Poetry

 

I know exactly fuck-all about poetry.

It’s not that I haven’t tried, I have very often and very hard, too: after all how could I resist the temptation, led on by a high-school teacher’s remark, that reciting poetry was the surest way to impress girls? So and in step with was being discussed in class I attacked Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud and all of the poètes maudits with unparalleled determination: all my other ploys to dazzle girls having met with various degrees of failure, poetry couldn’t conceivably fare worse, I thought.

I could already picture my then unrequited crush on her veranda hopelessly swooning at my declamation of the Fleurs du Mal under the full-moon. I was going to be Cyrano, damn it, and without stupid Christian de Neuvillette, too.

Sadly, reality intervened: no matter how much I read I invariably rebelled in anger after a few pages, jumped from my chair, paced the room furiously, yelling the by now familiar, for-fuck’s-sake-get-to-the-fucking-point-what-in-god’s-name-are-you-trying-to-say-make-it-stop-it’s-making-my-head-melt-oh-hell-yes-I’ll-have-another-drink-or-ten-et-meeerde litany. Also and to add to my despair, try as I might, I couldn’t memorize a single verse.

I had no problem with the poets themselves, mind you: their biographies were fascinating. After all, how many drug fiends, gun runners, absinthe drunkards, runaway criminals and suicidal maniacs does it take to make me take notice? Not many and there were plenty of those.

The fact is that Roxane looked very distant now.

It is true that I may have been an arrogant little twit back then and simply didn’t have the tranquility and wisdom that may have been needed to fully appreciate the rhythm, flow and music of the words. Today, as time has changed me into a much bigger arrogant twit, poetry doesn’t anger me as much and I do read some of it with great pleasure. Always careful, always on the look-out for the signals that are going to make me boil again, and sufficiently wise to know when to simply put down the book, should I feel attacked again.

Not that I understand it any better, though. Some of it stuck much like the many other passages from authors who aren’t poets and often for reasons that aren’t especially noble. I can quote Verlaine’s first stanza of the Chanson d’Automne for instance (les sanglots longs/des violons/de l’automne/blessent mon cœur/d’une langueur/monotone) but the explanation couldn’t be more pedestrian: it is prominently featured on the movie The Longest Day. And by the way can you spot the apparently arbitrary separation of sentences and how irritating that is? Right.

Perhaps the word “poetry” has a very specific connotation in my mind, one which doesn’t correspond to what it is usually understood to mean; Shakespeare, to me, isn’t classified under “poetry” for instance. Not even his sonnets, which, incidentally, have served me well with many a Roxane. Or a few. Well, at least one. Who would’ve thought that one day I’d softly whisper into some beautiful ear, …Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom. If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved? And yet I did, and the words worked wonders.

My high-school teacher, who I’ve now come to realise must have been an incorrigible romantic, failed to tell me about the most important fact about wooing your love interest with poetry: namely that in the dance of courtship it is equivalent to the thermonuclear solution. You don’t simply pull out the verses for no good reason and offer them trivially: for one your ammunition is limited (trust me, it is) and then the effect is lost if it is used too often.

You could always use your charming struggles with poetry instead; I’m told that it works extremely well.

• • •

What do all these Ithakas mean?

 

Have you ever experienced that moment when something that has appeared in your life, apparently randomly, slowly becomes a central obsession to the point of making you think that you either suffer from some kind of mental disease or else the universe is trying to tell you something really really important?

It is the moment when I suddenly realise that I am being pulled into an inescapable vortex of wonder, born from some mysterious fractal algorithm where each fragment of information I unveil is another world onto itself, one again made of other fragments, endlessly. It is the moment when like a blinding light it hits me that all of it has always been in me, the moment when I loose every concept of my own self as if I was being shown a dimension of me which transcends any kind of rationalisation I have to offer. This how feel right now and I can hardly breathe.

Let me tell you a story:

Many years ago during a more dissolute period of my life I found myself at someone’s house party. I can’t remember how I got there (or much of the party for that matter, don’t even think of asking why). By six in the morning or so, when the music isn’t as loud and more intimate moments set in, when small groups of hushed conversations form, I found myself sitting on a couch next to a man, silent as I was, both of us peacefully observing the living room while looking within. He looked different, foreign. A lanky but graceful surfer with a face that could have been chiselled from the rocks of the Cyclades.

How the conversation (if I can call it that) started I don’t know. We exchanged a few words in English and the whole dialogue can’t have lasted more than a few minutes. He introduced himself as “Ithaka”. “That is a curious name,” I offered, “isn’t that also an island in Greece”?

He then explained that it was his stage name and that because he was part Greek, he had chosen it because of a poem about the island, a poem he “really liked and tried to live by”, proceeding to either show me the poem or maybe recite it from memory or else tell me to look it up, I can’t recall which. What I do remember is that it was beautiful: full of longing and wisdom and comfort and sadness and hope. Still, it was six in the morning: I filed it in some obscure and night-soaked drawer in my mind and have never since thought about it again, except for these lines which sometimes resurface for no apparent reason:

Wise as you will have become, with so much experience,
you will understand, by then, these Ithakas, what they mean.

To my recollection we exchanged no further words. This is all I remember of both the poem and the man and never saw him again. Much later of course I connected this encounter with the artist Ithaka Darrin Pappas, living in Lisbon at that time and whose music I actually owned on CD (just one album had been published back then). I found out by chance that he used to surf and hang out with some other people I knew tangentially but that was about it.

Not much of a story, then.

Except for Cavafy.

Later, when my delight with his work began, I couldn’t help but to feel that, amidst all the joy, I was missing something important. Why did it sound so familiar? Maybe because of Pessoa? Or Alexandria? Yes, those are obvious, but there still lingers an inexplicable and undeniable melody that resonates within me for reasons that feel so my very own, as if sometimes he was writing to me personally, as if it was part of my very fabric.

And then I found Ithaka (or was it my destination all along?)

Ithaka

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.

Constantine Cavafy — Ithaka

The resonance is older, much much older. It may even be older than that chance encounter. I can’t begin to describe how this all makes me feel: a little more complete, connected to myself and excited at the prospect of diving carelessly into it all, trembling in anticipation at the prospect of discovering the glow of new infinite threads of light and of making them shine even brighter.

Maybe I have indeed become sufficiently wise and experienced to have been allowed to understand what all these Ithakas mean. This is how the voyage begins and I hope it’ll be a long one.

• • •