Tag Archives: interpretation

Thoughts on “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman

In our current society, poets and poetry rarely get the broad recognition they deserve. An exception to this is The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman. When she read this poem to the nation as the Youth Poet Laureate at Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony on January 20, 2021, I for one was floored. That a 22-year-old poet could compose such powerful and timely words, and present them with poise, dignity, and inspired optimism, renewed my belief in the power of words to foment change in our world. Regardless of which side of the political divide we may find ourselves, it is impossible to deny that Ms. Gorman’s words were able to bridge that divide and offer hope in what was a difficult time.

In her introduction to the printed version of the poem, Oprah Winfrey wrote:

Everyone who watched came away enhanced with hope and marveling at seeing the best of who we are and can be through the eyes and essence of a twenty-two-year-old, our country’s youngest presidential inaugural poet.

I am in complete agreement.

There are two short excerpts from this incredible poem that I would like to share.

And so we lift our gazes not
To what stands between us,
But to what stands before us.
We close the divide,
Because we know to put
Our future first, we must first
Put our differences aside.

The truth of this statement is self-evident. We cannot advance as a nation, or as a species, unless we learn to stop vilifying those who have differing opinions and beliefs. Focus needs to shift from differences to commonalities.

So while we once asked: How could we
possibly prevail over catastrophe?
We now assert: How could catastrophe
possibly prevail over us?

This past year has been hard for all of us, and our world continues to pose challenges. But challenges, while painful to work through, often provide the spark of heroic inspiration needed to “climb the hill.” Every journey has a point where the odds seem insurmountable. We stand at this threshold. But as Amanda Gorman shows us, we can take that next step and move toward ushering in a better world for all people.

I strongly encourage you to go out and buy a copy of Ms. Gorman’s poem. It is important that we support those creative individuals who inspire us to become the best that we can be.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 65” by Lao Tzu

In the old days, those who were well versed in the
practice of the Tao did not try to enlighten the
people, but rather to keep them in the state of simplicity.
For, why are the people hard to govern? Because they
are too clever! Therefore, he who governs his state
with cleverness is its malefactor; but he who governs
his state without resorting to cleverness is its
benefactor. To know these principles is to possess a
rule and a measure. To keep the rule and the measure
constantly in your mind is what we call Mystical
Virtue. Deep and far-reaching is Mystical Virtue! It
leads all things to return, till they come back to Great
Harmony!

First off, I have to say it feels a little strange to hear someone referring to “the old days” in a text that was written around 400 BC. But what this says to me is that people are always nostalgic about the way things used to be. I think that says something about human nature.

In this passage, Lau Tzu encourages leaders to govern through simplicity and with “Mystical Virtue.” Doing so will return a nation to a state of “Great Harmony.” Clearly, this is advice that many of our modern leaders could benefit from. When I look at the world, it seems to me to be the antithesis of a Great Harmony.

There is really nothing that I can add to this short passage. I hope you found it as insightful as I did. Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading.

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“Sonnet 40: Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all” by William Shakespeare

Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all;
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call;
All mine was thine before thou hadst this more.
Then, if for my love thou my love receivest,
I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest;
But yet be blamed, if thou thyself deceives
By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.
I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty:
And yet, love knows, it is a greater grief
To bear love’s wrong than hate’s known injury.
Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
Kill me with spites; yet we must not be foes.

In this sonnet, we are presented with a love triangle that is interesting even by modern standards. The speaker is a man who is in love with a younger man. The younger man decides to have sex with the older man’s wife or mistress. The older man, so enamored by the younger man, seeks to reconcile his feelings of love with the pain of jealousy and betrayal, as he becomes aware that his love for the younger man is not enough to satisfy the younger man’s desires.

What strikes me the most about this poem is the pure honesty. Shakespeare cuts right to the heart of complex human emotion and in a mere 14 lines conveys layers of passion and suffering. You can actually sense the speaker’s feeling of being torn between love and hate, compassion and anger, trying desperately to reconcile the conflicting emotions within. And while we may not have personally experienced the same situation, I suspect we can all relate to the feeling of being torn between love and anger.

