Poet's Choice

By Mary Karr
Sunday, April 20, 2008

Before there were rappers hollering about who they were "gonna mack up on," before Bob Dylan sang, with ruthless glee, "How does it feel/to be on your own," there were poets who brought laser-keen invective to fending off heartbreak. Odi et amo, Catullus wrote in Latin: I hate and I love. If we could just do one or the other, we wouldn't suffer such inner twists as bitter poems require, and there might not be so many nasty songs and poems.

Take Greek poet C.P. Cavafy. I always imagine he penned his poem "The City" after he'd been seduced and abandoned by some traveling Romeo, since the first stanza makes use of quotation marks -- separating the poet from the speaker.

You said: "I'll go to another country, go to another shore,

find another city better than this one.

Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong

and my heart lies buried like something dead.

How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?

Wherever I turn, wherever I look,

I see the black ruins of my life, here,

where I've spent so many years, wasted them,

destroyed them totally."

In the second stanza comes the poet's smackdown comeback. Ever leave a painful conversation thinking, "I wish I'd said . . ."? Cavafy says it for you:

You won't find a new country, won't find another shore.

The city will always pursue you.

You'll walk the same streets, grow old

in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.

You'll always end up in this city. Don't hope for things elsewhere:

there's no ship for you, there's no road.

Now that you've wasted your life here, in this small corner,

you've destroyed it everywhere in the world.

We could interpret this poem as being about the payback inevitable for the pompously self-deceiving. Know thyself, Socrates taught, for not knowing is costly.

And yet, when a girlfriend of mine watched her husband of 30 years drive off in a fancy sports car to "find himself," she took comfort in those words of Cavafy's set down more than a century ago. They fit perfectly on a postcard, which she mailed off to aforementioned husband -- which proves the usefulness of poetry, if not its higher-mindedness.

(C.P. Cavafy's poem "The City" can be found in "C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems, Princeton Univ., 1975. Translation copyright 1975 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.)

Mary Karr is a poet and the Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University.

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