I have a few poems saved in a folder in the cloud so I can revisit them whenever I feel like it. Poems that make it to that folder are poems that have moved me in some way or another. I first started reading poetry in my German classes in high school and I did not really like it. Poets were telling the truth in riddles and hid behind metaphors and I had a hard time understanding them. But my teacher made it feel like a treasure hunt that could only be solved by going through every line with utmost care and figuring out what each clue means. And then I started to love it. I still find it fascinating to sit down with a great poem and read it over and over again and scribbling notes on the side until I have decided what I believe the poem to mean. Reading poetry can be an incredible experience if you truly engage with it and I wanted to share a few poems from my folder and how I feel about them with you all here:
Please note that the first poem was originally written in German, but you can find a translation under the original text.
Vergänglichkeit der Schönheit von Christian Hoffman von Hoffmannswaldau
Es wird der bleiche Tod mit seiner kalten Hand
Dir endlich mit der Zeit um deine Brüste streichen
Der liebliche Corall der Lippen wird verbleichen;
Der Schultern warmer Schnee wird werden kalter Sand
Der Augen süsser Blitz, die Kräffte deiner Hand
Für welchen solches fällt, die werden zeitlich weichen
Das haar, das itzund kan des Goldes Glantz erreichen
Tilget endlich tag und jahr als ein gemeines band.
Der wohlgesetzte Fuss, die lieblichen Gebärden
Die werden theils zu Staub, theils nichts und nichtig werden
Denn opfert keiner mehr der Gottheit deiner pracht.
Diß und noch mehr als diß muß endlich untergehen
Dein Hertze kan allein zu aller Zeit bestehen
Dieweil es die Natur aus Diamant gemacht.
The Transience of Beauty by Christian Hoffman von Hoffmannswaldau (*translated by DK Fennell)
Some day anemic Death with clammy, frigid hand
At last, when time is ripe, against your breast will brush,
And pale will be your lips that now with coral blush;
Your shoulders’ balmy snow will turn to freezing sand.
Sweet glimmer of your eyes, the vigor of your hand,
Before such mortal things that bow to him, decline.
Your hair at present rivals even gold in shine
But final time will render it a worthless band.
That well-turned little foot, your elegance of style
These will become in part just dust, the rest but void;
No more will any man revere you as sublime.
Yet this and even more than this at last will end.
Your heart alone is able to outlive this fate,
For Nature cut a diamond made to last all time.
I still remember how my entire German class read the poem for the first time and concluded after the first read that this was a love poem. Like my classmates, I thought that the storyteller was complimenting the woman addressed in the poem and reassuring her that she will be fine even when her beauty fades (and even after death) due to her wonderful heart. After analysing the poem for 45 minutes with our teacher, we arrived at a very different conclusion.
Although the idea of having a diamond heart may sound like a compliment since diamonds are worth a lot and they are generally considered to be beautiful, it can also be an insult. Diamond is the hardest natural material, making the final line sound more like the storyteller is telling the woman that she has a heart of stone and that is all she will be left with once her currently gorgeous looks fade. Yeah, poetry can be rather dark sometimes. I learned about this poem in eighth grade, but I still remember it because of this huge change in interpretation. It was the first time that I saw how much of a difference engaging with a poem for a while can make for your understanding of the poem.
Well Wishes by Lang Leav
My love, are you well,
past the sea and the swell,
out in the world, where danger is fraught.
Amidst the doom and the gloom,
and the hospital rooms,
where hearts can be bartered and bought.
There are words to betray
and things that we say,
can sometimes be snappy and short.
Where the strangers we meet,
take us down one way streets,
and forgetting is something we’re taught.
Where earthquakes will reign,
between terror and planes—
and colds are so easily caught.
I keep hard copies of Lang Leav’s poetry collections Love & Misadventure and Lullabies in a box next to my bed. Whenever I want to read a little bit before going to bed, I read in those books. I have probably read through them over a hundred times at this point, but her poetry still paints pictures in my mind whenever I read it. I also realised that my interpretations of the poems have changed over the years and I love seeing this evolvement by looking at my old scribbled notes and adding new ones to them. I do not have a particular favourite poem from her, but I would highly recommend her books since they contain some of the most beautiful poetry I have ever read!
