#EU27Project: Greece

Although there have been moments over the past 3-4 years when I thought I would never want to hear about or see Greece again, it is in fact a place that is very special to me and my family. My children are half-Greek, I’ve spent lots of holidays in Greece, I learnt to speak (and read a little) Greek and of course when I fell in love with a Greek back at university, I went through a period of intense study of Greek history and literature.

Constantine Cavafy soon became one of my favourite poets: his sensual descriptions of night-time encounters in the fascinating melting-pot of cultures that is the city of Alexandria are soooo me (which is probably why I loved The Alexandria Quartet so much in my teens). I have about 4-5 different translations of Cavafy’s poems in English, so you can imagine that when I heard about this novel that reimagines a key moment in Cavafy’s life, I had to get it.

Ersi Sotiropoulos is a very prolific, award-winning writer in Greece, but not much of her work has been translated into English as far as I can tell. What’s Left of the Night may be about to change her reputation abroad: it was translated into French and won the 2017 Prix Méditerranée Étranger, and in 2018 the English translation by Karen Emmerich (published by New Vessel Press) was talked about and reviewed quite a bit.

It is 1897 and Cavafy is in Paris, the last stop on the European tour he has embarked upon with his brother. He is a clerk in the Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria, the city that he considers home, although the family has also lived for a while in Constantinople and (surprisingly and far less romantically) in Liverpool. He has published some poems by that point, but largely for close friends – but his best known poems are still to come, and in fact most of his reputation was posthumous, as he was not following the current ‘fashion’ in poetry.

So the novel traces his possible sources of inspiration: Ancient Greek history, erotic desires for men (about which he feels somewhat conflicted still), feeling suffocated by his family and by society. We see Cavafy’s obsession with finding the perfect line or the right word – he was a skilled craftsman and a perfectionist, and had a rather unique use of the Greek language that perhaps only someone brought up abroad could have. This makes him fiendishly difficult to translate, but in this novel Sotiropoulos tries to capture some of the feel, the rhythm, the sensibilities of the poet… and succeeds most of the time.

I’m not quite sure if it is historically accurate to say that this trip to Paris marked a turning point in Cavafy’s writing, but that turning point undeniably did occur at some time:

The great need for rupture in his poetry he had felt so strongly in recent months, the reckless urge to break the rules… to share free of lyricism and elegance, to banish all influences from other poets and movements, to become a movement of his own, may in the end have reflected a need for rupture in his life… How could someone who lived a conventional, conservative, medocre life write important peotry? How could he speak of great passions, heroic ages?

Photo of Cavafy, from the Hellenic Foundation for Culture.

In Alexandria he felt mediocre, a failure. He may have admired Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde, but he did not want to write like them. In Paris, he hoped that he would feel closer to the artistic pulse of the ‘fin de siecle’, but everywhere he goes, he carries the the curse of the city, that lazy, dirty, inadequate city with him, as he says in one of his most famous poems. He cannot leave behind his prejudices, his impatience, his dark and selfish impulses. This is no hero-worship of Cavafy we find in this book, but an acknowledgment that, while the poetic process remains mysterious and unfathomable, it is all about transformation. Taking sorrow, shame, anger, fear of mediocrity and turning it into… complexity. And complexity is beautiful.

Charles Simic: Bridging the Abyss

Charles Simic: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Bruce Weigl.

Photo from the Poetry Center

Charles Simic is a Puliter Prize winning American poet of Serbian origin, and one of the few modern poets in the US who doesn’t seem to fit neatly into any ‘school’ or style. Yet he is always recognisably himself: pared down, short poems polished to perfection like small gems, no fancy diction or ‘swallowing a thesaurus’ type of vocabulary, but containing big ideas.

I like the conciseness of the lyric and I like to tell stories – an impossible situation! Brevity has always impressed me! A few striking images and goodbye… How to say everything with the minimum of words is my ideal.

Born in Belgrade and witnessing the indiscriminate bombing of the city as a small child, he is deeply distrustful of absolutist statements or those who claim moral authority. Partly surrealist, deceptively simple but never simplistic, he remains preoccupied with history and truth, the search of meaning in a world that seems determined to destroy all innocence.

