Inaction, of course, can be as destructive as ill-advised action. This is why the aimless standing around and waiting that Cavafy so brilliantly evokes in “Waiting for the Barbarians” is so contemptible. The vigor of the leaders, the effectiveness of their oratory, the political will of the citizens have been so atrophied by indolence and luxury and complacency that they can only hope for disaster as a means of renewing the state. Depending on your politics, you may be tempted to map the current political crisis onto “Waiting for the Barbarians” in any number of ways: Are the barbarians the Democrats or the Republicans? Is the “emperor” Obama or Boehner—or Reid? To Cavafy, those details would have been of little interest. The point was that these things happen again and again, and that whatever else they may mean, they are always, always tests of character—for individual politicians and for whole nations. It is even—or rather, especially—when the barbarians whoever they are are at the gates, when crisis is inevitable or even imminent, that right action is the only option, whether or not it’s likely to succeed. Even in politics, it’s the journey that counts, not just the destination.
Daniel Mendelsohn, from ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ and the Government Shutdown : The New Yorker.
Now that the poem is more a means of expressing individualism, it has lost much of its original potency of evoking a particular time and place. Poetry is a cultural heirloom in a way the novel is not. Novels, by design, are narratives subject to the author’s vision. Poetry, even in epic poems that have a narrative, is imbued with historical and cultural ties that are tantamount to identity. Homer’s cultural influence on the Ancient Greeks, for example, was inestimable not only in terms of its artistic contribution, but also in its cultural legacy. In other words, poetry has a rootedness—both in its structure and in the themes it evokes.
Marjorie Romeyn-Sanabria, A Journal of Poetry and Place | The American Conservative.
. . . It’s 1500
in the book of Chinese watercolors: scholar-artist T’ang Yin
is asleep inside his mountain cottage, dreaming that a self of him,
that looks like him, is floating in the air above
the highest peaks, that looks like air we’d have
if lakes of milk gave off a vapor.
. . . From the Everfloating Void
above our world, a human image slowly drifts back down
and joins its earthly body once again, reenters
days and nights of wine shop, scandal, lawyers
– for such (in part) is the life of T’ang Yin.
He’s been dreaming. And now he’s going to set it down
on a wafer of unrolled rice paper. Writing:
Rain on the river. That’s all. That’s his poem.
Rain on the river.
– Albert Goldbarth
via whiskey river.
barely a poem
since she died;
now fall’s come
his head —
the cat understands
these words are a pillow
Thank you, dear Yemi, for this:
God, give us a long winter
and quiet music, and patient mouths,
and a little pride — before
our age ends.
Give us astonishment
and a flame, high, bright.