Category Archives: Poetry: Miscellaneous

Connections: Zbigniew Herbert, Pablo Neruda, Miroslav Holub…

… in responding to totalitarianism.

Zbigniew Herbert, Mr Cogito and the Imagination:

Mr Cogito never trusted
tricks of the imagination

the piano at the top of the Alps
played false concerts for him

he didn’t appreciate labyrinths
the Sphinx filled him with loathing

he lived in a house with no basement
without mirrors or dialectics

jungles of tangled images
were not his home

he would rarely soar
on the wings of a metaphor
and then he fell like Icarus
into the embrace of the Great Mother

he adored tautologies
idem per idem

that a bird is a bird
slavery means slavery
a knife is a knife
death remains death

he loved
the flat horizon
a straight line
the gravity of the earth

Pablo Neruda, I am Explaining a Few Things

You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics ?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?’

And you will ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets!

Miroslav Holub
… and equally without allegory

without transcendence

and without fuss.

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Filed under Mirsoslav Holub, Poetry: Miscellaneous, Poland, Zbigniew Herbert

Connections: W.H. Auden and Miroslav Holub on the Dying Town as the Dying Body

“But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.”

Inside there may be growing
an abandoned room,
bare walls, pale squares where pictures hung,
a disconnected phone,
feathers settling on the floor
the encyclopaedists have moved out and
Dostoevsky never found the place,

lost in the landscape
where only surgeons
write poems.

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Filed under Mirsoslav Holub, Modernism: Second Generation, W.H. Auden

Ambiguity and Certainty: Elizabeth Bishop and Philip Larkin

In a beautiful essay in The Guardian, Colm Toibin compares the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Thom Gunn, observing that both poets “wrote endings to poems which sometimes seemed to hover between conclusion and uncertainty, between what became known as closure and a sense that there was too much regret between the words for closure ever to be possible.”  By way of example, Toibin discusses North Haven, Bishop’s elegy to Robert Lowell. In the third stanza, Bishop writes:

“The goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the white-throated sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.”

Of this, Toibin says:

“Its gravity emerges softly. When you read the line, “The goldfinches are back, or others like them”, it is easy not to spot the grim suggestion that the precise goldfinches are in fact not back at all – they are dead.”

And, of the next line:

Nature repeats herself, or almost does:”,

He notes:

In the next line, Bishop came as close as she could to stating something that was true; the “coziness tinged with melancholy” [how Gunn described her early work] has gone and it has been replaced by another sort of melancholy, a slow, stoical melancholy, when she says: “Nature repeats herself, or almost does.”

Before the stanza ends with:

repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.”

And of this, Toibin explains:

“What the following line does now is oddly miraculous, a slow, incantatory dramatisation of the tentative and withholding nature of Bishop’s process as a poet. The last line of this stanza has six words, each in an iambic beat; there is a caesura after three, marked by a semi-colon. The words are in italics, which suggest not emphasis as much as a voice whispering. The last three words, each ending with a sibilant and half-containing the word “sigh”. And what the voice says now is as much as she can say. It is filled with ambiguity and restraint…”

When I read this characterisation, as that of a voice filled with ambiguity and restraint, and moreover, as coming *after* something that is emphatically true, it made me think of an interesting contrast with another poem that uses spring as metaphor and image of something returning: Philip Larkin’s “Trees“. That one ends with the following lines:

“Last year is dead, they seem to say
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”

Both in tone (of syllables) and in content, “afresh” is certain and definite – signifying what Toibin calls “closure” – as opposed to the uncertain and ambiguous “revise”. Moreover, when one reads the entire poem, I think it moves in exactly the *opposite* direction to Bishop’s – from uncertainty to certainty.

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
Their recent buds relax and spread
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May
Last year is dead, they seem to say
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Consider the first stanza – “like something almost being said”. The quintessence of ambiguity, the reaching-out-but-not-quite-finding-what-you’re-looking-for, Virgil’s ever-receding Ausonian fields. Accentuated by “their greenness is a *kind of* grief”. Not grief, but a kind of grief. The best we can do is an unsatisfactory approximation.

And then, in the second stanza, the uncertainty continues with a question “Is it…?” But at this point, the tone shifts, because it is met with a definitive answer. “No, they die too.” And it culminates, of course, in the emphatic closure – “afresh, afresh, afresh”. The sad, searching uncertainty of a “kind of grief” has dissolved into a celebratory affirmation.

