I’m not wired, I guess, to appreciate poetry very much. I haven’t read many poets, ancient or modern; I can’t even name a handful of them. (Songs, I suppose, are different for me somehow. Here I mean poetry meant to be read.)

I love the concept  of poetry, how it breaks open reality, inviting us into an alternative world or dimension of imagination. As Walter Brueggemann said in one of his classic books, poetry is “language that moves…, that jumps at just the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion, and pace” (Finally Comes the Poet: 3). It’s subversive speech, resisting the claims of the “rulers of this age” to define what is real, true, and worthy, a privilege that belongs only to the sovereign God. Poetry, as Brueggemann observes, is expansive, while prose (“a world organized by settled formulae”) is reductionistic.

There is one poet, however. that I have read and found inspiring, thought-provoking, and heart-opening. He is Rainer Maria Rilke, an early 20th-century writer. Recently, I ran across on Krista Tippett’s blog on HuffPost a haunting work of his, “Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29.” It has affected me so deeply that I must share it with you. The translation is by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows.

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.


Here is another of Rilke’s poems I find evocative of the hope of freedom perhaps we all cherish and the benefit of experiences, hard though they may be:

Dove that ventured outside, flying far from the dovecote: housed and protected again, one with the day, the night, knows what serenity is, for she has felt her wings pass through all distance and fear in the course of her wanderings.

The doves that remained at home, never exposed to loss, innocent and secure, cannot know tenderness; only the won-back heart can ever be satisfied: free, through all it has given up, to rejoice in its mastery.

Being arches itself over the vast abyss. Ah the ball that we dared, that we hurled into infinite space, doesn’t it fill our hands differently with its return: heavier by the weight of where it has been.


© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.