Dying to Write Poetry
When did poetry become commentary? What happened to all that other stuff we used to call poetry? We don’t have experience filtered through imagination anymore but a caffeinated prattle. So much written, so little apparently read. C. K. Williams has filled an entire new collection with exasperated, mordantly funny cajolings, oblique meditations—poems—on the subject of writing poetry.1 But not just that, because all this frenetic activity of mind happens in the presence of, or in spite of, or in league with, the terminal abyss. Can one be in league with an abyss, you ask? Yes, if one is C. K. Williams, aging youthfully and standing at a slight angle to the quotidian. Others have written poetry about writing poetry—usually adolescents up late with nothing to write about—but Williams audaciously worries the topic to an entertaining patter, what oft is thought but ne’er so honestly expressed.
Here, for example, is his take on the industry of American poets:
East, vast American flag Whitman sunrise; west, Jeffers’ roan
searchlight scissoring the dusk;
between, squads platoons divisions of poets scribbling slashing
revising correcting rejecting . . .
What scribble are we trying to do? What have we done? What
imagine slash when we began this?
Williams’ 27 poems feel saturated with sensibility, a human presence—his—entirely real if not always attractive, a persona not unlike Philip Roth’s. We get glimpses of his domestic life, his impressions of Paris and American cities. But the bulk of the book is a running commentary on writing and death, and part of what keeps me with the poet, keeps me reading even when some poems sag with banality, is his capacity for being moved by the writing of others. The first poem in the collection, “Whacked,” is about great poetry, the rare stuff that strikes a reader like lightning and never makes you feel soiled by the desperate ego of its maker:
Every morning of my life I sit at my desk getting whacked by
some great poet or other.
Some Yeats, some Auden, some Herbert or Larkin, and lately
a whole batch of others—
oi!—younger than me. Whack! Wiped out, every day . . . I mean
since becoming a poet.
I mean wanting to—one never is, really, a poet. Or I’m not. Not
when I’m trying to write . . .
It’s just so hard in the face of so much bad writing, so much banality, so much ego, to keep believing in the good work, until you happen to read something really good, and then your faith is reborn.
Most writing one sees is pretty dispiriting. As Williams puts it, “bad whackless poems / can hurt you, can say you’re all right when you’re not, can condone your poet-coward / who compulsively asks if you’re all right . . .” The poetry industry fuels itself on shallow rewards, lines on a résumé, praise in a workshop, none of which has anything to do with the solitary effort to write real poems.
Meanwhile, this morning, this very moment, I’m thinking of
George Herbert composing;
I see him, by himself, in some candlelit chamber unbearably lonely
to us but glorious to him,
and he’s hunched over, scribbling, scribbling, and the room’s filling
with poems whacking at me,
and Herbert’s not even paying attention as the huge tide of them rises
and engulfs me
in warm tangles of musical down as from the breasts of the choiring
Williams’ voice is skeptical, contemporary, jaded if not jaundiced. He’s not an everyman, but he doesn’t set himself up as a literary saint, either, and his occasional Ginsbergian outbursts of ecstasy can be charming: “Let us be crazy together! Don’t leave me scrambling up those stanzas of inaccessible bliss!” Unlike Herbert, he doesn’t make it his business to give us unforgettable lines. His poems work in large, akimbo slabs of language. I would have said prose, but it’s not prose exactly, though he clearly feels affection for it: “So maybe the novelists do save me, maybe Lawrence and Mann, Dickens and Melville and Greene, / even the landslides of Thomas Wolfe that go through me like castor oil release me from myself.” It’s the escape from self-consciousness we’re after when we write, a sort of death-in-writing, and Williams knows this even as he knows the bittersweet of dailiness. His book about writing is really about living and dying, dying to live. “Keep dying!” he exclaims in his title poem. “Keep writing it down.”
One of the great names Williams drops is that of C. P. Cavafy, who died in 1933 with a relatively small measure of renown but is now widely recognized as an extraordinary and influential modern poet. Though George Seferis compared his writing to prose, Cavafy in Greek was not so flat and affectless as many translations have made him seem. He can be wistfully passionate, and his sound is poetry, no doubt about it. If James Merrill had translated more than four poems, we might have a suitable restrained lyricism to hear him by. But few significant translators of Cavafy so far have been poets, so he is often read for his subject matter: homosexual love, historical poems of what is geographically the Hellenistic world, but chronologically reaches from Homer to Byzantium and his own time. These things are important. Cavafy is a great poet of history because he sees it accurately as a psychological matter. And he is a great poet of love and yearning because he sees that, too, as a psychological matter. If we remember the word psychology is rooted in the word for soul, as the late James Hillman constantly reminded us, we can read Cavafy’s charred, desiring souls as profoundly human presences, no matter the era in which they lived.
