Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rilke: I have many brothers in the South/Ich habe viele Brüder in Sutanen

I've been touching the subject of blackness and stillness earlier. I have known Rilke for a while, but haven't really read that much of him. Why? My rather lacking skills in German as well as a lack of Norwegian translations of the works I am most interested in. I know there are quite a few English translations out there, but being a speaker of a Germanic language, an English translation just isn't the same as a Scandinavian one.

My interest for this poet has been ignited, though. Funnily enough through an English translation made by Robert Bly.

What attracted me is the following:

Ich habe viele Brüder in Soutanen
im Süden, wo in Klöstern Lorbeer steht.
Ich weiß, wie menschlich sie Madonnen planen,
und träume oft von jungen Tizianen,
durch die der Gott in Gluten geht.

Doch wie ich mich auch in mich selber neige:
Mein Gott ist dunkel und wie ein Gewebe
von hundert Wurzeln, welche schweigsam trinken.
Nur, daß ich mich aus seiner Wärme hebe,
mehr weiß ich nicht, weil alle meine Zweige
tief unten ruhn und nur im Winde winken.

* * *

I have many brothers in the South.
Laurels stand there in monastery gardens.
I know in what a human way they imagine the Madonna,
and I think often of young Titians
through whom God walks burning.

Yet no matter how deeply I go into myself
my God is dark, and in a webbing made
of a hundred roots, that drink in silence.
I know that my trunk rose from this warmth, but that's all,
because my branches hardly move at all
near the ground, and just wave a little in the wind.

* * *

This piece is part of a longer poem from the work Das Stunden-Buch or The book of Hours.

Strange when you recognise so much in a few words, that someone across time can express something so recognisable to you. Rilke is a Northern European and as much as he likes and admires the southern style of worshipping through "burning" paintings, Madonnas and the like, he sees that his own depths are different.  They are dark, a web of a hundred roots that drink in silence. That sentence alone opens my being to this poet.

There is a word in Norwegian (and German) which doesn't have a good correlate in English, which I think this poem reflects. The word is "inderlig" (German: innig) - an adjective or adverb, and "inderlighet" (innigkeit) - noun. What does this describe? A kind of intense personal longing, passionate, with a melancholy side to it - and very personal or even private. The longing is not necessary to this word (begriff), but I put it in this attempt to explain to get at the intensity this word describes. Also, "passionate" gives off rather too warm connotations. Innigkeit/inderlighet has something cool in it - hence the whiff of melancholy.

I understand only too well how he knows his trunk rose from the warmth of the southern cultures, but that up here, in this Northern European consciousness, it is cooler, sharper, and in a strange personal way more intense. Take Luther - the reformation of the Roman Catholic church began in Germany. Not a coincidence. Your relationship to God is deeply personal. Rilke's God is dark (dunkel) and drinking cool water from a deep well. This is the sense I get. The silence, darkness, the sinking feeling of an immense depth - all part of a strongly "inderlig" relationship to yourself and at the same time your god. The sentence "Doch wie ich mich auch in mich selber neige" / "Yet no matter how deeply I go into myself" also points to a Northern European tendency - that of turning inwards, of contemplating silently on your own, in an innig way. His branches growing out of his trunk embedded in the warm, southern history and mindset hardly move at all - they only wave a little in the wind. Why is this so recognisable? The whole image he gives off just fits with a sense I have of ground, of what I rest upon, spring from. A cultural layer, I believe, that easily can be mistaken as a personal layer.

Look at the man's eyes and you can see the darkness, depth and stillness centred. I think maybe only this picture would have made me realise he is a poet to my liking.

And thank goodness for bilateral translations! Now I can learn a lot more of the German language, via English. Kind of ironic, but effective. It is possible to wish to learn a language fully because of an author you like. T. S. Eliot with Dante, J. L. Borges with Ibsen. Rilke definitely tickles that bone in me.

My God is dark, and in a webbing made of a hundred roots, that drink in silence.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Burnt Norton and the pool of light - T. S. Eliot

A part of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets sprung up in my mind as I was reading "The glass of water" by Wallace Stevens. In the poem by Stevens the glass is at one point referred to as a pool, fed upon by the light with "frothy jaws".

Eliot's Four Quartets, quite a literary (and philosophical) masterpiece, can be said to have sprung from one experience he had in a once grand, then rather forlorn rose garden. In a garden with a kind of lost, old beauty Eliot passed through a hedge of tightly growing rose bushes and came upon an empty pool in the grounds.

The genesis of the Quartets reminds me of the incident in Proust's Remembrence of things Past, where his dipping a madeleine cake in a cup of lukewarm lindenflower tea made his whole childhood whoosh back to him in a split-second, bringing with it what developed into the twelve volume modernist novel.

