The Enigmatic Beauty of Poetry

© Julio Pomar

In anticipation for our upcoming 2017 Poetry Month Readings on April 18th 2017, Richard Cho (Instruction/Reference librarian) would like to share some of his favorite poems in this blog post. Although he is by no means an expert on the workings of poetry, he enjoys indulging in its beauty and reveling at its tendency to cast an indelible epiphany.  Here, he particularly focuses on his favorite two poets of all time, Rainer Maria Rilke and Fernando Pessoa, and recites a number of poems that has been retained in his heart, including ones by Edgar Allen Poe and Edna St. Vincent Millay. He ends the blog by selecting a few poems by our invited poet, Amy Uyematsu, for our annual poetry reading event.

Rainer Maria Rilke

© public domain. Retrieved from Wikipedia Commons.

Rilke once said, “Happy are those who know that behind every language there stands the Unsayable.” Reading his poems, I can’t seem to avoid the idea that his commitment to poetry was to capture that very Unsayable, to describe the realm beyond logical explication or discursive language. One renowned Russian Poet Marina Tsvetayeva once said of Rilke, “You’re not the poet I love most. You are poetry itself.”

Rilke’s poetry is difficult, to say the least. His poems seemingly tell of “the ontological status of our limited, physical, human existence.” His most famous collection of poems, called Duino Elegies, also dubbed as “the cycle of consciousness,” is composed of ten poems, took him more than a decade to complete, and secured his position as one of the greatest poets the world has ever seen. Here’s a short excerpt from his Duino Elegies.

Yes—the springtimes needed you. Often a star

was waiting for you to notice it. A wave rolled toward you

out of the distant past, or as you walked

under an open window, a violin

yielded itself to your hearing. All this was mission.

But could you accomplish it? Weren’t you always

distracted by expectation, as if every event

announced a beloved? (Where can you find a place

to keep her, with all the huge strange thoughts inside you

going and coming and often staying all night.)

In this stanza, his quest to seek the ways for human consciousness to transcend the worldly is challenged.

Another poem, titled “Evening,” which is lauded for its sublime beauty, is again about our existence in this vast universe.

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.

One quote from Rilke’s book titled Letters to a Young Poet will work as a coda to this section: “Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” (underline emphasis added by me)

This quote testifies to his devotion to poetry, how, for him, it was either death or poetry.

Recommendations:
  1. Duino Elegies
  2. Sonnets to Orpheus, with Letters to a Young Poet

Fernando Pessoa

© public domain. Retrieved from Wikipedia Commons.

The aforementioned quote by Rilke allow us to segue swimmingly to the next poet of my choice, Fernando Pessoa. He once said, “Each of my dreams, as soon as I start dreaming it, is immediately incarnated in another person, who is then the one dreaming it, and not I. To create, I’ve destroyed myself.”

Death and Destruction underlie their desire to create supreme art that is poetry. In fact, Pessoa, in destructing part of himself, created other imaginary poets, to whom he imbued with unique ideology, birth, occupation, political affiliation, thus an entire life. Called heteronyms, his “other” poets also wrote poems that are distinctive from Pessoa’s own poems. Pessoa’s writing precedes the idea of modernity before the concept swept across the continent.

Among three poets created by Pessoa, my favorite is Alberto Caeiro, who was described as Nature’s poet. One example clearly shows his viewpoint.

XXXV

 

The moonlight seen through the tall branches

Is more, say all the poets,

Than the moonlight seen through the tall branches.

 

But for me, oblivious to what I think,

The moonlight seen through the tall branches,

Besides its being

The moonlight seen through the tall branches,

Is its not being more

Than the moonlight seen through the tall branches.

As can be inferred from the previous poem, Caeiro’s motto was: Things must be felt as they are. I recite two more poems of his.

VI

 

To think about God is to disobey God,

Since God wanted us not to know him,

Which is why he didn’t reveal himself to us…

 

Let’s be simple and calm,

Like the trees and streams,

And God will love us, making us

Us even as the trees are trees

And the streams are streams,

And will give us greenness in the spring, which is its season,

And a river to go to when we end…

And he’ll give us nothing more, since to give us more would make us less us.

And…

XXI

 

If I could sink my teeth into the whole earth

And actually taste it,

I’d be happier for a moment…

But I don’t always want to be happy.

To be unhappy now and then

Is part of being natural.

Not all days are sunny,

And when rain is scarce, we pray for it.

