A poem hovers between the finite and the infinite. It lives in this place between worlds. If it's too much a part of the infinite then nobody would be able to understand it. But if it's too earthly, too crude, or plainspoken, then it would do little to raise the human spirits, or our level of consciousness.
Poetry, then, is like us. It has a heavenly side and an earthly side. This is not a religious statement. You might have noticed how sometimes you act like a saint, do everything right, and have the purest intentions. But other times (hopefully when nobody is looking) you're selfish and driven by baser needs.
Here is a poem called "Sunset" by Rainer Maria Rilke which embodies the contradiction of being human so well:
Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth.
leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs-
leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.
I had a mentor, Alane Rollings, who I haven't spoken to in a long time. She teaches poetry at the University of Chicago.
I discovered a poet named Adam Zagajewski and I fell in love with his book of poems, Eternal Enemies.
One time on the phone with my mentor I told her how much I loved these poems, I said the poems reminded me of Rilke, and that Zagajewski must be Rilke's reincarnation . . .
She laughed and told me that I could meet him if I wanted. She said she'd invite both of us over to her house for dinner. I was so excited that for the next two weeks I tried to learn everything I could about Zagajewski, I checked out more of his poetry books from the library, and I read some of his non-fiction.
The dinner never happened. My heart rose to the stars and then fell like a stone, just as Rilke describes one moment in life to the next. We are up there; but we are also down here. And that's what makes life so hard to comprehend--how can we be in both places at once?
I still think about what I would say to this great poet. I sometimes picture myself showing him one of my poems, and waiting to see his reaction.
Maybe he would hand me one of his poems in return. Maybe he would show me this one:
And now as I open myself up to this poem, my memories come rushing in . . . I recall discussing Zagajewski's poems one evening in a coffee shop. She was a girl I just met and she had loose strawberry blond hair that ran over her shoulders.FriendsMy friends wait for me,ironic, smiling sadly.Where are the transparent palaceswe meant to build--their lips say,their aging lips.Don't worry, friends,those splendid kitesstill soar in the autumn air,still take usto the place where harvests begin,to bright days--the place where scarred eyesopen.
I asked her if she liked poetry, and she told me she was a student of poetry at Wesleyan College. I told her about Zagajewski, the poet I admired; but she had never heard of him.
The words were so simple on the page, but when I looked into her eyes I could tell that she was thinking deeply about them. She had her own meanings, different from mine, but I still accepted hers.
We read more poems together and talked about them. I wasn't nervous anymore and I didn't have to accept or reject her interpretations of the poems. There weren't two versions of the poems, hers and mine; there was only one. What neither of us could understand, we just left it at that.
Music HeardMusic heard with youwas more than musicand the blood that flowed through our arterieswas more than bloodand the joy we feltwas genuineand if there is anyone to thank,I thank him now,before it grows too lateand too quiet.
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