Poetry

On style as intersubjective engagement

Need Teaser

By Henry M. Seiden, PhD, ABPP

Here are Alfred Lord Tennyson (in 1833), an English Romantic, and C. P. Cavafy (in 1911), a modern Greek, each meditating on Odysseus’s nostos, his long journey home. By contrast with Homer and the ancients, and, as the modern world will have it, both Tennyson and Cavafy value the journey over the destination. Yet the nature of their valuing is so different each from the other. This difference—and the way that it is created—interests me greatly.

Here is the ending of Tennyson’s Ulysses1 And here is Cavafy nearly a century later. This is the ending of his Ithaca (in George Barbanis’s translation)2

Come, my friends,
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to fi nd, and not to yield.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.
And here is Cavafy nearly a century later. This is the ending of his Ithaca (in George Barbanis’s translation)

Tennyson and Cavafy write from opposite sides of a relatively recent cultural divide. Tennyson, the Romantic, says: “’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” His Ulysses (Odysseus) is an old man “not now in that strength which in old days moved heaven and earth.” Tennyson has us imagining Ulysses standing on a cliff, perhaps leaning on his cane, gazing out to sea, “beyond the sunset.” He dreams of the “Happy Isles” and a reunion with Achilles. Tennyson’s vision urges us to imagine our own still-possible dreams.

Cavafy, the disillusioned modernist, urges something quite different: not the quest but remembering the quest! “Do not hurry the voyage at all,” he says. One pictures him writing at a café table late into the morning, cigarette in hand, coffee half fi nished on the table, recovering from his excesses of the night before. He is salvaging wisdom—and beauty—out of disappointment. Remember that the voyage was “beautiful,” he says, even if the place you arrive at has “nothing more to give you.” And in any case, “you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.”

Tennyson wants us to believe that we can always go further, beyond what has already been accomplished, however fine the accomplishment. Cavafy offers perspective on the letdown. (Postcoital letdown in particular: Cavafy wrote much and exquisitely in other poems about the exultations of his (homosexual) love life—and the inevitable unsustainability of passion.)

Interestingly, both visions, the Romantic and the modern, are in their own way persuasive. We know that there are many truths—and this may be a postmodern recognition. But how is it that we are persuaded of either? How do our poets go about their persuading? The question is relevant for psychoanalysts because our patients are doing this—persuading us of their truth, making us feel what they feel, having us see the world their way—all day long and every day. And we, of course (we hope), are doing that for them.

In poetry, as in clinical psychoanalysis, the process matters: the difference is not just that Tennyson is looking for beauty in the future, whereas Cavafy is looking for it in the past. Their visions are wrapped in and carried along by something else. Consider the diction. Tennyson: “’Tis not too late,” he says. And “smite the sounding furrows.” Who sounds like that? Only Romantic poets. Tennyson’s poetry communicates a posture, an attitude, education at good schools, the expectation of an educated audience; and most importantly, a Romantic certainty that he and we, and human beings in general, can be better than the circumstances in which we fi nd ourselves. Clinically, and in literary critical perspective, we can see the quixotic grandiosity in this. Still, we stand a little taller when reading Tennyson. Maybe, just maybe, we think, a reunion on the Happy Isles awaits us too.

And how about Cavafy’s process? We recognize his sadder, wiser voice, his ironic sensibility. (Ithaca is your “ultimate goal” even though it has nothing more to give you). We’re caught up in the conversational intimacy of his demotic Greek even as it reaches us in translation. And—and this is the greatness in his poetry—he engages us in the recognition of a sweet, postcoital sadness that as modern people we are all too familiar with.

Readers of DIVISION/Review will know that in the psychoanalytic clinical exchange this kind of engagement has been called projective identifi cation; and that it has also been called (in more recent and perhaps more useful and less metapsychologically burdened terms) intersubjective communication: the way one person can induce in another his own deep experience. As a therapist, one feels the patient’s experience welling up inside one as if it were one’s own. In both the clinical and the poetry process, the engagement, the welling up, has to do with words but, mysteriously, with something more than words. In a poem it depends on what has been called the music of the poem.

That music is in all the things that are not said directly. It is in the diction (highflown language or common speech?), in the resonances of the words chosen (“smite,” for example), in the rhythm (natural speech or oration?), in the posture of the speaker (is he instructing, pleading, arguing, confessing, regretting?). It is in the sense of where the speaker comes from (his or her background, class, and culture); it signals the kind of world where people speak such language.

And, ultimately, the intersubjective engagement grows out of the unique personal style of the speaker. His song, her song, engages us. A thought experiment: think of your two favorite authors. Think of reading a page of each. You would have very little trouble knowing which was which, who was who. Why is that? They sing different melodies even when telling much the same tale. Which makes each story different.

Our poets and writers are the most differentiated singers among us—easier to tell apart than other people. But our patients—and our friends and spouses and children and lovers—all sing their individual songs too. And each draws us into a duet: their voice, our voice, then theirs and ours together. The intersubjective engagement, of course, goes both ways.

1. Tennyson’s Ulysses can be read in its entirety on many Internet sites. One is http://www.portablepoetry.com/poems/alfredlord_tennyson/ulysses.html.
2. The whole of Cavafy’s Ithaca can be found at http://users.hol.gr/~barbanis/cavafy/ithaca.html. Other poems of his are similarly available at http://users.hol.gr/~barbanis/cavafy/.