Many English readers of Cavafy will have assumed he was a pioneer of modern free verse. True. But he also wrote rhyming poems in complex measures; few translators have managed to convey the layered ironies of these poems in particular. The accomplishments of Daniel Mendelsohn’s Cavafy are fourfold: he collects all the poems previous editions have collected, including prose poems and poems in English, plus the “unfinished poems” that had previously appeared only in Greek; he offers good notes and thorough historical backgrounds; he writes an elegant introduction on the poet’s life and work; and he reminds us of the formal qualities of many of Cavafy’s originals.2 Because Mendelsohn is a fine scholar and excellent prose writer, his volume is an important contribution to literature. One could argue that in some cases he still misses the poetic qualities of the orginals, that his attempts to match the rhyme and meter of some originals don’t get close enough. But that’s carping. This is the most complete and elegant Cavafy we have had to date, and we should be grateful to have a new one-volume edition out in paperback.
My Greek copy of Apanta Poietika begins, as has been traditional, with “Walls,” an early rhyming poem. Mendelsohn groups this and other well-known early poems and places them later, as “Contents of the Sengopoulos Notebook.” Instead he begins this volume with another rhyming poem, “The City.” But both “Walls” and “The City” are psychological allegories, important to our understanding of Cavafy’s vision. They are also poems in which previous translations, including the superb work of Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, fell short. Here is Mendelsohn’s version of “Walls”:
Without pity, without shame, without consideration
they’ve built around me enormous, towering walls.
And I sit here now in growing desperation.
This fate consumes my mind, I think of nothing else:
because I had so many things to do out there.
O while they built the walls, why did I not look out?
But no noise, no sound from the builders did I hear.
Imperceptibly they shut me off from the world without.
There are many things to commend this version, including the subtle correspondences of the rhymes. They are not quite Cavafy’s correspondences because Cavafy rhymes on different words. His homophones are aidó and edó (“shame” and “here”), teíche and tyche (“walls” and “fate”), eíchon and échon (“had” and “sound” or “noise”), ná mén proséxo (“I did not beware,” as Cavafy’s brother, John, put it in his own version of the poem) and tón kósmon éxo (“the people outside”). In other words, years before James Joyce portrayed Dublin as a city caught in a state of paralysis, Cavafy understood the soul-thwartings that kept people trapped within real and imagined walls, and he threaded this thinking into his lines. The poem was composed in 1897, well before Frost wrote “Mending Wall,” and it seems in some ways to prefigure the poems of frank sensuality Cavafy would write by suggesting a speaker who cannot fully express his own identity.
Space won’t allow a fuller discussion of Cavafy’s technique, a subject handled deftly in Mendelsohn’s introduction and notes, but you can see why quibbles inevitably arise. Where Richard Wilbur’s translations of Molière make French and English appear almost the same language, grammatical and other differences between Greek and English can produce special challenges. Sometimes Mendelsohn does perfectly well with a poem but uses a troubling word in a particular position as if to differentiate himself from what other translators have done, so one ends up weighing his word against another’s and pondering the difference. Here is John Cavafy’s opening for “Thermopylae”: “Honour to those who in their lives have fixed / and guard straight passes of Thermopylae.” I’m not wild about the way he fills out the second line, but that verb “fixed” does have a way of suggesting choice on multiple levels, as in “decided upon.” Keeley and Sherrard use the verb “define,” which has a greater clarity about it. Mendelsohn says the honorable ones “have settled on, and guard, a Thermopylae,” which lends an unfortunate implication of new housing.
Another of my favorite poems, “Myres: Alexandria in 340 A.D.,” is a dramatic monologue in the voice of a young pagan whose best friend, a Christian, has just died. Cavafy was particularly fascinated by the fourth century, when the Roman Empire under Constantine began to tolerate Christianity—an old world was dying, a new one trying to be born, as in the religious cataclysm of Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.” In Cavafy’s poem, the speaker cannot tolerate the behavior of the dead man’s Christian family and desires to escape their rituals of mourning. As Keeley and Sherrard put it: “I rushed out of their horrible house, / rushed away before my memory of Myris / could be captured, could be perverted by their Christianity.” The use of that word “perverted,” which is also one possible implication in the Greek alloiotheí, hones the edge of the poem. Mendelsohn uses the equally accurate but duller word “alter,” which misses an opportunity.
