Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

My Favourite Poem

I am not sure it is wise to choose a favourite poem out of the millions that exist. It would seem to exclude all the others from the imaginary summit of a fictional pillar. The circumference of that pillar means that there is only room for one poem up there and it might be better not to erect the pillar in the first place and leave the literary landscape unobstructed.

But it is too late for me. I have already chosen a favourite poem. In fact, I have chosen a favourite several times. The first poet I read in any depth, Edgar Allan Poe, provided me with my first favourite, not ‘The Raven’ but a slightly less famous work called ‘The Bells’. How I loved the tinkle, jangle and crash of the cadences in the stanzas of that piece!

I read it again recently and found that it retains great musical power and it is still a poem I regard with intense fondness, but it is no longer my favourite of all. That is hardly surprising considering I was reading Poe when I was 15 years old. Our youthful tastes change not only according to our experiences but also as a result of all the other literature we consume. There is surely a tendency to prefer narrative poems when we are small and a diminishing reliance on actual stories as we grow older. Yet it was the music of ‘The Bells’ that fascinated me rather than the febrile images it contains.

Jabberwocky. Courtesy: Creative Commons

I think my love of euphony has always meant that I relish the way a poem sounds more than I appreciate any meanings it might convey. This is why it was easy for a nonsense poem to become my new favourite and to gently push aside the Poe piece. Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ became for me the supreme poem and I learned it by heart. It is a poem that makes contextual sense despite all the meaningless neologisms with which it is sprinkled. Somehow, we understand the new words coined by Carroll and there is no need to have them explained. It is a poem that we absorb through osmosis rather than through the normal process of everyday communication. A masterpiece!

When I was 18 years old, I began reading Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and a few other English Romantics, and I discovered ‘Ozymandias’. Now this seemed to me to be a perfect poem. It had music, imagery and a moral, and furthermore it was ironic, an archaic episode with timeless relevance. Again, I learned it by heart, and I found myself in the not uncommon position of reciting it to myself whenever I happened to be confronted with an ancient ruin, whether the blocks of a tumbled castle or shattered torso of a fallen statue. It is a poem that turns a reader into an actor, an introvert into a declaimer. It became my new favourite but only for a short while. The poem that caused it to fall in my estimation was another in the same anthology I was reading.

An Illustration from Kubla Khan. Courtesy: Creative commons

Kubla Khan’ struck me as especially appealing because it has a wildness about it that balances out its sense of control. I am not sure why Coleridge affected me to a greater extent than Shelley (and Byron affected me hardly at all) but I was enthralled by the imprecise exoticism and the intimations of doom among paradise in this poem, which is as menacing as it is delightful, as frantic as it is magical. Coleridge himself regarded it as a work in progress, a frustrated potential, unfinished, a burst dream bubble. I wonder if a continuation might have diminished it? The fragmentary nature of the piece adds to its allure by increasing its strangeness. There is atonality here as well as smoothness, like troubling chords inserted in a serene nocturne.

A few years passed and I discovered a new favourite and had to topple poor old ‘Kubla Khan’ from the apex of that idealised pillar and replace it with The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in the first Edward Fitzgerald translation, but whether this series of seventy-five quatrains can be regarded as just one poem is open to debate. Personally, I regard the quatrains as linked inextricably by mood, metaphors as well as theme, and there is a mini-sequence within the whole that gains significant momentum by being treated as a single creation. My ambition once again was to learn the work by heart and recite it at moments that were appropriate but despite my efforts I failed in the endeavour. There was simply too much wordage for me to succeed.

I tried reading more modern poetry, serious and mature work that I failed to understand at first and had to consider very carefully before I could tease out any meaning. I read Akhmatova, Rilke, Pound, Eliot. I tried (but was generally defeated by) Ginsberg, Olsen, William Carlos Williams. This was all well and good but my candidate for new favourite turned out to be something light, an insignificant ditty dashed off by a poet who wrote it as a gift for a friend, and once again it was the music that won me over, the jangling, tinkling, tingling, clipping, clopping, jingly rhythms. ‘Tarantella’ by Hilaire Belloc imitates the sound of a guitar and clapping hands, it clatters along merrily, nostalgically, a tribute to an ephemeral occasion in a mountain tavern that can never be lived again, and the words and their phrasing evoke much of the atmosphere of that night with an appreciable impetus. A candidate for new favourite, yes, but it ultimately failed to displace the Rubáiyát.

