A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Friday, 28 January 2011

I Am, I Can

Ring them bells so the world will know / That God is one BOB DYLAN Ring Them Bells

Part Two, Sonnet XXIX

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent Earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.  

RILKE The Sonnets To Orpheus (translated by Joanna Macy)

Variation on a Theme by Rilke

(The Book Of Hours, Book I, Poem 1, Stanza 1)

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me - a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic - or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.

DENISE LEVERTOV Breathing The Water

Denise Levertov wrote several poems with the title Variation On A Theme By Rilke, and I thought it might be interesting to pair one of them with a Rilke poem (not the one from The Book Of Hours which directly influenced this Variation, but the last sonnet from The Sonnets To Orpheus.) As you can see, there are some striking correspondences.

The image of the bell is central to both poems, and each poem ends with a declarative I am or I can. Rilke's poem is set at night, Levertov's by day - which is rather neat, as the symbolic resonance of the bell itself unifies all polarities: the bell summons us to both contemplative prayer and interrogative reflection, to both mourning and celebration; and is therefore an audible marker of both joy and sorrow, life and death, day and night.

Rilke's sonnet contains the idea that suffering is an inevitable, indeed necessary part of life. We are all bells rocking this way and that, buffeted by life. And the bruising clapper of the bell strikes us painfully but resoundingly awake. There's also the idea that this transformative experience is not some random event we have to await passively, but that we can influence events ourselves by moving back and forth, by turning ourselves to wine, by saying to the silent earth: I flow. The wonderful, self-willed assertion of I am at the end of the poem affirms the meaning, importance and ultimate wholeness of our individual existence - despite the enigmatic silence of nature and the indifference of the rest of the world.

Levertov's own poem contains a similar idea - though her transformation of self seems to be more an awakening to a whole self that was already there: less self-willed, and more the result of the action of an outside agency, granted as if with / the flat of a sword.    


call me any name said...

Thank you for posting Rilke. I find it interesting and somewhat comforting to know that Rilke suffered tremdeous pain in his later years after WWI. He had a rare form of leukaemia which caused severe ulcerations of his mucus membranes. Comforting because I have experienced periods of severe pain despite the fact that modern analgesics have so much more to offer than in his days. I love this short Rilke quote:
Let everything happen to you.
Beauty and terror
Just keep going.
No feeling is final.

Orig. German:
Lass dir alles geschehn: Schönheit und Schrecken.
Man muss nur gehn: Kein Gefühl ist das fernste.

Anonymous said...

Somehow I needed to read this, this very morning. Thank you. It is perspective in a world of buffeting and rocking, often with me wondering 'why' and doubting myself.
But 'I am, I can'.

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

Yes, bell-striking correspondences, indeed! What exceptional imagery and wisdom embedded in those images: "As you ring, /
what batters you becomes your strength." Too much. Great stuff, Robert.

Phoenix C. said...

Please excuse me, SW, as I'm not actually commenting on the post just now - this is something I thought you'd be concerned about. The threat to our UK public rights of way - just heard Radio 4 prog - cuts mean rights of way will no longer be maintained. I'm not normally 'political' but the threat to our forests and all the countryside public domain that we hold so dear has really stirred me and loads of others. There are lots of links you can find if you go on my Twitter account, which is in the right sidebar of my blog. Thought you'd like to know.

The Solitary Walker said...

call me any name - that was most interesting about Rilke's own burden of physical pain. Thanks for making us aware of this.

Helen - glad you found a need met in this post earlier this morning, Helen. (Btw, I must say your own excellent blog is going from strength to strength.)

Thanks, Lorenzo, for your comment, and Phoenix - lack of funds for maintaining rights of way is concerning, as is the current proposal for selling off some of our national forests. Thanks for thinking of me and writing about this.

am said...

Splendid post! Quite moving to hear the bells of Dylan, Rilke and Levertov in close proximity. Thanks so much!

George said...

A wonderful and interesting post, Robert. My favorite line is from the Rilke poem: "What batters you becomes your strength."

ksam said...

I am nearly at a loss for words. Note I said nearly! I came home today from work...not to return! I got laid off. I smelled it coming, understood the reasons. I've got no quibble with them, just a rather largeish ouch! Feeling still a tad lonely and cast aside, I tromp in and sit down to electronic solace, all the while wondering how I'm going to manage my Camino this year...and this is the posting that greets me! Many thanks SW! This was a real delight and one I'll have to print out the poems from. So, to my Camino Angel of the day, Gracias, Danke, Thank you! :-) Karin

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your comments am, George and Karin.

Karin - bad luck about the job. Never mind, other things will happen. Glad my post gave you some encouragement!

Ruth said...

Beautiful observations and comparisons, Robert, especially I am, I can.

More variation on the them of the tower in today's Rilke reading: "Alone." Of my heart I will make a tower . . .