I hope you enjoyed this poem. Have a great day, and keep on reading.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 64” by Lao Tzu

What is at rest is easy to hold.
What manifests no omens is easily forestalled.
What is fragile is easily shattered.
What is small is easily scattered.

Tackle things before they have appeared.
Cultivate peace and order before confusion and disorder have set in.

A tree as big as a man’s embrace springs from a tiny sprout.
A tower nine stories high begins with a heap of earth.
A journey of a thousand leagues starts from where your feet stand.

He who fusses over anything spoils it.
He who grasps anything loses it.
The Sage fusses over nothing and therefore spoils nothing.
He grips at nothing and therefore loses nothing.

In handling affairs, people often spoil them just at the point of success.
With heedfulness in the beginning and patience at the end, nothing will be spoiled.

Therefore, the Sage desires to be desireless,
Sets no value on rare goods,
Learns to unlearn his learning,
And induces the masses to return from where they have overpassed.
He only helps all creatures to find their own nature,
But does not venture to lead them by the nose.

This passage reminds me of some simple tenets for leading a stress-free and productive life. Start out slow. Focus on the task and don’t worry about the outcome. Don’t procrastinate, but start things early and give yourself plenty of time to do what needs to be done. While these are simple, we so often fail to practice them, and as a result, we create unnecessary stress in our already hectic lives.

I have been making a conscious effort to simplify my life, focusing on single tasks instead of trying to multitask. Taking time for myself. Relaxing. Trusting that things will work out the way they are meant to, and not trying to force the results that I think are the best. As a result of these small changes, I feel happier and calmer, most of the time anyway.

Our world is stressful, and it is easy to get caught up in the turmoil. Lau Tzu teaches us the importance of slowing down and shifting our focus to what is really important. It is old wisdom, but certainly applicable to modern life.

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Thoughts on “Giantess” by Charles Baudelaire

When Nature once in lustful hot undress
Conceived gargantuan offspring, then would I
Have loved to live near a young giantess,
Like a voluptuous cat at a queen’s feet.

To see her body flower with her desire
And freely spread out in its dreadful play,
Guess if her heart concealed some heavy fire
Whose humid smokes would swim upon her eye.

To feel at leisure her stupendous shapes,
Crawl on the cliffs of her enormous knees,
And, when in summer the unhealthy suns

Have stretched her out across the plains, fatigued,
Sleep in the shadows of her breasts at ease
Like a small hamlet at a mountain’s base.

(Translation by Karl Shapiro)

I read this poem a couple times and sense a few possible interpretations of what Baudelaire is expressing.

My initial interpretation is that Baudelaire is describing a sexual desire towards, everything. In the original French as well as in Shapiro’s translation, “Nature” is capitalized, emphasizing the importance. The poem could then be seen as describing passion towards all creation, that the entire living Gaia is the object of Baudelaire’s desire. One can imagine hills and meadows transforming into objects of sensuality for Baudelaire, as all of Nature stirs his passion.

Next, I had a sense that Baudelaire was expressing a personal tendency towards being submissive, of desiring a strong and dominating woman. The image of him as a cat at his lover’s feet, or crawling up onto her knees, provides the impression that he enjoys being the subservient plaything of a woman.

And this leads to the final interpretation, which would likely have been Freud’s first, that the giantess symbolizes Baudelaire’s mother. He appears to feel a sense of comfort from the giantess’s breasts not unlike the comfort a young child receives from its mother’s breasts. Additionally, Baudelaire seems to echo the sense of bonding a child experiences from sitting upon a mother’s lap.

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Thoughts on “Winter Dream: to… Her” by Arthur Rimbaud

One winter, we’ll take a train, a little rose-colored car
Upholstered blue.
We’ll be so comfortable. A nest
Of wild kisses awaits in every cushioned corner.

You’ll close your eyes to shadows
Grimacing through windows
This belligerent nocturnal realm, inhabited
By black demons and black wolves.