But the scope of his accomplishment as both editor and translator remains impressive. This is a volume I shall be returning to for years, not only to study familiar favorites like “Darius,” “Waiting for the Barbarians” and the now-ubiquitous “Ithaca” (have you heard Sean Connery recite it on YouTube?), but also to learn from less familiar poems, including those appearing in English here for the first time. Cavafy is a great poet of the city, of sensuality, of history—and of all these things as aspects of mind. Mendelsohn’s translation allows us access to the full range of that greatness.
I thought in this review I would alternate between new translations of canonical poetry and collections of contemporary verse, keeping in mind the distance one often feels between our own vernacular, our own kinds of accomplishment, and those of previous eras. D. Nurkse is a poet I have followed for years, admiring his solid technique, his humane stance. It now occurs to me that he is a poet of the city, a heterosexual Cavafy, if that’s not too scrambled a descriptor. His city, Brooklyn (where he was poet laureate for a time), is also a city of dream and history, and his new collection, A Night in Brooklyn, is surely his strongest to date.3 Here, as an example, is his title poem:
We undid a button,
turned out the light,
and in that narrow bed
we built the great city—
water towers, cisterns,
hot asphalt roofs, parks,
septic tanks, arterial roads,
Canarsie, the intricate channels,
the seacoast, underwater mountains,
bluffs, islands, the next continent,
using only the palms of our hands
and the tips of our tongues, next
we made darkness itself, by then
it was time for daybreak
and we closed our eyes
until the sun rose
and we had to take it all to pieces
for there could be only one Brooklyn.
Like Cavafy he is a poet of mind and of sensuality. Unlike Cavafy, of course, there’s a level of openness and satisfaction in Nurkse’s persona, but he’s not without yearning, not without pain, and his shifts of consciousness can be bracing:
I spoke to that uncertain moment
between false dawn and dawn
when the traffic roars north,
just streaks of trapped light,
lamps go out in the charity ward,
and the tenements light up,
the highest floors first:
Why can’t you rest, I said.
He can write effective political poems like “Letter from Home” and can escape to Europe without turning it into the precious travelogue so many American poets embellish when abroad. But on the whole the strongest poems in this new book are those of his city, a city of the imagination and hard economic realities, a city of human presences. Like Williams, he knows a thing or two about presence and death:
All my life I have been dying, of hope and self-pity,
and an unknown force has been knitting me back together.
It happens in secret. I want to touch her and I touch her
and it registers on the glittering gauges that make the car darker
and swifter and we come to the mountains and this is all I ever
to enter the moth’s pinhead eye, now, and never return.
Few contemporary poets of my acquaintance are as able as D. Nurkse to marry technical finesse to so full-bodied a sense of life and death, sleep and waking.
It’s not as strange as it might seem to turn from these poets to a new translation of the Bhagavad Gita.4 This book of the mind is an illuminating bafflement. It contains impossible wisdom without which we would be seriously impoverished. Just as Williams’ frenetic meditations rely on counterpointing images of great art, so the sufferings of people in our literature imply the opposite of suffering, the apparently inhuman realm of being, which we posit but never fully achieve. Poetry may suggest wisdom, but poets are rarely wise. The people in Williams, Cavafy, Nurkse—really in all of literature—exist in the realm of suffering and change, which is more entertaining as well as more instructive than heaven. Still, in the beehive of ambition and ego, it is marvelous to be reminded of their opposite, to have an image of what Yeats called unity-of-being.
The impossibilities of the Gita are many. In the dialogue between the warrior, Arjuna, and his charioteer, Krishna, who is an avatar of God, the student must be led to new understanding. In order to achieve that understanding, that seeing or enlightenment, he must learn to let go of his attachment to illusion. He must understand his own nature, his dharma. One roadblock many of us have along this journey is that Arjuna’s nature is to kill. He has to fight the battle against his enemies in order to return balance to the world. The moment we realize this, we too are caught up in our own attachments, our own delusions, our beliefs about right and wrong, war and peace. Arjuna must learn that the battle has already been fought. We are already dead:
‘Not to be pierced, not to be burned,
neither drenched nor desiccated—
eternal, all-pervading, firm,
unmoving, everlasting this!
‘This has been called unmanifest,
unthinkable and unchanging;
therefore, because you know this now,
you should not lament, Arjuna.
‘But even if you think that this
is born and dies time after time,
forever, O great warrior,
not even then should you mourn this.
Death is assured to all those born,
and birth assured to all the dead;
you should not mourn what is merely
That’s a big should, to put it mildly. Most of us are not enlightened—I’m not, anyway. Yet I can have moments of insight, aided by books like this as well as by proximity to sustaining rhythms, like weather in the mountains or the beat of the surf. Even a man plunged into chaotic activity can intuit an eremitic peace.
