Monthly Archives: March 2013

Cavafy’s “Ithaka” and Auden’s “Atlantis”

I recently read one of Auden’s relatively lesser-known poems, Atlantis, and was struck by the similarities it bears to C.P. Cavafy’s famous Ithaka. In both poems, life is described through the metaphor of an eventful voyage to a destination that belongs more in the realm of Greek mythology than in the real world. References to history and mythology, and that curious blending of the two, are scattered liberally throughout both. And both use the similar rhetorical device of directly addressing the reader, and drawing him into the world of the poem, and the voyage, by constantly asking him to imagine various hypothetical scenarios. Here are the two poems set out in full:


As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


Being set on the idea
Of getting to Atlantis,
You have discovered of course
Only the Ship of Fools is
Making the voyage this year,
As gales of abnormal force
Are predicted, and that you
Must therefore be ready to
Behave absurdly enough
To pass for one of The Boys,
At least appearing to love
Hard liquor, horseplay and noise.

Should storms, as may well happen,
Drive you to anchor a week
In some old harbour-city
Of Ionia, then speak
With her witty sholars, men
Who have proved there cannot be
Such a place as Atlantis:
Learn their logic, but notice
How its subtlety betrays
Their enormous simple grief;
Thus they shall teach you the ways
To doubt that you may believe.

If, later, you run aground
Among the headlands of Thrace,
Where with torches all night long
A naked barbaric race
Leaps frenziedly to the sound
Of conch and dissonant gong:
On that stony savage shore
Strip off your clothes and dance, for
Unless you are capable
Of forgetting completely
About Atlantis, you will
Never finish your journey.

Again, should you come to gay
Carthage or Corinth, take part
In their endless gaiety;
And if in some bar a tart,
As she strokes your hair, should say
“This is Atlantis, dearie,”
Listen with attentiveness
To her life-story: unless
You become acquainted now
With each refuge that tries to
Counterfeit Atlantis, how
Will you recognise the true?

Assuming you beach at last
Near Atlantis, and begin
That terrible trek inland
Through squalid woods and frozen
Thundras where all are soon lost;
If, forsaken then, you stand,
Dismissal everywhere,
Stone and now, silence and air,
O remember the great dead
And honour the fate you are,
Travelling and tormented,
Dialectic and bizarre.

Stagger onward rejoicing;
And even then if, perhaps
Having actually got
To the last col, you collapse
With all Atlantis shining
Below you yet you cannot
Descend, you should still be proud
Even to have been allowed
Just to peep at Atlantis
In a poetic vision:
Give thanks and lie down in peace,
Having seen your salvation.

All the little household gods
Have started crying, but say
Good-bye now, and put to sea.
Farewell, my dear, farewell: may
Hermes, master of the roads,
And the four dwarf Kabiri,
Protect and serve you always;
And may the Ancient of Days
Provide for all you must do
His invisible guidance,
Lifting up, dear, upon you
The light of His countenance.

Despite the many obvious similarities between the two poems, I think it’s interesting also to analyse the seemingly different world-view that they present. At the end of Cavafy’s piece, one feels a sense of closure, of conclusion. The voyage to Ithaka is clearly a metaphor for a life lived well and fully, with death the final homecoming. The events on the way, with the many beautiful images and descriptions that Cavafy draws upon, accentuate the experience, deepen it and enrich it. There is, in short, no doubt about the message (if that is the right word) that the poem is trying to convey.

Atlantis, on the other hand, is profoundly ambiguous every step of the way. The ambiguity is established in the first stanza, when it is clarified that the only ship making the journey to Atlantis is “the Ship of Fools”. The Ship of Fools, of course, is a famous allegory of the human condition, one that depicts a ship without a pilot, populated by insane passengers, and traveling without any sense of direction (see, for instance, this beautiful painting by Hieronymus Bosch). This suggests that Atlantis itself may be an illusion, nothing more than a mythical paradise that is the figment of a fevered imagination. The impression is heightened by the second stanza, where the scholars’ subtle arguments is a facade designed to hide their “simple, enormous grief“. What is this simple, enormous grief? It is, I think, something akin to the Byronic lament that man’s greatest tragedy is that he can conceive of a perfection that he can never attain. Similarly, the Ionian scholars’ ceaseless attempts to prove the non-existence of Atlantis perhaps stem from their grief at the unattainability of Atlantis. Atlantis, then, is ideal and perfection – to use a closer analogy, it is the ever-receding shoreline that Virgil’s Aeneas is constantly pursuing. And if that is the case, then it makes perfect sense why only a ship of fools would undertake that journey.