To repeat or to revise; and to begin afresh. How fascinating it is that two poems can invoke the same set of images, and then sublimate them into two contrasting, but equally complex and beautiful, interior landscapes.

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Filed under Elizabeth Bishop, Poetry: Miscellaneous, Thom Gunn

Yet more ramblings on language: Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’

A couple of posts ago, while discussing e.e. cummings, I wrote about how, by imposing an artificial order upon things, language provides a means of definition – and thereby, possibly, control. In light of this thought, consider the following semi-vilanelle by Elizabeth Bishop, called “One Art”.

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master; 
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like a disaster.

I think that the key to this poem – and indeed, what makes this an excellent poem – is found in those two parenthesised words and the exclamation mark in the last line: (Write it!). Let me explain.

The poem itself is a slow progress towards a crescendo, a gradual, modulated increase in the intensity and pain of loss: starting with the near-irrelevant loss of keys or a wasted hour, to greater, deeper and more aching losses, and ending with perhaps the most heart-rending of all, the loss of a lover. And it tells us, through its twin refrains, “the art of losing isn’t hard to master“, and various combinations of words and phrases strung together between some form of “not” and “disaster” – that loss is so fundamental and pervasive a feature of the human condition, that reconciling oneself to it, and accepting it with equanimity, is not only important, but as inevitable as loss itself.

But as all of us who have experienced loss – and all of us have – know well, it simply isn’t that easy. You cannot (indeed, perhaps you should not) reason yourself out of your response to loss, a response that is primarily instinctive, and oftentimes deeply emotional (as it should be). And even Bishop seems less than convinced about what she’s writing. It comes across powerfully in “I miss them and it wasn’t a disaster”, in the aftermath of losing a continent, with its attendant rivers, realms, cities. In the first two lines of the stanza, the attention to detail, with its accompanying sense of gravity, followed by the plaintive “I miss them” in the first half of the last line, makes the concluding “but it wasn’t a disaster” almost an afterthought, and quite unpersuasive.

This sense is sharpened as we move into the last stanza, beginning with the stress upon “even“, and then its recounting of a very direct personal experience. This is something we all know – how, in the loss of a lover, it is the loss of seemingly tiny and insignificant things, like a tone of voice, or a gesture – that, paradoxically, is the hardest to bear. Surely – surely – that is not something easy to master, something that happens often or every day. The refrain, following immediately upon that, now bears a distinct sense of the poet protesting too much. And it is in this context that the last line acquires its significance. For while at first glance, it may seem that the “Write it!“, parenthesised as it is, might be nothing more than an aside, there is nonetheless a sense of stridency and urgency to it – accentuated by the exclamation mark – that marks it out to be far more important than that. What the poet seems to be saying is that it is through writing – through the use of language – that the pain of loss can actually be mastered.

Where words leave off, music begins – so goes Heine’s famous aphorism. Many, indeed have written about how language is the imperfect tool that we use to try (and fail) to capture the essence of lived experience, a perpetual falling-short of an ungraspable reality. Words, Nietzsche’s rainbow-bridges. And this line is, in a sense, a reversal:  the pain of loss is ungraspable, and hence overwhelming, until it is written, until it is reduced to language, to a set of conventional signs. Language becomes, then, a way of setting bounds upon the boundless, of ordering the irredeemably chaotic,  of knowing the unfathomable – and thus, a way of control. And this explains the sheer urgency of the Write it! Write, because otherwise the pain of loss, with all its thousand unnameable pincers of grief, will be too much to bear. Write to define, to conceptualise, to visualise, to know, to understand, to define, to accept and to reconcile. Write to reduce to an order and a system, to a set of known words, familiar symbols, explored territory. And yet, because writing it will force you to come face-to-face with loss in its ungovernable, linguistically-unbounded state even as you yoke it with language, it is not an easy to step to take; hence, again, the urgency of Write it!

And this idea can then, I think, be projected back onto the rest of the work. The poem, as a whole, is an attempt, through writing, to come to terms with the sheer ubiquity and depth of loss in human life. The losses that lie like scattered specks of sand upon the long shores of our lives belong themselves only to the realm of experience and emotion – until subjected to the word.  So Bishop does not – as might seem at first glance, on a reading of the poem – make light of loss, or attempt to render it quotidian and irrelevant; on the contrary, she understands even something as seemingly irrelevant as losing a set of car keys (who knows what significance they might hold?) or a single hour, can nonetheless be an unspeakably profound loss. And the only way to deal with that is to write it.

It is a vision that I find compelling.

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Filed under Elizabeth Bishop, Poetry: Miscellaneous

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