Archive for October, 2012

Last weekend I went on a spending spree in New York City.  Unfortunately for the economy, it was a poem-elfing kind of spending spree.  I hoard poems for future occasions the way some people keep money in special accounts for emergencies.  I decided to “spend” my poems in our most literary of cities.


Here’s my Sunday in New York, in reverse order.


Walking back to my hotel from Central Park, I came across an enormous, street-closing parade celebrating El Salvador.  And here was this little sweetie, just finished with her gig on a parade float.  I handed her Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” and asked if I could take her picture.  Living in New York, she is surely used to nutcases and was agreeable to my request.  I told her the poem was about a rare beauty.  I hope she hangs on to it her whole life.


I love that little mouth, so serious above the poem.  “A mind at peace with all below/ A heart whose love is innocent!”


Earlier in Central Park I left Grace Paley’s “Whistlers” on a tree by the Bethesda Fountain.

poem is on tree in foreground


I’ve had this poem for years and years and find it funny but I still don’t completely understand the last stanza.


Near the stairs above the fountain I left Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty.”

poem is in the shadows on the right-hand side of picture, halfway up


Hopkins poem is about nature.  But putting it here made me think of why I love New York.  “All things counter, original, spare, strange” : could there be a better description of New Yorkers?


The other great thing about New York is that no one bats an eye when behavior is unusual.  Even so, I was a little self-conscious taping a poem to a seat on the subway.  It was a rush job (just before I exited) and the photo didn’t come out well.


Richard Frost’s “For a Brother” is one of the first poems I collected.  Why I was drawn to it, I’m not entirely sure, because I have four wonderful brothers and I would never call any one of them “a sack of black rats’ balls”  or “a tank of piss.”  Anyway, Frost’s  long-buried feelings seemed to belong in a New York subway.


I began the day at the Ground Zero Memorial.  My picture does it no justice.  The footprints of the two towers have been transformed into two sunken pools.  Water cascades over the black walls in a beautiful metaphor of healing.  I hope those who lost loved ones on 9/11 find it a peaceful place.  Art and beauty that come from tragedy are not necessarily consolations but surely companions to suffering.  For that reason I left Elizabeth Bishop’s “I Am in Need of Music.”

poem is on wall between the two people


The poem is music itself:  “Of some song sung to rest the tired dead / A song to fall like water on my head.”


The most surprising display at the memorial plaza was the Survivor Tree.  One single tree, a Callery pear, survived the attack.  Nowhere else would so many people crowd to take pictures of an ordinary tree.  Good place to leave Wordsworth’s “She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways.”

poem is on silver railing around the tree, behind the gal in black


“Half hidden from the eye” could describe the tree before the attack and the last lines could speak to all the “ordinary” people lost on that day—dishwashers in the Windows of the World, receptionists at Cantor Fitzgerald, office cleaners, elevator operators, underperforming traders—and to those who loved them, love them still.


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poem is on steel drive-through box


As Much As You Can

by C. P. Cavafy


And if you can’t shape your life the way you want,

at least try as much as you can

not to degrade it

by too much contact with the world,

by too much activity and talk.


Try not to degrade it by dragging it along,

taking it around and exposing it so often

to the daily silliness

of social events and parties,

until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.



Before I write about this homiletic little poem, I must confess I am a hypocrite, having spent the past fifteen minutes degrading my life.  First I read an analysis of the dress actress Rebel Wilson wore on Jay Leno.  Next I watched an amusing video a friend sent called “How Women in France Burn Calories.” (It has nothing to do with smoking.)  Finally, fully aware that I was dragging my life along, exposing it to daily silliness, and generally operating on the level of a single-celled slime mold, I thumbed through a fat tome of middle-aged hipster porn, the Anthropologie catalogue that arrived yesterday.  It’s going to take some effort to lift my thoughts from such piffle onto a higher plane of consciousness.


(Effort exerted.  Slightly higher plane of consciousness achieved.)


C.P. Cavafy’s poem “As Much As You Can” begins mid-conversation.  We understand that the preceding exhortation—live the life you want, or perhaps follow your dreams—has been left out.  That excision gives the poem its energy and elevates it from the stock sentiments of classroom posters and refrigerator magnets.  Although the speaker is resigned to a less-than-splendid life, either his own or his companion’s, his appeal to a higher self has an air of urgency.  I hear the same pleading in my own voice when I say to the kids, And if you can’t load the dishes in the dishwasher, at least rinse the crud off the plates.  Maybe if I added at least try as much as you can, a phrase sympathetic to human shortcomings, I would have more success and fewer dishes.