The most practical wisdom in the Gita has to do with action in the world. Dickens’ Great Expectations is a story about wrong action—how Pip’s attachment to illusions prevents him from becoming himself until he can see his error and fight the proper battles of his life. When we act out of expectation, common as that may be, we are always wrong, always compounding our delusions, tightening the knots of our attachments:
‘Your concern should be with action,
never with action’s fruits;
these should never motivate you,
nor attachment to inaction.
‘Established in this practice, act
without attachment, Arjuna,
unmoved by failure or success!
Equanimity is yoga.’
It’s harder than it looks, I know. But if we could act out of devotion to the real rather than attachment to illusions, if we could lose self-consciousness—well, I don’t even know how to finish my sentence. That’s what we have wisdom literature for.
I used to teach the Gita in world literature courses and found it usefully perplexing to my students. In those days we read the Barbara Stoler Miller translation, which still strikes me as being very good. The new translation by Gavin Flood, a scholar of Hinduism, and Charles Martin, a wonderful poet and translator, progresses in more elegant measures and has much else to recommend it, including its excellent notes. It should set a new standard for educators in particular. Occasionally I miss a phrasing from the earlier version. When dejected Arjuna says (in Flood/Martin), “The flaw of pity overcomes my being,” I remember Miller’s line, “The flaw of pity blights my very being.” I prefer Miller’s muscularity. There are also problems no translation can really overcome, such as the ways in which English limits the “semantic range” of words like dharma, as the new translators note in their introduction: “it is the dharma of grass to grow, of birds to fly, and of warriors to fight.” Reducing it to something like “virtue” or “duty” seems less practical than letting the Sanskrit word remain in the text with full notes on its implications. Flood and Martin have disagreed, but not without misgivings. What a book! An inspiration and an affront, a test of one’s capacity to imagine, a practical guide and a surreal evocation, a permanent elucidation of the nature of religious thinking in all its controversial necessity.
When one has grown tired of one’s contemporaries, how satisfying it is to sit back and get whacked by the great dead, to be reminded of original impulses or models far from one’s own experience. I have for years now been grateful for the poetry of Dick Davis, an Englishman who teaches medieval Persian literature at OhioStateUniversity, and for his extraordinary translations, which perform for Persian poetry what Wilbur has done for French. The sheer breadth of Davis’ publications in the field, the number of major works he has brought into English, including The Conference of the Birds, The Shahnameh, Vis and Ramin and others, strikes me as one of the true literary achievements of our time. Davis’ rhyming lines flow like a river, never impeding narrative, never becoming cumbersome in any way. His new volume brings three poets of fourteenth-century Shiraz into English: Hafez (the only poet in this group familiar to me), Jahan Malek Khatun and Obayd-e Zakani.5 The third of these figures was a rascal:
I’ll try to fix this hangover, then find a whore
Who’ll be prepared to let me through her door;
And then my prick will either have her cunt
Or ass, but which of them I’m not quite sure.
When you recognize the Rubaiyat stanza at work in this Catullan ditty you might, as I did, laugh out loud.
Hafez is more canonical and a good deal more subtle:
Hypocrisy will burn the harvest
religion reaped; and so,
Hafez, shrug off this Sufi cloak—
just leave now, let it go.
Davis’ versions don’t just pursue the content but also the wit of the originals. The middle poet of this triad was a woman, a princess, and while her metaphors are often courtly, she has her own down-to-earth humanity, not unlike that of Sappho:
I long so much to see you here,
Each night I tear
A hundred nightshirts into shreds
In my despair.
You are the Ka’abah that I seek:
My love, allow
Me to approach the face I’ve sought
For so long now.
I’m like a bird that is half slaughtered,
Struggling to rise,
Whose wings are dabbled with her heart’s
Blood as she dies.
I know too well the warmth and cold
That Fortune’s shown;
I’m not a child to whom the world
Is still unknown.
How good it is to have these voices of the dead. When we are dying to write a poem, they remind us how unoriginal we are.
1 Writers Writing Dying, by C. K. Williams. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $24.00.
2 Complete Poems, by C. P. Cavafy, trans. by Daniel Mendelsohn. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.00p.
3 A Night in Brooklyn, by D. Nurkse. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.00.
4 The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation, trans. by Gavin Flood and Charles Martin. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. $25.95.
5 Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz, trans. and intro. by Dick Davis. Mage Publishers. $45.00.