I continue to believe that poetry says more about the psychic life of an age than any other art. Poetry is a place where all the fundamental questions are asked about the human condition.

Where does he get all his inspiration from? Simic has no qualms about admitting that it’s from his personal experience.

Form is the extension of content, so it’s not an invention – something out of nothing, but a discovery of what is already there… Poetry is the archeology of the self. The bits and pieces one keeps digging up belong to the world – everybody’s world. It’s a paradox that has always amused me. Just when you think you’re most subjective, you meet everybody else.

But if poetry is about universal experience, then why is it so little appreciated and read? Simic has quite trenchant views on that and I can’t help wondering what he feels about the current popularity of Instagram poetry.

… why more people don’t read poetry? I suppose for the same reasons more people don’t read philosophy. Philosophy is important, was alayws important, but very few people in any age have read it. No point kidding ourselves! The human animal is lazy. Thinking is work and so is poetry… You notice how all those imported Eastern phiosophies, when they come to the West, reduce their theologies to the simplest possible terms? A two-word mantra and off you go! That’s all you need, kid! Imagine if someone actually tried to make them study the great Hindu and Buddhist philosophers and poets?

            War
The trembling finger of a woman
Goes down the list of casualties
On the evening of the first snow

The house is cold and the list is long.

All our names are included.

The tragic in Simic’s verse is always tempered with something uttered so baldly, it almost becomes comic. As he describes it, the world is a mix of the sacred and the profane, the serious and the absurd: ‘dopiness is at the heart of much human activity.’ I love the juxtaposition of abstract and very concrete indeed, of high-minded, high-falutin’ ideals and the boring old everyday.

        Mother Tongue
Sold by a butcher
Wrapped in a newspaper
It travels in a bag
Of the stooped widow
Next to some onions and potatoes

Toward a dark house
Where a cat will
Leap off the stove
Purring
At its entrance
The young Simic with his father, from This Recording/Poetry.

For a boy who learnt English only after he emigrated to the States at the age of 16, to then go on to become the Poet Laureate… Not a bad accomplishment, right? Oh, and the title of this post? It’s from a quote of his: ‘Poetry tries to bridge the abyss lying between the name and the thing. That language is a problem is no news to poets.’

Louise Glück’s Way of Telling the Truth

Louise Glück is one of those American who is temperamentally diametrically opposed to me, but whose style I greatly admire. Her austere, pared-down poems are deeply confessional, but you don’t quite know what the poet confesses to, so deeply embedded is the truth in her narrative. Like Elizabeth Bishop, she wants to reshape events from memory, with discipline, technical precision, and above all a certain distancing. Restraint is her favourite tool, but we can guess at an undercurrent of passion.

Bearing testimony, she seems to suggest, is the poet’s fate:

I’ll tell you

what I meant to be-

a device that listened…

Not inert. Still.

A piece of wood. A stone.

I was born to a vocation

to bear witness

to the great mysteries.

The poet has stated in essays that she often writes poems backward: she begins with the abstract insight or illumination that she wants to demonstrate and then tries to find a real-life example to relate it to. She often turns away from the very specific and concrete – this is not the poetry of rich detail, allowing you to feel textures, colours, tastes – but a poetry of the abstract, the universal.

Does it matter where the birds go? Does it even matter what species they are?

They leave here, that’s the point,

first their bodies, then their sad cries.

And from that moment cease to exist for us.

You must learn to think of our passion that way.

Each kiss was real, then

each kiss left the face of the earth.

Winning the National Book Awards for poetry in 2014.

She has a wonderful way of blending the personal with the myths of the Ancient World, especially in the two collections which are of most bleak comfort to someone going through a divorce: Meadowlands and Vita Nova. Yet, in an interview, she takes issue with being called ‘grim’ or ‘bleak’.

Unless it is grim to write a poetry that does not soothe or placate or encourage (except in the sense that it might, if it worked, dignify a certain kind of struggle). Or grim to write without a taste for noble thought or moral heroism. Perception seems to me in its very essence not grim: it tacitly believes meaning exists, that experience has complexity and weight, that accuracy is of the most immense importance.