And so I take unhappiness with happiness

Naturally, just as I don’t marvel

That there are mountains and plains

And that there are rocks and grass…

 

What matters is to be natural and calm

In happiness and in unhappiness,

To feel as if feeling were seeing,

To think as if thinking were walking,

And to remember, when death comes, that each day dies,

And the sunset is beautiful, and so is the night that remains…

That’s how it is and how I want it to be…

Initially, I was serendipitously led to his only fictional prose work titled The Book of Disquiet, and he remains one of my all-time favorite writers, for both his poems and prose. The Book of Disquiet is the one book I would recommend to anyone who wants to read a wholly original fiction; there has never been and never will be a book like Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.

Recommendations:
  1. A Centenary Pessoa
  2. Fernando Pessoa & Co.: Selected Poems
  3. The Book of Disquiet

Edgar Allen Poe & Edna St. Vincent Millay

© public domain. Retrieved from Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org

 

For poets writing originally in English, I would select Edgar Allen Poe and Edna St. Vincent Millay as my favorite.

I adore this one poem by Poe particularly, titled “Annabel Lee.” Vladimir Nabokov’s immortalized novel Lolita had a working title The Kingdom by the Sea, which was apparently influenced by this poem.

Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago,

In a kingdom by the sea,

That a maiden there lived whom you may know

By the name of Annabel Lee;

And this maiden she lived with no other thought

Than to love and be loved by me.

 

I was a child and she was a child,

In this kingdom by the sea,

But we loved with a love that was more than love—

I and my Annabel Lee—

With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven

Coveted her and me.

 

And this was the reason that, long ago,

In this kingdom by the sea,

A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling

My beautiful Annabel Lee;

So that her highborn kinsmen came

And bore her away from me,

To shut her up in a sepulchre

In this kingdom by the sea.

 

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,

Went envying her and me—

Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,

In this kingdom by the sea)

That the wind came out of the cloud by night,

Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

 

But our love it was stronger by far than the love

Of those who were older than we—

Of many far wiser than we—

And neither the angels in Heaven above

Nor the demons down under the sea

Can ever dissever my soul from the soul

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

 

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side

Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,

In her sepulchre there by the sea—

In her tomb by the sounding sea.

The next one is by Edna St. Vincent Millay, with its inventive use of metaphors. I once wrote a paper on this poem in my undergraduate English class.

“What Lips my Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why”

 

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,

I have forgotten, and what arms have lain

Under my head till morning; but the rain

Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Upon the glass and listen for reply,

And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain

For unremembered lads that not again

Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

 

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,

Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,

Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:

I cannot say what loves have come and gone,

I only know that summer sang in me

A little while, that in me sings no more.

Recommendations:
  1. The Raven: poems and essays on poetry
  2. Renascence and Other Poems

Amy Uyematsu

© Amy Uyematsu

Next two poems are by the third-generation Japanese American Poet Amy Uyematsu, who will grace our annual poetry reading event with her presence and her poetry. The poems I selected here are marvelous for their precision of language and nuanced portrayal of the generational gap.

Deliberate

 

So by sixteen we move in packs

learn to strut and slide

in deliberate lowdown rhythm

talk in a syn/co/pa/ted beat

because we want so bad

to be cool, never to be mistaken

for white, even when we leave

these rowdier L.A. streets—

remember how we paint our eyes

like gangsters

flash our legs in nylons

sassy black high heels

or two inch zippered boots

stack them by the door at night

next to Daddy’s muddy gardening shoes.

And…

Practical Mom

 

can go to Bible study every Sunday

and swear she’s still not convinced,

but she likes to be around people who are.

We have the same conversation

every few years—I’ll ask her if she stops

to admire the perfect leaves

of the Japanese maple

she waters in her backyard,

or tell her how I can gaze for hours

at a desert sky and know this

as divine. Nature, she says,

doesn’t hold her interest. Not nearly

as much as the greens, pinks, and grays

of a Diebenkorn abstract, or the antique

Tiffany lamp she finds in San Francisco.

She spends hours with her vegetables,

tasting the tomatoes she’s picked that morning

or checking to see which radishes are big enough to pull.

Lately everything she touches bears fruit,

from new-green string beans to winning

golf strokes, glamorous hats she designs and sews,

soaring stocks with their multiplying shares.

These are the things she can count in her hands,

the tangibles to feed and pass on to daughters

and grandchildren who can’t keep up with all

the risky numbers she depends on, the blood-sugar counts

and daily insulin injections, the monthly tests

of precancerous cells in her liver and lungs.

She’s a mathematical wonder with so many calculations

kept alive in her head, adding and subtracting

when everyone else is asleep.

If you liked any of these poems, or just curious and wants to learn more about poetry, please join us on April 18th 2017 on our Annual Poetry Reading Event! More information can be found at https://library.fullerton.edu/visiting/programs/2017-poetry-month.php.

» Rilke’s poems used here are translated by Stephen Mitchell; Pessoa’s poems by Richard Zenith.

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