The next stanza adds another aspect of detail to the quest for Atlantis: it cannot be a conscious quest. Notice, however, that the poet does not write that you will find Atlantis if you forget about it. He writes that “unless you are capable/ of forgetting completely/ about Atlantis, you will/ Never complete your journey.” At no point is it written that the journey must necessarily end by finding Atlantis. This, of course, dovetails perfectly with the idea that Atlantis is actually unattainable. Not an illusion, mind, nor a myth, but something very real and worth striving for, although one is doomed never to achieve it.   

The next stanza, in fact, makes it clear that whatever else Atlantis is, it is something very real. The Atlantis that is being “counterfeited” by the prostitute is set up in contradistinction to the “true” – or, to put it another way, “the real“. This sense of Atlantis as an existing goal is reinforced by the next two stanzas that, I feel, constitute the heart of the poem. The first demonstrates the perils of chasing the ideal – it is a path fraught with continuous danger and nigh-impassable obstacles, and the constant fear of getting lost down trackless ways (of what? of failure? Is that what he means when he uses the word “dismissal”?).But the voyager can take heart from the fact that his companions in this fate are the “great dead”, men and women who, in the history of mankind, have striven for something similar. Notice now the contrast between “the ship of fools” that is meant to undertake the voyage, and the “great dead” that seem to have actually undertaken the voyage before. It is fascinating that Auden here chooses to use the word “dialectic”. Dialectic between what? It is anybody’s guess, but I feel that Auden is referring to the tension between the existence of the ideal as something intrinsically worth striving for, and the impossibility of attaining it.

In the penultimate stanza, the final fate of the voyager is made clear. He gets all the way until the edge of Atlantis, having come all this way in a ship of fools, and braved terrible dangers to arrive here; and at the very cusp of the fulfillment of his heart’s desire, he finds that his strength has given out, that he cannot even descend to claim what he has traveled so far for. And yet, that doesn’t really matter, because you have, after all, been permitted to catch a glimpse of Atlantis. But notice that it is no ordinary glimpse – it is a “poetic vision“. Suddenly, the stable ground has slipped away from under our feet – does this mean that Atlantis is unreal after all, and an illusion, if it does not even exist in a way that can be seen – or rather, grasped – through the senses? Perhaps not. Perhaps this is Auden at his most Byronic – seeing Atlantis in a poetic vision represents the ability to concretely conceptualise the impossible ideal, an ability that manifests itself only at the end of a lifetime of striving after that very ideal that one cannot even know, let alone begin to understand.

All of which seems to suggest that what is of paramount importance is not Atlantis itself – since it can never be attained – but the voyage to Atlantis. And indeed, that is what the last stanza seems to indicate, in what is perhaps a tip of the hat to Cavafy. Hermes, master of the roads, and “the four dwarf Kabiri” are invoked to bless – not the attainment of the destination – but the voyage. The last stanza is about setting out to sea, the beginning of the voyage, and what it seems to be paramountly concerned with is the voyage itself.

And this, indeed, is very close to what Cavafy is seeking to convey through Ithaka. Consider last two stanzas:

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

And so, the most important thing is not getting to Ithaka; indeed, that seems positively inconsequential. Ithaka is the centrepiece of the poem not because of what it is, but because of what it provides a reason to do – that is, to take the voyage, the glorious voyage with all its detours  to Phoenican trading stations (with sensual perfumes!) and Egyptian cities. 

This suggests that the themes of the two poems are not as far apart as they may originally have seemed to be. What is interesting is how the two poets employ radically different styles to achieve a similar kind of response. Cavafy’s is clear and direct, with a succession of striking images following one another in a logical sequence, speaking directly to the imagination; while Auden’s is complex and layered, with ambiguity piled upon ambiguity, and you must peel off the layers of seeming paradoxes and inconsistencies to arrive at the heart of the poet’s vision.


