All posts tagged: poetry

Reassessing the Terrifying Modernist Religion of Rilke’s Elegies

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic Orders? And even if one were to suddenly take me to its heart, I would vanish into its stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear, and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains to destroy us. Every Angel is terror. And so I hold myself back and swallow the cry of a darkened sobbing. Ah, who then can we make use of? Not Angels: not men, and the resourceful creatures see clearly that we are not really at home in the interpreted world. —Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies I. The task of interpreting the Duino Elegies is not an easy one. These poems express the experiences and ideas of perhaps the most sensitive and subtle German poet of modern times. Rainer Maria Rilke’s intellectual and spiritual horizon was broad. His life was full of undercurrents, inner tensions and hidden depths. We do not need to read his Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge …

Out of Our Mortal Depths

De Profundis by Christina Rossetti Oh why is heaven built so far, Oh why is earth set so remote? I cannot reach the nearest star That hangs afloat. I would not care to reach the moon, One round monotonous of change; Yet even she repeats her tune Beyond my range. I never watch the scatter’d fire Of stars, or sun’s far-trailing train, But all my heart is one desire, And all in vain: For I am bound with fleshly bands, Joy, beauty, lie beyond my scope; I strain my heart, I stretch my hands, And catch at hope. I find myself imagining Lent, especially Passiontide, as a time of reaching for things that are beyond me, and Rossetti captures this feeling quite well in “De Profundis.” The speaker of the poem is kept from the things that she is reaching at because she is unable to cross the distance between where she is and where she wants to be, whether it is heaven or the stars that she is reaching towards. Even the moon, the …

Baudelaire, Maistre, and Original Sin

J oseph Conrad once said “It seems as if the discovery made by many men at various times that there is much evil in the world were the source of a proud and unholy joy.” He was musing about fiction, and his insight is worth bearing in mind when we consider that of Baudelaire and Maistre. The Freudian unconscious has a certain transcendental status. Moreover, in its insistence on the primal scene, the crime of patricide as the basis for civilization, pervasive guilt, and yet a forgotten founding crime—this psychoanalytic notion of the unconscious is arguably the return of Original Sin in the more user-friendly mental constructs of modernity. We all know that the industrial and social revolutions in Europe in the 19th century brought along a certain ebbing of religion, a certain erosion of the belief in a transcendental. Yet, there are ways in which the unconscious reinstates a transcendental, as we know. Freud’s unconscious is the royal road back to a transcendental register, even if the map is frequently upside down. That is, …

The Festival Fast of the Annunciation

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away. She sees him man, so like God made in this, That of them both a circle emblem is, Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away; She sees him nothing, twice at once, who is all; She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall, Her maker put to making, and the head Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead; She sees at once the virgin mother stay Reclused at home, public at Golgotha; Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen; At once a son is promised her, and gone, Gabriel gives Christ to her, he her to John; Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity, At once receiver and the legacy; All this, and all between, this day hath shown, Th’abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one— As in plain maps, the furthest west is east— Of th’angel’s Ave, and Consummatum …

What Mary Oliver Knows About Death and Beauty

Like many of her devoted readers, I spent the months after Mary Oliver’s death re-reading her poems. Her books boast the most worn spines on my bookshelf, but I have to admit that they have seen some neglect since I started an MFA program in poetry two years ago. Mary Oliver is not the kind of poet you are supposed to talk about in class, especially when you are asked to talk about poets that inspire and challenge you (I learned this the hard way on about the third day of class). I get it: her poems do not have an overt political edge, they do not do anything shocking in terms of form, and they do not seem to be scared of being sentimental. One of my favorite poetry professors, a sharp editor, once critiqued a poem I wrote for a workshop: too much wonder in too small of a space. He would hate reading Mary Oliver. I stopped mentioning Mary Oliver on the first day of workshops, when we would customarily introduce ourselves …