That was in my early twenties and soon after I lost interest in poetry, I have no idea why, and rarely read any. Occasionally I would browse an anthology and discover something interesting, but only a few poems made any impression at all on me, and none became my favourite. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám remained at the summit of my appreciation by default. My return to poetry was slow and uneven. The work of Federico García Lorca caught my attention and I chose ‘Canción de Jinete’ to learn by heart, which I did, probably poorly (my Spanish was never fluent). A little later I discovered the precocious genius of Arthur Rimbaud and taught myself ‘Le Coeur Supplicié’ because its torrent of fantastical words appealed to my inner ear.

Unfortunately, what I believed poetry had to offer was something I had no great use for. I misunderstood what it had to offer. That is no great crime, but I did miss out on its delights for a long time. Not until my mid-thirties did I start to return to the pleasures of poetry, and it was the humourist Don Marquis who ushered me back into the heaven I had forsaken, yet it is too much to claim that any of his poems became my favourite. I adore his cycle of poems about the cockroach Archy and the cat Mehitabel, but they must be taken as a whole in an evolving mythos. No individual poem of the cycle is worthy of special attention at the expense of the others. All are good, but together they are brilliant and thus they disqualify themselves from the game.

Now that I was reconciled with poetry, my tastes widened, and I read from a broader set of cultures and times than before. Sappho, Ovid, Catullus, Tagore, Basho, Tu Fu, Housman, Holub, Mandelstam, Eliot, Yeats, Edward Thomas, Dorothy Parker, Ai Ogawa, Ogden Nash, Derek Walcott. I was very enthusiastic about the novels and short stories of Richard Brautigan, so I read his poetry too and found a poem called ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ that neatly summed up my own hopes for the future of the world. Did it become my new favourite? Not quite. I continued reading. Pessoa enthralled me, Cendrars and Queneau dazzled me. Complicated poetry dealing with the human condition and experimental verse based on mathematics made me nod my head sagely in a close approximation of a deep appreciation.

The City’ by C.P. Cavafy became my new favourite. I had heard his name often mentioned but felt no great desire to explore further. Then by chance I saw this particular poem. What a terrific piece! Hard, bleak even, wrenchingly bitter, but it does not depress the spirits of the reader despite its melancholy message. On the contrary it seems to inspire the reader to action. The poem is quietly and relentlessly insistent that you will never change your life for the better, that you can never escape the circumstances that have trapped you. It issues a challenge to the reader. Prove me wrong, the poem seems to say! I immersed myself in as much of Cavafy’s poetry as I could find. I went out of my way to visit his house in the city of Alexandria in Egypt, so wonderful did I now regard his work. Was this the final destination on my poetic voyage?

Not quite. There was another poem by another poet sunk deep beneath the surface of my awareness and it had been there for a long time. I can say that it had probably been my secret favourite from the beginning. I must have read it in an idle moment and forgotten about it, or thought I had forgotten about it, but it remained on the seabed of my subconscious, and ultimately it wrecked all the poetical vessels that followed, for I was never fully satisfied with any of those I called my favourites. I rediscovered it one unexpected day and it returned with unstoppable force into my affections. It was written by a poet who went to sea and saw the world, who travelled rather aimlessly for a number of years before the urge to write poetry took hold of him.

‘Cargoes’ by John Masefield is evocative and beautiful. It is heady and a little regretful at the same time. It contrasts the supposed splendours of the past with the drab present, and yet ironically in our own age we perceive romance even in the grime and smoke of Masefield’s ‘present’. Three ages are given to us for contemplation, a pre-classical time, the golden age of the Spanish Main, and the very start of the 20th Century, and three ships loaded with merchandise to represent those ages. The ships of Assyria and Spain are loaded with exotic and tropical treasures. They are floating envoys of a pair of widely spaced but equally fabulous cultures. The British ship is grimy and ugly and it wallows through a drab sea on a blustery day, carrying cargo that is practically an insult to the taste of the aesthete. The language employed is perfect for Masefield’s purpose. I know of no poem I like better.

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine…

Cargoes (1903), John Masefield (1878-1967) 

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Pessoa and Cavafy: What’s in a Name?

Sometimes we know that something is untrue but we decide to believe it anyway. There may be several points in its favour, clues that seem to add up to a revelation. Then one shortcoming is noted and the speculation is ruined, revealed to be utterly implausible. Yet we keep hold of the notion because it remains aesthetically pleasing.