The sustained blessing of my life has been the weird conviction that certain kinds of distilled utterance have unique, timeless, unquestioned value. This conviction confers meaning on experience.

I’ll close with fragments from one of my favourite poems: The Untrustworthy Speaker. Notice the cool detachment of her spin on confessional poetry (if you can bear to use that word).

Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken.
I don’t see anything objectively.
I know myself; I’ve learned to hear like a psychiatrist.
When I speak passionately,
that’s when I’m least to be trusted.
In my own mind, I’m invisible: that’s why I’m dangerous.
People like me, who seem selfless,
we’re the cripples, the liars;
we’re the ones who should be factored out
in the interest of truth.
When I’m quiet, that’s when the truth emerges.
That’s why I’m not to be trusted.
Because a wound to the heart
is also a wound to the mind.

Maxine Kumin on Poetry

At first sight, Maxine Kumin is not the obvious poet that would appeal to me. Calm, contained, not really confessional or overtly feminist, she writes lovingly observed nature poems, depicting life in New England, her horses, her garden. Yet there is something there, in that deliberate simplicity, a real warmth beneath the coolness, that makes me feel like I am drinking delicious fresh spring water when I read her. In the Poets on Poetry series that I am currently slightly obsessed with, she has some brilliant insights into her own poetic work and that of others (she was famously great friends with Anne Sexton, who’s a very different type of poet).

I often go in search of one thing and come back with another. Yes, there is a definite spin-off from one poem to another, because in the process of narrowing in on a subject a lot of peripheral i deas occur which then struggle to announce themselves. Some of them insist on becoming poems.

Writing a poem, she insists, is ‘at least to some extent a mysical process’. When a poem is ready to be written, she gets ‘a real prickle at the base of my neck’. She doesn’t think things through before writing, just scribbles things down, because she is often startled and perplexed at what is building. ‘The whole process of writing the poem is a process of elucidation’.

You begin with the chaos of impressions and feelings, this aura that overtakes you, that forces you to write. And, in the process of writing, as you marshal your arguments… your metaphors really, as you pound and hammer the poem into shape and into form, the order – the marvellous infomring order emerges from it… You feel, to that degree, reborn.

Of course, there are a lot of things that fall by the wayside in the process, what she calls the ‘bone pile – all the little snippets that failed and the aborted poems and stuff’. She tells poets to never throw any of that away, because later in life you might come back to it and find something that you couldn’t deal with earlier.

There’s a line from a Sexton poem: ‘The writer is essentially a crook./Out of used furniture he makes a tree.’… That is what art should do: create something natural out of all the used-up sticks and bureaus of our lives, the detritus of our lives.

She admits to being somewhat scared of free verse, that she prefers to have some constraint in poetic form, which gives you permission to be more honest with your feelings.

When I’m writing free verse, I feel as though I am in Indiana, where it’s absolutely flat and you can see the horizon 360 degrees around. You feel as if you have no eyelids, you can’t blink. I lose, I have no sense of the line.

She is surprisingly upbeat about the effect that teaching has on her poetry:

It’s very good for me. I think of it as a discipline… I feel I get as much as I give… It keeps me on my toes, probably stimulates me to write more poems than I otherwise would. I’m really very lazy by nature…. I find more ways to evade getting down to business than a centipede has legs. It’s just astonishing the things that I can suddenly decide need doing that have nothing to do with writing.

She finds her family, her community, with other writers, because it is such a solitary job that writers like to get together and moan about how terrible and lonely and difficult writing is. That aspect of the writing life certainly seems to be timeless!

But there are some interesting historical observations as well: even back then in the 1970s, she said she would not recommend poetry as a career, because it is ‘a thin living at best’. Only do it if it’s ‘an obsession, the scratching of a divine itch… nothing to do with money.’ She remembers back in the 1950s, early 1960s when editors would write to her that they could not accept any poems from her for 6 months or so, because they had already published a woman poet in the preceding month.

