Essays about poetry
This page is under construction. I am in the process of transfering, editing, and organizing a group of essays I've written over the years in a Facebook page called Understanding Poetry. For some reason, the page is followed and liked by many Pakistani students. I suspect that some English as a Second Language teacher sends them there. I get "likes" almost daily, even when I haven't put out a new essay for weeks.
I will add the essays in reverse chronological order, beginning with the most recent.
“Sunset” by Rainer Maria Rilke
Link to poem: http://www.yourdailypoem.com/listpoem.jsp?poem_id=20
I’m going to call “Sunset,” in Rilke’s Book of Pictures, a “keystone poem.” Sometimes a poem provides keys to understanding an author’s ouvre. Rilke often stands at a crossroads between two realities: The physical and spiritual; the earth and the sky; even life and death. Some metaphors in his poems describe this tension, or dichotomy. In some poems, he takes the side of the earth—of tree roots (as in the 4th poem in A Book of Hours, “I am like the tree that stands / over a grave…”). In others, his metaphor is ethereal, in the realm of the heavens (first poem in A Book of Hours, “I live my life in growing orbits…”).
Rilke has a wide array of themes, ways of perceiving, and metaphors. But this poem, for me, is a “key” to many of his poems in two ways: It’s a key, a way of opening our understanding of the poems, entering into them; and it’s a “keystone,” something that ties many of his poems together.
In a number of poems, Rilke describes the experience of “not really belonging to either” heaven or earth, night or day, humanity or eternity. In many early poems, as I’ll describe, he’s in-between, neither at home in this world nor part of the eternal order. This is a central theme in both the Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies.
In a few poems, the author seems to be merged with God, or the angelic realm. One example is poem 14 of The Book of Hours: “I am the proud city of the lord.” (I could find no online version.) But in most, he is aspiring to that immersion. The same is true of the earth (as another expression of God): we find him at various stages of connection to the physical world. “Sunset” expresses both realities (separation and immersion): On the one hand, he expresses “not belonging” to either reality; then in the last two lines, he is both rooted in the world (but reaching out); and also, he reveals that at times, his life becomes a star, part of the heavens.
So one way of looking at many of Rilke’s poems is that he’s an outsider to both earth and heaven; he doesn’t fit in either; he’s striving to find his path, or his place. But there’s another way of interpreting it. In many types of meditation, the practitioner is letting thoughts go, watching for that space between thoughts, that silence that is pure awareness. This could be the same gap we exist in when “these two worlds leave you, / one part climbs to heaven, on sinks to earth.”
This “resting in the gap” (my words) is also described in the 10th poem in The Book of Hours:
I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because Death’s note wants to climb over—
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling.
And the song goes on, beautiful.
Rilke sometimes realizes that what’s in this gap, what’s beyond the transitory events, waxing and waning, of our lives, is the stillness of an Infinite Awareness (God, or call it what you will). The poem Autumn, in the Book of Pictures (one translation: https://poets.org/poem/autumn-8) is an expression of this knowledge. All the leaves are falling, the sky seems to be falling, his body seems to fall…
And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, hold up all this falling.