Then you’ll feel a tickle on your cheek…
A little kiss like a crazed spider
Fleeing down your neck…

Bending your head backwards, you’ll say: “Get it!”
―And we’ll take our time finding the beast
―While it roams…

(Translation by Wyatt Mason)

The footnote to this poem states: Written on a train, 7 October 1870. With that in mind, I interpret this poem as an expression of a sexual fantasy experienced while riding alone on a train. I picture a young Rimbaud, gazing out the window as landscape streams by, imagining himself lost in a loving embrace.

What strikes me as most interesting about this poem is that it seems to blur the distinction between fantasy and physical sensation. The fantasy does not seem to be limited to the mind but is experienced throughout the body. It is like Rimbaud has taken sexual fantasy to a next level where the thought turns to feeling.

The last two lines of the poem I find particularly interesting. The metaphor of the roaming beast can be interpreted in two ways. First, it could represent the mind lost in fantasy. What is intriguing about this possibility is that Rimbaud imagines that fantasy would be taking place during the physical encounter. This is a boldly honest observation, because Rimbaud is essentially admitting that he can get lost in fantasy, even during his most intimate moments. The other interpretation is that the roaming beast symbolizes our primal sexual drive, an animalistic urge which cannot be controlled, and which will roam freely, regardless of however hard we try to rein in our desires. Personally, I feel that both interpretations are valid, which adds richness to the closing stanza of this poem.

I hope you enjoyed this poem and found my interpretation helpful. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section. Cheers!

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 63” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

Do the Non-Ado.
Strive for the effortless.
Savour the savourless.
Exalt the low.
Multiply the few.
Requite injury with kindness.

Nip troubles in the bud.
Sow the great in the small.

Difficult things of the world
Can only be tackled when they are easy.
Big things of the world
Can only be achieved by attending to their small beginnings.
Thus, the Sage never has to grapple with big things,
Yet he alone is capable of achieving them!

He who promises lightly must be lacking in faith.
He who thinks everything easy will end by finding everything difficult.
Therefore, the Sage, who regards everything as difficult,
Meets with no difficulties in the end.

My interpretation of this passage is that when faced with any situation, the goal should be to maintain balance and equilibrium. This is sage advice. When faced with a large, daunting task, it is best to take a small step. When you have a small, simple task, take a swift and sure step, taking care of it quickly and easily.

Too often, in our current society, individuals attempt to fight fire with fire, to apply Herculean effort when confronted with a difficult challenge. As Lau Tzu shows, this is not the way of the Tao, and if we are honest with ourselves, we are forced to admit that our default way of responding often fails to achieve the desired outcome.

Regardless of where each of us stands on the socio-political spectrum, we can all agree that things are not really working well right now. It seems that it would be in our collective best interest to explore other ways of dealing with situations. I for one like Lau Tzu’s approach.

I hope this inspires you as much as it does me. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

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“Sonnet 39: O, how thy worth with manners may I sing” by William Shakespeare

O, how thy worth with manners may I sing,
When thou art all the better part of me?
What can mine own praise to mine own self bring,
And what is’t but mine own when I praise thee?
Even for this, let us divided live,
And our dear love lose name of single one,
That by this separation I may give
That due to thee which thou deserv’st alone.
O absence, what a torment wouldst thou prove,
Were it not thy sour leisure gave sweet leave
To entertain the time with thoughts of love,
Which time and thoughts so sweetly dost deceive,
And that thou teachest how to make one twain
By praising him here who doth hence remain!

This seems to me a poignant poem considering what we are all dealing with in regard to the COVID pandemic. In this sonnet, Shakespeare expresses the pain of being separated from someone he deeply loves, loves to the point where they are as one when together. And yet, he acknowledges that it is only because of the separation that he is able to compose poetry praising his beloved, for then they are together, they are one and Shakespeare would not be able to differentiate himself from his love.

In the same way Shakespeare was reaching out to his beloved from a distance through poetry, we are also reaching out to those we love in creative ways, via Zoom, social distance outdoor gatherings, and yes, some of us have even gone back to writing letters.

