to do, deep into a world of natural beauty and child-like wonder. I don’t know if anyone will understand what I mean when I say that I always find something very clean and sharp about Oliver’s work… perhaps it is the simple, unassuming manner of her expression, and the powerful effect it never fails to deliver. Whatever it is, this piece is a very charming treasure.

This wonderful poet seems to me to be always very much in admiration of the oblivious wisdom of wild creatures. As she writes in her fragmented prose-poem Staying Alive, “I believe everything has a soul”. The deer in this poem certainly seems to have one; I love the way she describes her (the deer) as being “so busy with her own happiness” that she has “grown careless” and just stumbles across the speaker in the blueberries as she leans down to “lip up the sweetness”. Mary Oliver always finds truth for us in the natural world. In the above-mentioned prose-poem she writes of her instruction as a poet while growing up, “I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything – other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned, that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion – that standing within this otherness – the beauty and the mystery of the world… can re-dignify the worst-stung heart”.

There is a precious moment in this poem where the deer and the speaker connect – a moment “so wide and so deep” that “it has lasted to this day”. It is as though the deer has forgotten that it ought to be afraid of a human being, and then the wind shouts its “instructions”, and it floats off toward the trees.

But I think the most charming thing about this poem is its end lines: “Beautiful girl,/ where are you?” I love the description of the slender, delicate but wild deer as a beautiful girl; it is absolutely appropriate, and really captures that instinctive, immediate rush of love one can feel when encountering an animal in this way – especially in its own environment. I also think that the deer in this poem could represent the speaker’s younger self – perhaps a memory of a carefree, easily startled (human) girl who was also “so busy with her own happiness”. I think the deer has something to teach the speaker (and the reader) about ageing and being present; to quote Staying Alive again, “you must not ever stop being whimsical“.

A doe

A doe

Wild blueberries

Wild blueberries