Filed under C.P. Cavafy, Modernism: Second Generation, Poetry: Miscellaneous, W.H. Auden

“And then – silence”: Kanafani, Men in the Sun

In the last quartet of his poem about the Spanish Civil War, Auden writes:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.”

Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, a collection containing one novella and six short stories, is about individuals struggling to shape their response to history’s refusal to help or pardon. The theme of Men in the Sun is slightly different from that which characterises his brilliant novella, Returning to Haifa, which I wrote about a few days ago. While that deals expressly with the relationship between the settler and the displaced, these stories are about the fate of the displaced, adrift in the new world that they have been forcibly thrust into. Israel is present in the background, of course (“In the morning, when the Jews withdrew, threatening and fuming, a big lorry was standing at the door of our house..“), but only insofar as it has unrolled the canvas upon which these characters, these human beings, must paint their lives and their destinies anew.

Like in Returning to Haifa, much of Kanafani’s writing emphasises the importance of symbols: how objects and places can become symbols and metaphors of loss, parting, exile or resistance. In The Land of Sad Oranges, for instance, the physical and mental disintegration of an individual unable to deal with the consequences of erosion is portrayed poignantly by the withering of an orange – because oranges were a central part of the life of the peasants in their homeland.

You were huddled up there, as far from your childhood as you were from the land of oranges – the oranges that, according to a peasant who used to cultivate them until he left, would shrivel up if a change occurred, and they were watered by a strange hand.

Or in the last lines of The Falcon, an improbable story of friendship between a falcon, and the creature that it is meant to hunt, the gazelle:

“I wonder where the gazelle went.”

In the pale light of the match I saw his face as it had always been: thin, harsh, cold. His lips moved:

It went to die among its people. Gazelles like to die among their people. Falcons don’t care where they die.

Or in the description of Umm Saad’s response to learning that her son has joined the fedayeen, in Umm Saad:

Her hands were folded in her lap, and I could see the palms, dry as blocks of wood, cracked like an old tree trunk. Through the furrows that years of hard work had traced in them, I could see her sorry journey with Saad, from the time when he was a child until he grew to maturity. Those firm hands had nourished him as the earth nourishes the stem of a tender plant, and now they had opened suddenly, and the bird that had nestled there for twenty years had flown away.”

Memory and the past, as one would expect, our recurring themes in Kanafani’s work. In Returning to Haifa, much of the tension in the story is centred upon two opposing visions of Palestine: one that seeks to raise it up out of memory, to recreate what was Palestine before the nakba, to – in the simplest possible terms – go back to the past. The other is a vision of the future, of Palestine as a homeland in which none of “this” (displacement, exile, suffering) can happen. In If You Were a Horse, Kanafani skillfully uses a distinctly personal about individual tragedy to explore how memory works and responds to shattering events:

He knew his father through and through, and he knew that the past was for him, a solid wooden box locked with a thousand keys that had been cast into the depths of the ocean.”

The refusal to engage with the past, while being continuously tormented by it, and having all your thoughts and actions intimately shaped by it, and the sheer unendurableness of the tension between the two, is described strikingly in this story. The political context is unmissable, even though it is, ostensibly, a story about a father, a mother and a son.

Men in the Sun, the novella that gives the collection its name, is quite simply one of the most powerful pieces of writing that I have ever read. So powerful, in fact, that a footnote in the preface to the collection tells us that when it was filmed under the name of Al-Makhducun (“The Deceived”), the plot had to be altered, since “a film similar to the novella in its denouement would have appeared glaringly incongruous at a time when the resistance movements were established.” It is the story of three Palestinian refugees in Baghdad, and their clandestine, illegal journey in a lorry, across the burning desert to seek a better future in Kuwait. The past and the present, the personal and the political, the individual story and the social condition – all continually merge, come apart and merge again, in a style reminiscent of Kundera. With all the dangers that accompany such broad generalisations, I think that it is nevertheless safe to say that in each individual life-story, you can read something of the history of a people; and in the way that an individual attempts to respond to and shape his situation, one can see an entire community searching for a way, some way, to deal with the torment of exile.  Any further attempt to summarise this profoundly disturbing story would be nothing more than an abject failure, so I’ll replace that with two of the most striking quotes that, in a sense, sum up the human predicament that forms the basis of the story:

On the other side of this Shatt, just the other side, were all the things he had been deprived of. Over there was Kuwait. What only lived in his mind as a dream and a fantasy existed there. It was certainly something real, of stones, earth, water, and sky, not as it slumbered in his troubled mind. There must be lanes and streets, men and women, and children running about between the trees.”