A Commonplace Christmas

The Nativity by G.K. Chesterton For unto us a child is born. —Isaiah The thatch of the roof was as golden, Though dusty the straw was and old, The wind was a peal as of trumpets, Though barren and blowing and cold: The mother’s hair was a glory, Though loosened and torn, For under the eaves in the gloaming— A child was born. O, if a man sought a sign in the inmost That God shaketh broadest his best, That things fairest are oldest and simplest, In the first days created and blest: Far flush all the tufts of the clover, Thick mellows the corn, A cloud shapes, a daisy is opened — A child is born. With raw mists of the earth-rise about them, Risen red from the ribs of the earth, Wild and huddled, the man and the woman, Bent dumb o’er the earliest birth; Ere the first roof was hammered above them. The first skin was worn, Before code, before creed, before conscience— A child was born. What know we of aeons …

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Someone Is Hidden in This Dark

Advent by Jessica Powers I live my Advent in the womb of Mary. And on one night when a great star swings free from its high mooring and walks down the sky to be the dot above the Christus i, I shall be born of her by blessed grace. I wait in Mary-darkness, faith’s walled place, with hope’s expectance of nativity. I knew for long she carried me and fed me, guarded and loved me, though I could not see. But only now, with inward jubilee, I come upon earth’s most amazing knowledge: someone is hidden in this dark with me. During the final week of Advent, the Church intensifies the preparations for Christ’s coming at Christmas by focusing the faithful’s gaze on the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jessica Powers’ poem Advent invites the reader to participate in that intensification by imagining herself in the womb of Mary, to “wait in Mary-darkness, faith’s walled place”—the protective, immaculate womb of her who is Mother of God, Mother of the Church, Mother of every Christian son and daughter. …

Third Sunday in Advent: A Call to Surrender

Third Sunday in Advent by John Keble What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? . . . But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. —St. Matthew xi. 7, 9. WHAT went ye out to see O’er the rude sandy lea, Where stately Jordan flows by many a palm, Or where Gennesaret’s wave Delights the flowers to lave, That o’er her western slope breathe airs of balm. All through the summer night, Those blossoms red and bright Spread their soft breasts, unheeding, to the breeze, Like hermits watching still Around the sacred hill, Where erst our Saviour watched upon His knees. A Paschal moon above Seems like a saint to rove, Left shining in the world with Christ alone; Below, the lake’s still face Sleeps sweetly in th’ embrace Of mountains terrac’d high with mossy stone. Here may we sit, and dream Over the heavenly theme, Till to our soul the former days return; Till …

The Unremarkable Sunday in Advent

Second Sunday in Advent by John Keble And when these things begin to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. St. Luke xxi. 28. Not till the freezing blast is still, Till freely leaps the sparkling rill, And gales sweep soft from summer skies, As o’er a sleeping infant’s eyes A mother’s kiss; ere calls like these, No sunny gleam awakes the trees, Nor dare the tender flowerets show Their bosoms to th’ uncertain glow. Why then, in sad and wintry time, Her heavens all dark with doubt and crime, Why lifts the Church her drooping head, As though her evil hour were fled? Is she less wise than leaves of spring, Or birds that cower with folded wing? What sees she in this lowering sky To tempt her meditative eye? She has a charm, a word of fire, A pledge of love that cannot tire; By tempests, earthquakes, and by wars, By rushing waves and falling stars, By every sign her Lord foretold, She sees the world …

First Sunday in Advent: The Bridegroom Comes

Advent Sunday by Christina Rossetti BEHOLD, the Bridegroom cometh: go ye out With lighted lamps and garlands round about To meet Him in a rapture with a shout. It may be at the midnight, black as pitch, Earth shall cast up her poor, cast up her rich. It may be at the crowing of the cock Earth shall upheave her depth, uproot her rock. For lo, the Bridegroom fetcheth home the Bride: His Hands are Hands she knows, she knows His Side. Like pure Rebekah at the appointed place, Veiled, she unveils her face to meet His Face. Like great Queen Esther in her triumphing, She triumphs in the Presence of her King. His Eyes are as a Dove’s, and she’s Dove-eyed; He knows His lovely mirror, sister, Bride. He speaks with Dove-voice of exceeding love, And she with love-voice of an answering Dove. Behold, the Bridegroom cometh: go we out With lamps ablaze and garlands round about To meet Him in a rapture with a shout. Christina Rossetti’s “Advent Sunday” provides a framework for the …