The Poetic Idea
Recently I reread Cavafy’s poem “Darius.” I love this poem! I think of Cavafy as writing two kinds of poems: brief erotic lyrics and longer historical poems, the historical poems often written in persona. A handful of his poems combine the two impulses in historical love poems, and they are probably my favorite. “Myris: Alexandria, A.D. 340” might be my favorite Cavafy poem.
I’ve been thinking about why I love these poems so much, partly because I feel a strong interest myself in writing this sort of historical persona poem. I think what attracts me is the enormous field these poems give imagination to work (or play) in. I love the wheels within wheels of imagination conjured when Cavafy imagines a Persian poet in turn struggling (in the midst of a war) to imagine what the subject of his poem, the king Darius, must have felt as his own kingdom was threatened:
But in all his turmoil and trouble,
the poetic idea too comes and goes persistently—
the most probable, surely, is arrogance and drunkenness;
Darius must have felt arrogance and drunkenness.
I don’t know Greek so I can’t judge the accuracy of the translation. Perhaps the poem simply says that even in a time of turmoil, the poet keeps coming back to thoughts of his poem. But the phrase the poetic idea feels so right! This struggle to imagine what someone else is feeling inside their skin (“the most probable, surely, is arrogance and drunkenness . . .”) feels so central to poetry that it seems right to call it “the poetic idea,” the very idea of poetry itself.
One contemporary poet who often does this is Norman Dubie. One of my favorite poems by Dubie is “The Fox Who Watched for the Midnight Sun,” where, as in Cavafy, Dubie imagines a writer, Henrik Ibsen, in turn imagining what his characters must feel:
Ibsen had written earlier of an emotional girl
With sunburnt shoulders,
Her surprise when the heavy dipper came up
From the well with frogs’ eggs bobbing in her water . . .
Also as in Cavafy, some of the most powerful moments in Dubie come when he shifts back and forth between imagining Ibsen’s imagination and imagining Ibsen’s real life:
Inside the parlor Ibsen writes of a summer garden, of a
Butterfly sunken inside the blossoming tulip.
He describes the snapdragon with its little sconce of dew.
He moves from the desk to a window. Remembers his studies
In medicine, picturing the sticky
Overlapping eyelids of drowned children . . .
This feels so much like the movement in “Darius”:
The poet contemplates the matter deeply.
But he is interrupted by his servant who enters
running, and announces the portentous news.
The war with the Romans has begun.
As Cavafy imagines Phernazis imagining Darius’ drunkenness, I imagine Cavafy drunk on his own imagination.