None of the four wanted to talk anymore, not only because they were exhausted by their efforts, but because each one was swallowed up in his own thoughts. The huge lorry was carrying them along the road, together with their dreams, their families, their hopes and ambitions, their misery and despair, their strength and weakness, their past and future, as if it were pushing against the immense door to a new, unknown destiny, and all eyes were fixed on the door’s surface as though bound to it by invisible threads.” 

The last story, A Letter from Gaza, is the most overtly political story in the collection. It is a letter from one friend to another, both of whom have grown up in Gaza; one of them has chosen to emigrate and go to California, “liberating… myself from this last tie too… far from the reek of defeat that for seven years had filled my nostrils.” The other has chosen to stay behind and work in Kuwait. And it is he who must explain to his friend why he hasn’t followed him away from a Gaza in which “my own self… had suffered so long. I hated Gaza and its inhabitants. Everything in the amputated town reminded me of failed pictures painted in gray by a sick man.” And yet, “What is this ill-defined tie we had with Gaza that blunted our enthusiasm for flight? Why didn’t we analyze the matter in such a way as to give it a clear meaning? Why didn’t we leave this defeat with its wounds behind us and move on to a brighter future that would give us deeper consolation! Why? We didn’t exactly know.

It’s the idea of the “homeland” again, the idea that Kanafani writes of so lyrically in Returning to Haifa, the homeland that it is inextricably bound up with memory and desire. “What,” the letter-writer asks, despite the fact that Gaza is “closed like the introverted lining of a rusted snail-shell thrown up by the waves on the sticky, sandy shore by the slaughterhouse”, despite the fact that “this Gaza was more cramped than the mind of a sleeper in the throes of a fearful nightmare, with its narrow streets that had their peculiar smell, the smell of defeat and poverty, its houses with their bulging balconies” – despite all this, what “are the obscure causes that draw a man to his family, his house, his memories, as a spring draws a small flock of mountain goats?” And he gives himself the only answer possible: “I don’t know.

But then something happens that does make him know, suddenly, abruptly and shockingly, what binds him to Gaza. It is the sight of his niece, for whom he has bought a pair of red trousers from Kuwait, in a hospital bed, and:

My friend… Never shall I forget Nadia’s leg, amputated from the top of the thigh. No! Nor shall I forget the grief which had moulded her face and merged into its traits forever. I went out of the hospital in Gaza that day, my hand clutched in silent derision on the two pounds I had brought with me to give Nadia. The blazing sun filled the streets with the colour of blood. And Gaza was brand new, Mustafa! You and I never saw it like this. The stone piled up at the beginning of the Shajiya quarter where we lived had a meaning, and they seemed to have been put there for no other reason but to explain it.  This Gaza in which we had lived and with whose good people we had spent seven years of defeat was something new. It seemed to me just a beginning. I imagined that in the main street that I walked along on the way back home was only the beginning of a long, long road leading to Safad. Everything in this Gaza throbbed with a sadness, which was not confined to weeping. It was a challenge; more than that, it was something like reclamation of the amputated leg.

I went out into the streets of Gaza, streets filled with blinding sunlight. They told me that Nadia had lost her leg when she threw herself on top of her little brothers and sisters to protect them from the bombs and flames that had fastened their claws into the house. Nadia could have saved herself, she could have run away, rescued her leg. But she didn’t.


No, my friend, I won’t come to Sacramento, and I’ve no regrets. No, and nor will I finish what we began together in childhood. This obscure feeling that you had as you left Gaza, this small feeling must grow into a giant deep within you. It must expand, you must seek it in order to find yourself, here among the ugly debris of defeat.

I won’t come to you. But you, return to us! Come back, to learn from Nadia’s leg, amputated from the top of the thigh, what life and what existence is worth. 

Come back, my friend! We are all waiting for you.

