Posts Tagged ‘Constantine Cavafy’

Seamus Heaney: “rhymes as important as revolution”

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

heaney2I’ll be speaking at a private book club event next week.  On what?  The role of the reader.  So many write and write and write about the process of writing, the burdens of the writer, the writer’s obligations to society, and so on and so on and so on.  Who thinks about the reader?  I do, sometimes.  And I’m not alone.  Here’s what Seamus Heaney, who died a last week (see posts here and here) had to say on the subject … well, he starts out on the right horse, but quickly falls off.

From Stepping Stones, a 500-page Q&A with Dennis O’Driscoll:

How do you respond to Joseph Brodskys contention that ‘a reader who has a great experience of poetry is less likely to fall prey to demagoguery on the part of the politician’? There is also Yves Bonnefoy‘s somewhat similar view that ‘poetry is a cure for ideology’.

Joseph was right to contend that a person sensitized to language by poetry is less likely to sway in the mass-media breeze; and I agree with Bonnefoy if he means that successful poetry will launch itself beyond the pull of the contingent and get into its own self-sustaining linguistic and imaginative orbit. Take a poem like ‘Leda and the Swan’.  It begins with what Bonnefoy might call ideology: Yeats starts thinking of the Russian Revolution, which represents the rule of the many, the arrival of power from below, from down to up, and that he opposes the rule of the few, the rule from above, from up to down, so the violent descent of Zeus upon Leda comes to mind as analogous to all this – but then, as Yeats himself has told us, bird and girl took over his imagining, and the poem, powerful and problematical as it is, took off.  Thinking about rhymes becomes as important as thinking about revolution.

But poems can be political insofar as they discover the paradigmatic. Think of Cavafy. Cavafy’s cameos of the ambitions and victories and defeats among various tyrannies and dynasties and satrapies during the Hellenistic age have a wonderful, clarified political wisdom, but they’re free – or, if you prefer, cured – of ideology. It’s hard to talk about this without citing examples, probably because examples tell us that the only real answers to the general problem are specific poems in specific situations. Whitman‘s hospital poems during the American civil war. Poems by Auden and MacNeice in the 1930s – ‘Look, Stranger’, ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’.  Derek Mahon‘s ‘Lives’.

How should we regard a question like Czeslaw Miloszs ‘What is poetry that does not save/Nations or people?’

hartley's jamIt’s a cry wrung from him in extremis, de profundis, the cry of the responsible human. But it’s one he answers in different ways in his work – in the witness of poems like ‘Campo dei Fiori’ and ‘Song on Porcelain’, and in the obstinate espousal of beauty and order – the calligraphy, as he once called it – of poems like ‘The World’, or ‘Encounter’, or ‘Gift’.  These latter ones, incidentally, could have as their motto Brodsky’s equally challenging declaration that ‘if art teaches anything, it’s that the human condition is private’.

Where do you stand between those two positions?

Betwixt and between them – which is, in effect, where Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky also stood. Joseph was out to save people when he suggested during his time as Poet Laureate of the United States that poetry should, like the Gideon Bible, be available in hotel rooms and should be distributed like handouts at supermarket checkouts. And Czeslaw writes about loving herring and strawberry jam as well as beauty and truth.

Gunfire and tear gas in Alexandria: Remembering a Greek poet in old city

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

2011: civilization, in a nutshell.

Once again, the news from Egypt is alarming and violent.  The disorder has approached a city dear to me, Alexandria, thus extending the violence that has already killed hundreds in Cairo. The past has been kinder to Alexandria than the present; it’s not clear that a city that survived centuries will be able to survive modern weaponry and warfare.  Two years ago, a human chain protected the rebuilt Library of Alexandria from mayhem – I wrote about it here and here.  I wonder if the future will prove this ambitious and visionary effort to be Babel-like.

I love the old capital, not only the heart of an empire and the center of world learning, but also home to Constantine Cavafy.  As I wrote a dozen years ago for the Los Angeles Times:

I had occasion recently to visit Cavafy’s Alexandria, to wander the western side of the city, past street side hawkers, vegetable and fruit carts drawn by donkeys, heaps of garbage that filled gutters and potholes and strings of the faded laundry hanging over the chipped and peeling 19th century facades. Ducking into an unpromising doorway in a dirty side street, I came to 4 Sharm el Sheikh, formerly Rue Lepsius, Cavafy’s home for the last 25 years of his life, now a museum.

Cavafy nicknamed this street “Rue Clapsius”: In his time, a brothel occupied the lowest floor of this four-story building. Step outside on his tiny balcony, into the sudden sunlight from the dark interior of his apartment, and you will see the same sight that greeted Cavafy daily: the rooftop of white St. Sabia, surmounted by a cross, perhaps a block or two away to the right; and, apparently equidistant to the left, the grim rectangular lines of the Greek hospital. Cavafy was hospitalized in the latter during his final months; his funeral was held in the former. Cavafy called them “Temple of the Body” and “Temple of the Soul” and called the nearby bordellos of the Attarin district, the third apex of his Trinity, “Temple of the Flesh.”


“Honor to those who in the life they lead define and guard a Thermopylae…”

“Where could I live better?” he asked. It was a small world, a claustrophobic life.

Even this small world has been rendered more precarious by the unpleasant tug-of-war that has enveloped the museum’s history of the Greek community, whose roots go back to the city’s founding by Alexander the Great. About 132,000 Greeks lived here in Cavafy’s time; that number has dwindled to a tenacious 500. Thanks to Nasser’s program of land reform and the nationalization of banks and industries, the majority “returned” to Greece, abandoning this once-European city.

You can read the rest here.  I had only a week in Egypt, and most of it was closer to Cairo.  My brief stay in Alexandria was made memorable – and really, possible – by an elderly Egyptian friend Mohsen, who had fought the British occupation for independence.  He guided me through both cities, showing me the chic restaurant with its forgotten hiding places for the Egyptian patriots, negotiating the streets and public transportation with me, and arguing with the museum guardians to make sure Cavafy’s home would be open to us (it seems to be keeping more regular hours at present, according to its  website).

I wonder what will happen to the tiny museum now, the home of the greatest Egyptian poet of modern times – he wrote in Greek, in an Arabic-speaking country, he was Orthodox in a Muslim nation, and wildly, guiltily gay.  Demonstrators are already torching the churches. What happens when a people do not value their own civilization?

What I remember about Alexandria now, most of all,  is the ever-present and eternal Mediterranean, the raison d’etre for this remarkable city.  It will remain even if the city is burned to the ground.

You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
and you will grow gray in these same houses. …


What I remember most … (Photo by Moushira)