The pool in Burnt Norton
 Eliot put his birthing experience into writing:

So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.

This is from Burnt Norton, the first of the Quartets. Burnt Norton is a real life garden belonging to an estate of the same name in England.

The experience of the dry pool that briefly filled with sunlight expanded in Eliot into an outstretched, timeless moment of stillness, beauty and a sense of the "heart of light" as he put it in a draft of this poem.

"Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged, / And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight, / And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly / The surface glittered out of heart of light". This is the heart of this part of the quartet, maybe even of the whole of the quartets themselves. Without this experience the Quartets probably would not have been written; at least not in the form they now exist. We see that the empty, dry pool is filled with sunlight, an ethereal and brilliant water substitute - or rather, a sunlight-water, existing in a dimension of its own. The surface, he says, "glittered out of heart of light" - somehow the essence of light seems to have presented itself to him in that brief, timeless moment. A silence of a sort, revealing itself to a present and observant onlooker.

The lotos is an interesting feature here. This flower has many properties and meanings in several Eastern cultures. It has a pure white blossom on the surface of waters, be they dirty or clean. Their roots go deep into the mud in rivers and lakes, which makes it stretch from the dirt through the water and flower in this pristine whiteness, making itself a symbol of the possible transformation from dirt to purity; from ignorance to enlightenment and so on. Eliot knew at least the Eastern philosophical tradition quite well, and also had a knowledge of Sanskrit, the classical language in India; the language many of the old Buddhist texts are written in. The lotos seems to represent a lot of things in this poem written by an American turned British, in something as British as a rosegarden belonging to a stately home. Simplicity, beauty, something deeply real, something mystical, a touch of the Eastern mindset - all in all a whiff of simple elegance incorporating a mystery which is almost making itself completely accessible to us. We only have to enter a quiet state of mind to sense its direct presence and have revealed whatever it might be presenting to us.

All these words to describe a quiet moment which brought a poet a deep stillness and a connection with something he called heart of light, which again brought him to write the section overhead. But this is really part of my fascination with thought/experience and language/art/poetry. From a tiny moment, a flash of insight, can spring a whole novel, a movie, a painting, a theory, a haiku. "Moments in and out of time" Eliot calls these kinds of experiences another place in the Quartets. The intersection of the timeless with time.

"The still point of the turning world, there the dance is". This about sums up the Four Quartets. And makes me come back to it again and again.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Wallace Stevens: Human Arrangement

There is another poem of Wallace Stevens that I would like to put here. It touches in on the same theme as "A glass of water", shedding light on something of the same the " of water" does and which might seem hard to grasp. The only reason it seems hard to grasp, I think, is because it is so surprisingly simple.

But first things first:


Place-bound and time-bound in evening rain
And bound by a sound which does not change

Except that it begins and ends,
Begins again and ends again 

Rain without change within or from
Without. In this place and in this time

And in this sound, which do not change,
In which the rain is all one thing,

In the sky, an imagined, wooden chair
Is the clear-point of an edifice,

Forced up from nothing, evening's chair,
Blue-strutted curule, trueunreal,

The centre of transformations that
Transform for transformation's self,

In a glitter that is a life, a gold
That is a being, a will, a fate.

* * *

First of all I notice how nice it is to have "human" in the title of this poem. It feels like a warm welcome somehow, even though the first line almost makes me feel that being human is something limiting. "Place-bound and time-bound" he starts off, pinning us to our concepts of time and space. I guess he is kind of right; these concepts are important to most of us and practically viewed as something given. Are they, though.

Again we see that a poem of Stevens' involves beginnings and ends. "It begins and ends, / Begins again and ends again". This gives a sense of a neverending movement, or a time with no beginning or end. This of course waves time in the normal linear sense goodbye. Do we really know any other way of looking at time? Most of us probably don't. Also, these words might point at how human lives begin and end and begin and end again, over and over; a cycle of birth and death and birth, each of us expressing something human. This in itself is a kind of endlessness, I guess that is, as long as humans exist.

The evening rain in this poem is like a soft backdrop (nearly literally); grey, moist, silent. Somehow the sound of evening rain feels to me like a direct translation of something very human. I don't really know why the softness of it, as mentioned, and the just-there-ness, the quiet way it settles on the earth. (I realise that much of humans' activities on this planet doesn't exactly rhyme with settling quietly anywhere, but I am speaking more of the humanity in every human, the common ground we hold and spring from.)