In Returning to Haifa, one of the central questions is whether a man is defined, no, created by a cause. And if we are all creatures seeking meaning, that meaning can only be provided by a cause. From Returning to Haifa and A Letter from Gaza, we get a distinct sense that oftentimes, it is not even open to us to choose our cause, the thing that we decide will give our lives meaning; oftentimes, it is the circumstances that determine it for us. And since it cannot be evaded, it must be embraced. It is a highly disturbing view of the self, but in Kanafani’s hands, it is utterly compelling.

Elsewhere, in a letter to his son, he puts it more eloquently than I ever can:

I heard you in the other room asking your mother: “Mama, am I a Palestinian?” When she answered “Yes”, a heavy silence fell on the whole house. It was as if something hanging over our heads had fallen, its noise exploding, and then – silence.

Afterwards… I heard you crying. I could not move. There was something bigger than my awareness being born in the other room through your bewildered sobbing. It was as if a blessed scalpel was cutting up your chest and putting there the heart that belongs to you… I was unable to move to see what was happening in the other room. I knew, however, that a distant homeland was being born again; hills, plains, olive groves, dead people, torn banners and folded ones, all cutting their way into a future of flesh and blood and being born in the heart of another child… Do not believe that man grows. No; he is born suddenly – a word, in a moment, penetrates his heard to a new throb. One scene can hurl him down from the ceiling of childhood on to the ruggedness of the road.

And I am reminded, in conclusion, of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, Silence for Gazawhich begins like this:

With dynamite she raps her waist 
She explodes 
It is neither death nor suicide 
Its Gaza’s style to announce her worthiness of life…


Filed under Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish

Two Views on the Nature of Language – An Addendum: Ars Poetica

While browsing this blog, I came across this 1971 essay by the literary critic Cleanth Brooks. It is short but incisive, and the first page, in particular, resonated with me quite powerfully.

Brooks opens with:

“One can sum up modern poetic technique by calling it the rediscovery of metaphor and the full commitment to metaphor. The poet can legitimately step out into the universal only by first going through the narrow door of the particular. The poet does not select an abstract theme and then embellish it with concrete details. On the contrary, he must establish the details, must abide by the details, and through his realization of the details attain to whatever general meaning he can attain. The meaning must issue from the particulars; it must not seem to be arbitrarily forced upon the particulars.”


“The commitment to metaphor thus implies, with respect to general theme, a principle of indirection. With respect to particular images and statements, it implies a principle of organic relationship. That is, the poem is not a collection of beautiful or “poetic” images. If there really existed objects which were somehow intrinsically “poetic,” still the mere assemblage of these would not give us a poem. For in that case, one might arrange bouquets of these poetic images and thus create poems by formula. But the elements of a poem are related to each other, not as blossoms juxtaposed in a bouquet, but as the blossoms are related to the other parts of a growing plant. The beauty of the poem is the flowering of the whole plant, and needs the stalk, the leaf, and the hidden roots.”

Although Brooks is employing an entirely different set of images and metaphors, I think that there is a lot in these two paragraphs that resembles Auden’s view of poetry, that I discussed in my last post. The “universal“, the “abstract theme“, the (possibility of) objects that are “intrinsically poetic” – all this recalls to mind Auden’s idea of the sacred, to which our only response (which cannot be described further, or more accurately) is of “imaginative awe”. So the reason why poetic language must apply metaphors and particulars is because it does not – how could it? – seek to define or describe the imaginative awe (thus I’m not entirely sure if Brooks’ use of the term “indirection” is an entirely happy one).

The further reason why poetry cannot simply be a collection of “poetic images” is because that would be tantamount to an exercise of translation, trying to generate in us the imaginative awe by reporting a set of experiences that have, in the past, generated it in others. That, of course, is a futile attempt. It must, on the contrary, be an organic whole, because order, balance, harmony and symmetry are what awaken in us a sense of beauty through form, and that is the primary aim of poetry.

This reminds me of a poem that we once read in school, and which now, the more poetry I read, speaks to me the more powerfully:

Ars Poetica

– Archibald Macleish

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
A poem should be equal to:
Not true.
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
A poem should not mean
But be.


Filed under Archibald Macleish, Cleanth Brooks