It’s an arresting poem, a universal poem, a poem I wish I could put in a poem dispenser next to every drugstore magazine rack.  Because who isn’t having a life different than the one they wanted?  No one.  No one in the history of the universe has lived without disappointment.  To those who hate their cubicles, to those who feel lonely on weekends or tired or sick all the time, to those who partnered with the wrong person, to those whose talents are wasted or who’ve found their talents don’t amount to much after all, to those who couldn’t have the children they longed for or had troubled children, to those who had bad luck or bad karma or bad habits or a sour attitude, to those who lose a loved one—which is all of us—to those people Cavafy says, your life can still be beautiful, a shining thing, a treasure to guard.


opal by {Jessica Louise}Although the poem is built on a series of negatives, its message is not.  What if each of us could imagine our life as luminescent and fragile as an opal, and we tried to protect it from those things that might smudge and shatter such a precious object?  Gossip, celebrity obsession, Facebook addiction, delight or over-interest in whatever’s cruel, scandalous, petty, greedy, or grasping can all be present-day agents of degradation.


I could go on with how too much contact with the wrong things keeps us on the surface of life and stifles curiosity and gratitude, but that’s the Catholic in me, and I think Cavafy’s poem speaks the same without preaching.   It’s the Catholic in me as well that translates “your life” as “your soul.”  A more secular translation would be “your time.”  Certainly “wasting your time” is our modern equivalent of “degrading your life.”  Regardless, it’s a strange thing to separate “your life” from “you,” as strange a separation as Peter Pan from his own shadow. But thinking of ourselves as distinct from our lives or our souls or our time gives us a way of seeing and reflecting on what can’t be seen and what’s most important.


If we’re talking about our higher selves, we might turn to our American preacher of self-preservation, Henry David Thoreau.  We’re all familiar with his thundering proclamation that that the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation, but here’s another one that has echoes in Cavafy:


“The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.”


Essayist and spiritual seeker Anne Lamott makes a related point in this wonderful essay.


Little can be gained for a trifler like me to discuss the language of a translated poem.   Different versions, different words, slightly different meanings.  For example, in the version I used,  “too much contact with the world” sounds monkish, but in other versions those lines are rendered as “continuous restlessness and talk” and “hanging around and endlessly chattering.”  The killjoy of advising against “the silliness of social events and parties,” can also be translated as “daily trivialities of your acquaintances” and “dreary humbug of familiars and fellowship.”  See here and here for two other translations of this poem.


I left “As Much As You Can” at the drive-through of my bank.  I figured people are stuck there waiting and might read the poem instead of checking their tweets or emails (as I do, as I did after I poem-elfed).


CoCavafy by Wu-niennstantine Petrou Cavafy is Greece’s most highly esteemed modern poet even though he lived only briefly in Greece.  He was born in 1863 in Egypt to Greek parents, the youngest of nine children.  After the death of his father, the family fell into poverty and moved to England.  There he spent most of his childhood.  More financial distress pulled the family to Greece, then back to Egypt, where Cavafy worked as a journalist and as a stockbroker.  But the bulk of his professional life was spent at a government agency.


Cavafy was never famous in his lifetime and didn’t seem interested in pursuing recognition.  He printed his poems in pamphlets which he distributed to his friends.  His lack of interest in publication may have been because some of his poems dealt frankly with his homosexuality and erotic themes.  He died at age seventy in 1933.


I first heard of Cavafy from poet Dara Wier, who I poem-elfed back in March.  She very generously responded to my blog post about her poem “Invisible in the Torn Out Interiors”:


And one more thing, the scene in the poem (which is not explicitly at all in the poem, I’m just telling you, why, cause it seems you want to know) is one of a couple listening to a man (who neither know very well) tell about being away in a place that ill-suited him, he did not appreciate (and circumstances are such that he ought to have), and, well, hated.  He seemed as if he’d always hate everything and find everything always lacking.  (see Cavafy’s poem:  THE CITY) A shame. 

Here’s the link to Weir’s poem and here to the Cavafy poem she mentions.


Since then I keep coming across Cavafy everywhere.  He seems to be a poet everyone’s read but me.


Even James Bond.


sean-connery-for-louis-vuitton-ad-091008-1 by kingzzz.twI came across this recitation by Sean Connery of the Cavafy poem “Ithaca.” (Ithaca is Greek hero Ulysses’ home, which he spent ten years trying to get back to after the Trojan Wars.)   At first I thought it was funny to hear Connery’s chewy Scottish accent spit out Cavafy’s words.  But soon I was transported.  It’s beautiful, my heart still beats with it.  Please watch it, let it color your day, your week, your life.


Or at least try as much as you can.

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