Above all, I appreciate her ‘kick-in-the-backside’ advice for wannabe poets and writers:

I thin there’s a real value to forcing [yourself to write]/ I do not think it hurst at all to write to assignment… Get in the habit of jotting down states of mind or weather reports. It’s habit forming and it’s good. Also, I do not think anybody becomes a writer who is not a juge reader, omnivorous and wide-ranging. You have to love words, and you have to be willing to take lots of risks with words, and be willing to write really bad stuff in order to get to the good stuff. You only grow by doing…

Denise Levertov in Her Own Words

After reading Robert Bly’s ruminations about poetry, I wanted to read more poets on poetry. It’s always inspiring, even though occasionally it sounds like they are making it up, to provide legitimacy after writing a poem. Perhaps it’s their own way of reflecting on their work. I certainly find poets have much more trouble articulating consistently what they try to achieve with their poetry. They are perhaps too open to change, to different interpretations, to evolving over the course of one’s lifetime. And, of course, there is probably no ‘purpose’ in poetry at all, or if it has too obvious a purpose, it ceases to be poetry.

A young Levertov.

Anyway, long preamble to say that I borrowed a small volume from the libary entitled Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province, published in 1979 but containing essays and interviews going as far back as the 1950s. Levertov is truly a citizen of the world: an American poet with a Russian name, born and raised in England, with a Welsh mother (and a Russian Jewish father who became an Anglican priest), she also translated from French and Italian (although she only spoke the former). She was also very politically engaged, worked as a nurse during the war, campaigned against the war in Vietnam, supported and encouraged feminist and leftist writing. She is perhaps the perfect contrast to Robert Bly’s far more ivory tower approach to poetry, with his need for solitude and finding inspiration in nature. This becomes obvious when she talks candidly about Bly, but in fact they have similar thoughts about inspiration and craftsmanship.

But visual imagery can be overemphasized, and I think that is what dissatisfies me about so much of the poetry of Robert Bly and the Sixties group write. I like some of it very much, but Bly’s point of view is too much based on phanopoeia (visual image). I think the visual image is terribly important, but it must be accompanied by melopoeia (sound)… of a distinctly expressive kind, not just the musical over-and-aboveness that Pound speaks of in How to Read.

Elsewhere, she has the dancer’s discipline when it comes to poetry (she trained as a dancer in her youth). She creates (in my mind) this image of poetry as some kind of primordial sea that all poets flow into whether rivers or streams. They are all contributing to Poetry in some small way.

I believe that the gift of being able to write poetry must always be considered as a gift. It’s a responsibility, whether one considers it given by God or Nature. It’s something which the poet must take seriously. His responsibility is not to himself, not to his career, but to poetry itself…

She is also very clear-eyed about reading and teaching poetry:

It’s natural that people want to feel that they have understood what has been said, and sometimes a degree of interpretive paraphrase may be necessary if you want to talk about a poem. But you can receive a poem, you can comprehend a poem without talking about it. Teachers at all levels encourage the idea that you have to talk about things in order to understand them, because they wouldn’t have jobs otherwise. But it’s phony, you know.

Above all, I enjoy her discussion of inspiration, what sparks a poem and gives it life.

There is often a kind of preliminary feeling, a sort of aura… which alerts one to the possibility of a poem. You can smell the poem before you can see it. Like some animal… Hmmm, seems like a bear’s around here…

Very tempted to try and locate this biography of Levertov now…

A poem in which the intellect and conscious mind have predominated can be a very good poem, but not at deep levels… In the first-rate poems, something the method breaks and something utterly unpredictable happens… a sudden illumination.

The most interesting poetry can move back and forth with perfect ease between the rational and the irrational.

She was well known as a bit of a stickler for how poetry should be read and carefully ‘annotated’ her own poems with indentations and punctuation, becoming too prescriptive, as her students used to tell her.

I defend it, absolutely, because I feel that it’s exactly like the writing down of music. When music is written, it allows a considerable amount of interpretation to the performer, and yet it is always definitely that piece of music and no other… without that much care about the structure of a poem, I think what you have is a lot of slop.