As always Stevens sounds a little mysterious at times. "The centre of transformations that / Transform for transformation's self" does sound rather convoluted. But I get the sense of something glimmering right underneath, something so simple that it is hard to phrase, that words simply complicate the matter. The "human arrangement" as probably the most intelligent being on this planet, we do have quite a responsibility on our hands. The centre of transformation who else can embody and execute that but us? This transformation, though, "transforms for transformation's self" seemingly independent of us as its vessel. I have the feeling that both transformation of consciousness, the way we look at ourselves, our world, our fellow beings including animals, our beliefs, that all of this is up for transformation. Why shouldn't it? Transformation, movement; development. And no one can govern that transformation better than we can. Is this what Stevens meant? I don't know. But that is what his words is stirring up in me.

This transformation happens in "a glitter that is life, a gold / That is a being, a will, a fate." This beautiful ending cuplet brings back the human feel to me. It seems he is implying that life, which to us is intercoiled with being human, is a glitter, a gold, and that this gold is a being, a will, a fate. I get the sense that this is Stevens' view of what human life is. These words send a warm golden glow into me, making me sense directly the simplicity, beauty and responsibility of being human.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Wallace Stevens on a glass of water

There seems to be tons of literature on Wallace Stevens and his poetry. Should I read it all and carefully compare it with my own thoughts; correct them, refine them and write a piece at the end of all that work, I never would have gotten around to put down a word on his work.

And this I just can't allow, as interesting and mind-tickling as his poetry is.

Take "The glass of water", for instance:

That the glass would melt in heat,
That the water would freeze in cold,

Shows that this object is merely a state,
One of many, between two poles. So,
In the metaphysical, there are these poles.
Here in the centre stands the glass. Light
Is the lion that comes down to drink. There
And in that state, the glass is a pool.
Ruddy are his eyes and ruddy are his claws
When light comes down to wet his frothy jaws
And in the water winding weeds move round.
And there and in another state
the refractions,
The metaphysica, the plastic parts of poems
Crash in the mind
But, fat Jocundus, worrying
About what stands here in the centre, not the glass,
But in the centre of our lives, this time, this day,
It is a state, this spring among the politicians
Playing cards. In a village of the indigenes,
One would have still to discover. Among the dogs and dung,
One would continue to contend with one’s ideas.
From Parts of a World, 1942, 1951

The object is merely a state between two poles. Between nothingness and it-ness, perhaps. Between endlessness and time? These propositions point to what Stevens himself probably points towards that there is a continuum of existence, not stopping by the word or concept a glass or water represent, but stretching out endlessly. Which, of course, is the same as saying that nothing really is. 

Stevens, a connoisseur of Asian art, must have known well the Eastern way of looking at things directly and immediately, existing only here and now take zen as an example. A world or world-view without time is quite hard to grasp for the Western mind; or perhaps the human mind, driven as we are of appointments and schedules and all of that.

The glass is a glass in this moment, in this environment. In a much warmer environment, the glass will melt, becoming something seemingly other. What else can the glass become? Gas, air, stars? If we remove time, all of them.

Here in the centre stands the glass. The centre, which is now, here (our ways of trying to pin down something in time and space). When we see the glass now, it is a glass. That's what's real to us. But in the metaphysical, according to Stevens, there are poles at each side of the object we see the glass. But why should the metaphysical be something else than what is right here, right now; the glass and ourselves?

You could go all metaphysical about this poem, but really, if you just take a straight look at it, read it and see or sense directly what it is what comes up? It seems to me that it is circling around something, an underlying unity of sorts. 

This poem, there is really no beginning or end to it. There is a great sense of a loop of existence, wiping out anything to do with beginnings and ends. 

And of course there are lines that stand out poetically. I particularily like that "the plastic part of poems / Crash in the mind" with "the refractions" and "the Metaphysica" (not in that order, though). The metapoetic turns in many of Stevens' poems direct his poems inward, toward some common poetic ground which is almost possible to see if you squint through the words to look directly at it, rather than the words themselves. 

This too is a part to notice: "Here in the centre stands the glass. Light / Is the lion that comes down to drink. There, and in that state, the glass is a pool." There, and in that state, the glass is a pool. Doesn't this point to the relativity of things? The glass of water is only a glass to us, but  a pool to the thirsty lion-light, bathing in the glass of water which, from the light's perspective, is a pool of something clear and thirst-quenching.

"But in the centre of our lives, this time, this day / It is a state". There. He puts it simply and squarely. Things are not things, defined by borders like the edges of a glass, or the wetness of water. Things, what we call things, are states, different states of a great existing thing. To put it thingly.

Will we continue to contend with our ideas?
I guess so, but we don't have to. 
We can settle with looking straight at things, taking them for what they are; not what we think they are.