Archive for June, 2013

A strange interlude of meta-language

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

Today I give you three of the greats to whom, this week, I am bowing especially low: Eugene O’Neill, Carol Ann Duffy, and Leonard Cohen. And when I pause to wonder if they would also admire each other I think yes, I believe they would, although we can’t ask Eugene O’Neill any more. But I bet if he’d survived to encounter their work he’d have loved it.

I’m collecting these three artists in one post because I saw O’Neill’s play ‘Strange Interlude’ yesterday (a brilliant production at London’s National Theatre, catch it if you possibly can) and read a terrific article in the programme about the author. (And I heard Carol Ann Duffy on the radio by chance today. And Leonard Cohen? He’s a constant for me.)

(Digression begins. One of the very good things about the programmes at the National Theatre is that they always contain background articles that are worth reading. I remember arriving early for a performance of Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’ about 20 years ago, and was thus able to study the programme ahead of the performance. This good fortune enabled me to take the intellectual high ground at the interval and explain chaos theory to my companions, all because of an extremely helpful programme article which they hadn’t had time to read. Digression ends.)

The article in the ‘Strange Interlude’ programme is by Hilton Als, and its excellence will be no surprise to anyone who, like me, reads Hilton Als in the New Yorker. His comments on O’Neill’s use of language in dialogue are gloriously illuminating, and Als sets his theories against the background of his first encounter with the O’Neill biographies by Louis Sheaffer, and his own journey to Atlanta years ago to visit his mother. And it was when Als entered “the theatre of [his own] family” that he recognised O’Neill’s play as a “a world of meta-language in the form of soliloquies that contrasted with the ‘real,’ and banal language we used to presumably communicate with others as we talked about everything and nothing at all. Language is a mask….”

At the end of the article Als imagines himself unmasking his own response to ‘Strange Interlude’ in thought-dialogue (meta-language, in other words) to Nina [the play’s main character]. He says: “Nina, I have loved you for a very long time, all the way back in Atlanta when I was still a boy visiting my mother, wondering where love had gone and would it ever come again, and here it was again in O’Neill’s plays which glistened in my mind in the dark night …and you, Nina, splitting the night with your talk and O’Neill’s language, each expressing something about the artist, and his muse, and their respective, family-haunted hearts.”

And what you might be thinking by now, if you grew up inside any family at all, might be something like – well, yes of course. That’s families for you, no question. So?

Well, the “so” for me is that I now understand that this kind of meta-language – the language of hidden truths, of the human heart’s masked memories and desires, the language of love and loss and anguish and delight – that’s the language of poetry and music and song. The language that dissolves masks. And it’s something that both Carol Ann Duffy and Leonard Cohen do, as well as O’Neill.

Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry always seems to me to live without masks, especially in the poem I heard her read today on Radio 3, in a repeat of last year’s ‘Private Passions’ programme. The poem is called ‘Music’. I can’t reproduce it all because I haven’t applied for the relevant copyright permission, and I can’t find the poem on the internet so I can’t provide a link to it, either. (The link to the BBC’s website for the ‘Private Passions proramme, however, is this, which includes the poem as well as a glorious collection of music, and you can listen to it all there for 7 more days.) But here’s an excerpt from her poem, to be going on with.

When the light’s gone,
it’s what the dying choose,
the music we use at funerals –
psalms listed in roman numerals;
solo soprano singing to a grave;
sometimes the pipes, a harp.
Do you think music hath charms?
Do you think it hears and heals our hearts?

And Leonard Cohen? Well, he trades in meta-physical as well as meta-language spades, in almost every song he has written, especially in recent years. Especially this one.


Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love.

Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love.

Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
We’re both of us beneath our love, we’re both of us above
Dance me to the end of love.

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love.

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance me to the end of love.

And for your further pleasure, here he is singing it.

At an angle to the universe

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

I have stolen the title of this blog post from Paul Bailey, who used it in his wonderful review of a new edition of Cavafy’s complete poems in last Saturday’s Guardian. (You can read the review here.) It is, in turn, a quote from EM Forster, who knew Cavafy in Alexandria during World War I and apparently said of him that he stood “absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe”. And that metaphor seems absolutely perfect, for Cavafy in particular as well as for some other writers and artists: Rothko for instance, and perhaps Seamus Heaney. (Trying to think of creative artists to whom it applies reminds me of Alex Danchev’s wonderfully telling way of dividing visual artists between those whose paintings are saying, Look at this! and those whose paintings are saying, Look at me!)

But back to Paul Bailey’s review. I particularly like learning new things about Cavafy, for whom I have a deep and extravagant admiration, and Paul Bailey has given me the pleasure of another image; that of Cavafy setting down a few lines of a new poem on a sheet of paper and putting that in an envelope for later inspection, revision and expansion. It seems that he stored a mass of such envelopes in his apartment, and only opened them again “when he felt capable of bringing the half-poems they contained to a satisfactory end.” So contained, so controlled, so precisely laboured, those apparently spontaneous creations. I love to imagine that lonely and particular process.

The new book that Paul Bailey reviews is C.V. Cavafy: The Complete Poems, translated by the present keeper of the Cavafy flame, Daniel Mendelsohn. (I have his earlier compilation of the Collected Poems.) Bailey’s review commends the detail and scope of his scholarship but also points out some interesting infelicities in his translations, and contrasts one example with a translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. That makes me feel relaxed about my own (far less scholarly and knowledgeable) reservations that relate to several poems within the earlier Mendelsohn collection. The thing is, I’ve loved Cavafy’s poetry, and especially “Ithaka”, since I first read a translation of that in a Penguin book called Four Greek Poets, published in 1966. Much later I discovered that those translations were by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, and later still I encountered Daniel Mendelsohn’s version and have never been able to like it as much as the original (well, what I think of as the original) translation.

See what you think. I’ve posted ”Ithaka” before and I will probably find good reasons to post it again several times before it’s read – as I hope it will be – at my funeral.

So here is the Daniel Mendelsohn version:-

ITHACA by C.V. Cavafy
translated by Daniel Mendelsohn

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.

And here is my preferred version:

ITHAKA by C.P. Cavafy
translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a summer dawn to enter
-with what gratitude, what joy -
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.

Ithaka gave you the splendid journey,
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise have you become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.