There is an old adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder. There is truth here. Not being able to spend time with those I love makes me painfully aware of the love I feel for those people. But at least it seems the end of this isolation is drawing near. We just need to hang on a little bit longer.

I hope this poem provides you with some light in the remainder of these dark days. Many blessings to you and your dear ones.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 62” by Lao Tzu

The Tao is the hidden Reservoir of all things.
A treasure to the honest, it is a safeguard to the erring.

A good word will find its own market.
A good deed may be used as a gift to another.
That a man is straying from the right path
Is no reason that he should be cast away.

Hence, at the Enthronement of an Emperor,
Or at the Installation of the Three Ministers,
Let others offer their discs of jade, following it up with teams of horses;
It is better for you to offer the Tao without moving your feet!

Why did the ancients prize the Tao?
Is it not because by virtue of it he who seeks finds,
And the guilty are forgiven?
That is why it is such a treasure to the world.

This passage begs the questions: What is treasure? What is it that is valuable in our lives? What are the things that are truly meaningful? What are the gifts that are worth giving?

Lao Tzu asserts that the answers to these questions are found within, and not through material wealth. What is worth more, a shiny trinket or expressions of love, compassion, and caring? For me, this hardly even seems a question worth asking. Yet, in our market-driven and status-obsessed culture, many of us can easily lose sight of this simple truth, that relationships matter more than material gain. When we reach the end of our roads, the only things we will still be carrying are the treasures within our hearts and souls.

I hope you found this passage as inspiring as I have, and that it reminds you of the importance of reaching out and doing something nice for another person. These are challenging times, and the best gift we can give to another is a moment of empathy and support.

Thanks for stopping by, and may you never stop reading and learning.

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Thoughts on “The Angels” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Gustave Dore – artist

They all have weary mouths,
bright souls without a seam.
And a yearning (as for sin)
often haunts their dream.

They wander, each and each alike,
in God’s garden silently,
as many, many intervals
in his might and melody.

Only when they spread their wings
they awaken a great wind through the land:
as though with his broad sculptor-hands
God was turning
the leaves of the dark book of the Beginning.

(translation by C. F. MacIntyre)

I read this poem a couple times and struggled with it. There is a tension here that is tangible but not easy to identify. I did a little research online about Rilke’s ideas concerning angels, and he would go into deeper exploration of the topic in his Duino Elegies.

Throughout the Duino Elegies, Rilke explores themes of “the limitations and insufficiency of the human condition and fractured human consciousness … mankind’s loneliness, the perfection of the angels, life and death, love and lovers, and the task of the poet”. Philosopher Martin Heidegger remarked that “the long way leading to the poetry is itself one that inquires poetically”, and that Rilke “comes to realize the destitution of the time more clearly. The time remains destitute not only because God is dead, but because mortals are hardly aware and capable even of their own mortality.” Rilke explores the nature of mankind’s contact with beauty, and its transience, noting that humanity is forever only getting a brief, momentary glimpse of an inconceivable beauty and that it is terrifying.

(Source: Wikipedia)

So Rilke appears to be grappling with the contrast between the fragmented human condition and our divine nature as manifested in angelic beings. What is particularly interesting in “The Angels” is that the angels appear sad and lost, just as humans are. Additionally, within each angel is the possibility of sin. It is like every angel recognizes that it has the potential to follow the same path as Lucifer.

Like humans, the angels in Rilke’s poem wander aimlessly, lost and searching for meaning in a reality void of meaning.

Finally, we have the image of an angel taking flight, which causes a “great wind through the land.” This image conjures the myth of Icarus, who tried to escape the world but flew too close to the sun. Do the angels also long to escape from their limited existence, to ascend to new heights? In doing so, are they destined to fall, like Lucifer? Are we as humans, trapped in our reality, fettered to this broken world, and if we attempt to transcend, do we have that brief moment of exaltation before we crash into oblivion?

This poem leaves me with more questions than answers, but that is good. It is important to ponder questions about our existence and our place in the universe, and this poem succeeds in eliciting the deep questions which all of us should be asking.

I hope you enjoyed the poem and my thoughts about it. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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