Given how demanding she is with the way her poems appear on the page, you can imagine that she is frustrated by the limitations of the printed format (I dread to think what she’d have thought of ebooks, which I find almost unusable for poetry). As someone who adores oddly sized books but has experienced some frustrations with shelving them, I could relate to the following:

It bugs me when I have a line broken up that way… I have wished that poetry books could be different dimensions… but my publishers tell me it’s very hard to change the dimensions of books. Bookshelves are designed to hold books of certain dimensions, booksellers don’t like to handle books that are odd shapes…

Robert Bly in Conversation

Here are some passages that resonated with me from the book Talking All Morning with Robert Bly, in the series Poets on Poetry published by the University of Michigan Press. Although Bly keeps referring to ‘he’ and ‘him’ when he talks about poets (typical of the late 1960s perhaps), I do agree to a large extent with his breakdown of poetic talent or craft.  

Let’s imagine the poem to be some kind of knife. The poet uses the poem to cut through the dead tissues in himself, and through certain filaments or sinews that are holding him to past patterns… But the poem can also be a two-edged knife, with two sharp edges. The whole thing moves like a pendulum and when the knife swings back, it swings away from the private and cuts into something public.

In Anglo-Saxon literary life we’ve always had the knife sharp only on one edge, with the other edge deliberately blunted, so that when it swung back into public life, it did not cut… It’s perfectly clear that Pasternak, by contrast, uses a two-edged knife…

Basho said, ‘To express the flavor of the inner mind, you must agonize during many days.’ That is a wonderful sentence! The purpose of it all is not to write long, endless poems, but to express the flavor of the inner mind… Two hours of solitude seem about right for every line of poetry.

The Japanese say the haiku is a poem in which there’s a tiny explosion inside – and if that’s not there, I don’t care how many syllables it has, then it’s not a haiku. And that little tiny explosion brings the life to this creature.


I dislike the word ‘craft’ when it comes to poetry. Craft suggest an inanimate object, as when we say a carpenter crafts a chest of drawers… Making the poem from the beginning involves three different areas of experience. The first … is interior… When the poet touches something for the first time, something far inside of him. It’s connected with what the ancients called The Mysteries… If any person comes near that experience he or she will never forget it the rest of his life. If he writes poetry it will come from that.

The second necessary stage… I would call something like cunning. And cunning involves the person’s rearranging his life in such a way that he can feel the first experience again. This is worldly and involves common sense… For Rilke… cunning meant finding long periods of solitude.

The third stage could be called ‘letting the animal live’… psychic energy. Living energy is more growing the tree than shaping it. In the US the emphasis on craft and technique comes too early, before the wood has been grown.

Taking care of animals is the best preparation for writing poems. When you write poems, you feed poems language. Instead of craft, I talk about ‘letting the creature live.

Asymptote Fall 2018 issue is out now

Or ‘Autumn’, for those of us who are still resisting the encroachment of Americanisms into our daily speech. With photography by Olaya Barr, visual arts, drama, non-fiction, poetry, fiction and reviews, there is something for everyone here

So many goodies to explore! As usual, the sheer ambition and mix of languages is dazzling. 31 countries featured in this issue alone. Togo is represented here for the first time, bringing the total of countries in the archives up to 122.  The number of languages featured is now at 102, with the inclusion of Q’anjob’al from Guatemala.

Just a few of the things I want to read at leisure during my holidays, if I have internet connection:

  • the special feature on Catalan fiction, about which I still know far too little beyond Mercè Rodoreda and Jaume Cabré
  • Phillip Lopate talking about the personal essay as ‘a mode of being’
  • Abdellah Taïa about why he chooses to write in French – asking himself if he even likes this language anymore, this has real emotional resonance with me, since I too write in my ‘non-native’ language
  • An intriguing review about the unfinished novel of one of the great losses to Chinese literature Xiao Hong.

The contrast between intriguing possibility and depressing probability is perhaps widest of all with Xiao Hong, who, in her brief thirty-one years on this planet, managed to write some of the finest Chinese fiction of the twentieth century. I wonder what would have happened to her had she lived another few decades, but I doubt it would have been anything good.

Dylan Suher