Nine Favourite Poets and Poems
Language can struggle to communicate the Inexpressible. Perhaps it is only through beautiful and illuminating poetry that language reaches its zenith. In that respect, a profound poem brings us all closer to the Truth of things than any other form of language. A sublime poem ‘speaks’ to us of the realm that is beyond the words and beyond the constructed. I believe we cannot live meaningful lives without poetry.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Profound insights, depths of description of the inner life, a remarkable vision, stories, analogies and poems flow from the lips of the Buddha. One of his great gifts was his capacity to translate feelings, perceptions, thoughts and deepest realisations into a clearly comprehensive language, free from religious and philosophical undertones. He was the master craftsman of the Word. His utterances 2500 years ago on the nature of truth and human existence are as relevant today. With this poem, one of his finest, he cut to the bone his teachings. Based on his experience under the Bodhi Tree, he regarded the night hours as a precious opportunity for awakening.
Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha
One Auspicious Night Discourse
Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Wisdom Publications 1995
Let not a person revive the past
Or on the future build his hopes
For the past has been left behind
and the future has not been reached.
Instead with insight let him see
Each presently arisen state,
Let him know that and be sure of it,
Invincibly and unshakeably.
Today the effort must be made;
Tomorrow Death may come, who knows?
No bargain with Mortality
Can keep him and his hordes away
But one who dwells thus ardently,
Relentlessly, by day and night –
It is he, the Peaceful Sage has said,
Who has had a single excellent night.
Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) elegantly communicates in this extract from the Four Quartets that precious beatitude of mind opening experiences, of seeing things for the first time, without the coloured glasses of the past or future. The four poems are a meditation on time and the elements so that we see differently from our usual constructed view of things. He treated the Four Quartets as his masterpiece. The fourth of the quartets titled ‘Little Gidding’ was named after a community of 17th century contemplatives. Eliot is encouraging a return to the embrace of the rose and the fire, a condition of complex simplicity. Eliot says elsewhere that ‘all things lead to a joyful consummation.’ Clearly influenced by the contemplative traditions of India, Eliot reminds his readers that spiritual longing and the longed for, the exploring and the final destination meet in the place where we began. In the silence embrace of the duality of the waves, we realise all manner of things are well.
Part Four, Little Gidding
Faber and Faber
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always –
A condition of complex simplicity
(costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folder
In the crown knot of fire
and the fire and the rose are one.
When my precious daughter, Nshorna Satya (Nshorna: American Indian for Spring, literally seed-planting season, Satya – Truth in Sanskrit) Titmuss entered into this world of time at 4.19 pm on July 3, 2001 in Ashford, Kent, England, I read and re-read this challenging and evocative poem of Kahlil Gibran. ‘Every word of The Prophet was the very best I had to offer’ Gibran, a Lebanese Marionite Christian, (1883-1931) once said of his book, illustrated with his drawings of sensual/spiritual love. His words are truly a priceless treasure that communicate a liberating wisdom meeting with utterly unselfish love. The poem deserves a major place in the life of every parent.
And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.
And he (the Prophet) said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself
They come through you but not through you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might
that his arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Touching heart-rendering depths, the English poet, John Keats, born London, 1795, died Rome, 1821, witnesses his life deteriorated away from consumption, a wasting disease, probably severe tuberculosis. While lying forlorn in a ward of men whose lives are also disappearing under the palsy of tremors, he hears the sweet anthem of the nightingale singing of summer in full throated ease. It uplifts his spirit. The nightingale reveals a wondrous transcendence of his merciless plight – until the birdsong fades into impermanence as it flies on. In his last words, Keats asks: ‘Do I wake or sleep?’ Let me answer. Beloved Keats: You are awake!
Selected Letters and Poems
Chatto and Windus
ODE TO A NIGHTINGALE
(Verse 1 and 3, 6 and 8 (final verse)
My heart aches, and a drowsby numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,-
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
Fade far away, dissolve and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known
The weariness, the fever and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other grown,
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hair,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death.
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever it seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth they soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain-
To thy high requiem become a sod.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from theee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:-Do I wake or sleep?
Mary Oliver, the North American poet, has this celebrated capacity to take the seemingly irrelevant events happening among animals, birds and nature and, in some mysterious and elusive way, enable us touch deep places within ourselves. Beginning her poem with a William Blake like question in The Tyger, Mary Oliver asks a question at the end of the poem that should haunt our daily lives. The question is the poem. Do we respond to this burning question, learn from our unshakeable connection with the nature, and opt for a wild and precious life, or do we sell or soul for an erroneous security?
New and Selected poems
THE SUMMER DAY
Who made the world?
Who made the swan and the black bear
Who made the grasshopper?
The grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), probably the greatest Spanish language poet of the 20th century, put his vision for a united world into the lines of this hauntingly beautiful poem, where to move our little finger disturbs the world of thousands of things. A passionate Communist, a candidate for the Chilean presidency and Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, Neruda generated poetry ranging from the erotic to the revolutionary. As a poet and leftwing radical, he faced threats and exile during his lifetime. A supporter of the welfare programmes for the poor of President Salvador Allende, Pablo Neruda died from cancer in Chile in 1973 during the time of the military coup of the brutal General Pinochet regime, backed and funded by the White House. The following poem reminds us that we all can rest in a profound silence and stillness to meet each other.
translated by Alastair Reid
Jonathan Cape Publishers
Now we will count to twelve
and we all keep quiet.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors
would put on clean clothes and
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused with
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving
and for once could do nothing
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
RAINER MARIA RILKE
Rainer Maria Rilke deserves our total attention as a poet and lover equally of spiritual depths, solitude and certain women. He realised early in life that real presence and creativity emerges from conscious absence, not from continuity of the past. Undertaking extended periods of immersion into poetic silence, he stated that true love expresses as the ‘guardian of each other’s solitude.’ In his solitude, in his renunciation of words, Rilke waited patiently for the power of poetic truth to flow through his being. We kneel on the earth in gratitude to him. The dedicated meditator needs to listen to his message. For, if we can truly love a palpable silence, we would blossom and express our true nature knowing that we belong to something greater that embraces ourselves or another.
SELECTED POEMS OF RAINER MARIA RILKE
translated by Stephen Mitchell
From Sonnets to Orpheus
Look at the flowers, so faithful to what is earthly,
to whom we lend fate from the very border of fate.
And if they are sad about how they must wither and die,
perhaps it is our vocation to be their regret
All Things want to fly. Only we are weighed down by desire,
caught in ourselves and enthralled with our heaviness.
Oh what consuming, negative teachers we are
for them, while eternal childhood fills them with grace.
If someone were to fall into intimate slumber, and slept
deeply with Things -; how easily he would come
to a different day, out of the mutual depth.
Or perhaps he would stay there; and they would blossom and praise
their newest convert, who now like is one of them,
all those silent companions in the wind of the meadows.
Indian poet and Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Rabindranath Tagore (1861– 1941) is revered in Mother India, especially Bengal. His love poems, impersonal and personal, communicate a formless spiritual sensitivity. If you have ever been profoundly in love with someone, and magical sensations ripple within at a very deep level, that sustain over months and years, you will know your connection with that person runs into lifetimes. Read Unending Love aloud to another. It will reveal to you why deep love exalts our being, and the power of exquisite poetry confirms what truly matters about human relationships and its intimate and transcendent nature.
Selected Poems of Rabindranath Tagore
Translated by William Radice
(Book dedicated to the peace movement)
I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times,
In life after life, in age after age, forever.
My spell-bound heart has made and re-made the necklace of songs
That you take as a gift, wear round your neck in your many forms
In life after life, in age after age, forever.
Whenever I hear old chronicles of love, its age-old pain,
Its ancient tale of being apart or together,
As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge
Clad in the light of a pole-star piercing the darkness of time:
You become an image of what is remembered forever.
You and I have floated here on the stream that brings from the fount
At the heart of time love of one for another
We have played alongside millions of lovers shared in the same
Shy sweetness of meeting, the same distressful tears of farewell –
Old love, but in shapes that renew and renew forever.
Today it is heaped at your feet, it has found its end in you,
The love of all man’s days both past and forever:
Universal joy, universal sorrow, universal life,
The memories of all loves merging with this one love of ours
And the song of every poet past and forever.
The Islamic world loves its poets, no doubt inspired by the array of poetic language in The Koran that communicates the fire of cosmic life. (The West has much to learn from Islam about passion, hospitality and the sense of community). The Persian poet, Jelaluddin Balkhi (Rumi 1207 –1273) converts the ordinary into the mysterious urging all of us to drink the wine of existence, to beat the drum of life, to listen to the wild lives of the true prophets and poets. He exalts us to step out of our prisons, not to accept consolations in life and live fearlessly. Is it too much to ask of ourselves that we take Rumi’s words below to heart?
THE ESSENTIAL RUMI
Translated by Coleman Bark
with John Moyne
Harper San Franciso
A Community of the Spirit
There is a community of the spirit,
Join it, and feel the delight
of walking in the noisy street
and being the noise.
Drink all your passion
and be a disgrace
Close both eyes
to see with the other eye.
Open your hands
if you want to be held
Sit down in this circle
Quit acting like a wolf, and feel
the shepherd’s love filling you.
At night, your beloved wanders
Don’t accept consolations
Why do you stay in prison
when the door is so wide open?
Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking
Live in silence.
Flow down and down in always
widening rings of being.
Is there a poet within you?
May all beings dive deeply into the poetry of life
May all beings love the lanaguage of the inexpressible
May all beings live with a liberated heart