May 8, 2008 at 04:24 o\clock
May 8, 2008 at 04:07 o\clock
May 1, 2008 at 03:00 o\clock
Waiting for the Barbarians
I had a comment from a person who loved to read poetry but could not understand it.
So as an aid for a greater understanding I have put the following poem and explanation below which I hope will help
Waiting for the Barbarians
by Constantine Cavafy (1864-1933)
translated by Edmund Keeley*
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.Why isn't anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.Why did our emperor get up so early,
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.
and why is he sitting at the city's main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?
Because the barbarians are coming todayWhy have our two consuls and praetors come out today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
Because the barbarians are coming todayWhy don't our distinguished orators come forward as usual
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
Because the barbarians are coming todayWhy this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
*From Cavafy: Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
© 1975, 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
Reproduced with the permission of Princeton University Press
C. Dale Young Comments:
A teacher of mine once called Cavafy the Crow that sits on my shoulder, a bizarre and somewhat disturbing idea to me at the time. His rationale? His motive? To challenge me. To remind me of the limitations of my own work. To show me other ways of orchestrating the poem.
For me the poem I always think of when I think of Cavafy is this one. It is deceptively simple and all the more strange because of that. And it seems, for lack of a better way of phrasing, a poem that flies in the face of all those who criticize the "political poem." Quiet, meandering, and yet vicious and fierce in its argument. This poem speaks to us today as if it were written last week and, sadly, I suspect it will speak to people hundreds of years from now in much the same way.
About C. Dale Young:
C. Dale Young practices medicine, serves as poetry editor of New England Review, and teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program. He is the author of The Day Underneath the Day (Northwestern, 2001), which was a finalist for the 2002 Norma Farber Award given by the Poetry Society of America for the best first collection published in the preceding year, and Torn (Mad River Press, 2004), a limited-edition fine letter-press broadside. He is a previous winner of the Grolier Prize, the Tennessee Williams Scholarship in Poetry from the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and the 2003 Stanley P. Young Fellowship in Poetry from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. His poems have appeared in many anthologies and magazines, including The Best American Poetry, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, The New Republic, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry. He lives in San Francisco with the biologist and composer, Jacob Bertrand, his life partner.
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