"No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land" - A Poem about Seeking Asylum by Michael Wilson (originally published *here)
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won't let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it's not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
and even then you carried the anthem under
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn't be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
or the insults are easier
than your child body
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i've become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.
This poem still gives me chills and paints some horrific images in my mind. I read this poem at a time when the refugee crisis was front-page news for almost any German newspaper and the poem really helped me to emphasise more with people seeking asylum in my country. I of course knew that they must have been through terrible experiences, but most newspapers spare you with details and that makes it much harder to understand their situation just a little bit better. This poem has managed to give me a little bit of an insight into their lives and I still find it one of the most powerful poems I have ever read.
The next poem is an excerpt from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Pilgrimage of his Book of Hours. The German version is longer than the English translation because I could only find a partial translation of the German poem. I decided to nonetheless share the longer version here for my German readers because the poem is incredibly beautiful in its entire length!
Auszug aus dem Buch der Pilgerschaft aus dem Stunden-Buch von Rainer Maria Rilke
Gerüchte gehn, die dich vermuten,
und Zweifel gehn, die dich verwischen.
Die Trägen und die Träumerischen
mißtrauen ihren eignen Gluten
und wollen, daß die Berge bluten,
denn eher glauben sie dich nicht.
Du aber senkst dein Angesicht.
Du könntest den Bergen die Adern aufschneiden
als Zeichen eines großen Gerichts;
aber dir liegt nichts
an den Heiden.
Du willst nicht streiten mit allen Listen
und nicht suchen die Liebe des Lichts;
denn dir liegt nichts
an den Christen.
Dir liegt an den Fragenden nichts.
siehst du den Tragenden zu.
Alle, welche dich suchen, versuchen dich.
Und die, so dich finden, binden dich
an Bild und Gebärde.
Ich aber will dich begreifen
wie dich die Erde begreift;
mit meinem Reifen
Ich will von dir keine Eitelkeit,
die dich beweist.
Ich weiß, daß die Zeit
Excerpt from the Book of Pilgrimage from the Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke (translation taken from *this book)
All who seek you
And those who find you
bind you to image and gesture.
I would rather sense you
as the earth senses you.
In my ripening
what you are.
I need from you no tricks
to prove you exist.
Time, I know,
is other than you.
Rilke’s book of hours is described as love poems to God and reading it as an atheist was an interesting experience. I went to religion classes in high school and I engaged quite a bit with the christian faith, but I ultimately decided that I agreed more with atheism than christianity. But I nonetheless love Rilke’s poems and how he engages with religion. To me, religion is unconditional faith in something and I find it impressive when people are able to give such unconditional faith to the ideas of their religion, even if they can never expect to see any proof for their beliefs. Rilke’s poems allow me to explore religion through poetry and understand a little bit better what people who are religious see in religion. If you are an atheist and you have an interest in religion, I would highly recommend Rilke’s Book of Hours to you.
Variation On The Word Sleep by Margaret Atwood
I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head
and walk with you through that Lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear
I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the centre
of your dream, from the grief
at the centre I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me, and as you enter
it as easily as breathing in
I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moments
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.
This intimate and somewhat intrusive poem made me write down small notes about different lines of the poem for over an hour. I was fascinated by the storyteller’s desire to enter their partner’s dreamworld and how the storyteller wants to understand what is going on in their partner’s mind. I also feel like reading the poem out loud gives it a soothing and peaceful rhythm, re-enforcing the idea of dreams. I was so fascinated by the couple that I ended up printing the poem with some blue watercolour flowers and framing it to put it up next to my bed. I love going over the descriptions of the dreamworld and hearing about the storyteller’s wish to really understand her partner.
All the poems I shared in this article are poems that have touched me in some way and I hope that you guys enjoyed them as much as I do! If you know a great poem, you can share it with me here.
Lots of Love,
P.S.: You can find my favourite books here.
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