Such is the situation with my contention that the poet Pessoa (1888-1935) was the same man as the poet Cavafy (1863-1933) I discovered the work of both these special individuals in recent years. Pessoa I knew first, I have travelled to Lisbon often, I saw his statue sitting outside his favourite café, heard his praises sung by lovers of fine literature. Then I began reading him and I found a remarkable voice, a highly original talent.

Cavafy intruded later into my consciousness. His name was bandied about in Lawrence Durrell’s wonderful Alexandria Quartet (1957-1960) and I saw a copy of his collected poems in a very curious bookshop outside a peculiar village in a remote part of an obscure region of rural England. I felt a pull to that volume but I neglected to buy it on that occasion. Only when I saw a reprint of one of his poems called ‘The City’ standing alone did I realise that he had a supreme talent for pithiness.

And so I became a reader of these two luminaries, poets who excel in embossing their subliminally potent but often wistful visions onto modern reality. They are both among the best poets I have read. But I began to see an odd congruence between the pair. I started to link them together in my mind. There were so many points in their lives and working methods that seemed to correspond closely, too closely, that I finally wondered: Might they be the same man? Was this possible?

Yes, it is possible, even if not especially practical. There are cases in the history of literature that are no less extraordinary. Sometimes one man turns out to be several men. The author Luther Blissett is a case in point. He is an amalgam, or rather a conglomeration, of several individuals and as a result he barely exists in his own right. More frequently two or more men turn out to be one man. Kurban Said and Essad Bey are examples of this situation, for both are facets or sides or masks of one person, a true enigma by the name of Lev Nussimbaum (1905-1942).

Both types of deception are intended to create mystery and to baffle investigators, to allow those who indulge in the trickery to experience the displaced objectivity that comes with the transmigration of identity. On occasion identities multiply so prolifically that it is difficult to keep track of them all, and while we may wonder who exactly is who, the individual who is the original source of the identities acquires a status akin to that of the trunk of a venerable tree. The flowers and leaves on the branches are noted while the trunk is neglected or even forgotten about. This is clearly what some trees and some authors want.

Even a hasty examination of the respective lives of Fernando Pessoa and Constantine Cavafy will throw up some intriguing parallels and a few distorted symmetries. Pessoa was born in 1888 and died in 1935 at the age of 47, still a relatively young man. Cavafy was born in 1863 and died in 1933 at the age of 70. These dates show that they are absolutely not the same man. Pessoa lived in Lisbon, at the far western end of that longish body of water called the Mediterranean. Cavafy lived in Alexandria, at the far eastern end, and on the other shore.

So they lived far apart, almost as if they wished to throw people off the scent who might otherwise have remarked on the similarity of their appearance and eccentricities. If we draw a straight line between Lisbon and Alexandria and plot the halfway point, we end up in Tunisia. Were there any poets of great skill living in Tunisia at the time of Pessoa and Cavafy? There was Mahmoud Aslan, for one, and Aboul-Qacem Echebi, for another. What does this have to do with the subject in question? Not a great deal. But if a person had two identities and had to be in Lisbon at certain times and in Alexandria at others, then to base oneself right at the midway point of those two cities is wise.

This is idle conjecture and nonsense and yet Pessoa and Cavafy both lived and breathed in the medium of enigma. Neither man submitted work for publication, preferring to share it only with a few friends, or with the darkness inside a large wooden trunk. Pessoa wrote under many different names, which he liked to call his ‘heteronyms’. A school friend described him later as “pale and thin and imperfectly developed. He had a narrow chest and was inclined to stoop. He had a peculiar walk and some defect in his eyesight gave to his eyes a peculiar appearance, the lids seemed to drop over the eyes.” He studied diplomacy but was a poor student. Then a sizeable inheritance from his grandmother allowed him to set up his own publishing house, which he named ‘Ibis’.

The Egyptian bird chosen for this business venture is perhaps a clue that I have seized on too eagerly. Alexandria is in Egypt, of course, and Cavafy worked his entire life in an office, as Pessoa had expected to do. Both men travelled when young because of family commitments, Pessoa to Africa and Cavafy to England, but after their return they preferred to remain exactly where they were and never travel again. Pessoa lived in a series of cheap rented flats, Cavafy lived in one cheap rented flat, each man pretending to be unaware of the other, partly because it would have been very difficult for Pessoa to have access to Cavafy’s poems, and vice versa, but also in order to preserve the illusion they were different men? I am clutching at straws, I know, but straws can thatch roofs, and roofs are what best protect us from the elements.

Pessoa enjoyed setting puzzles for his readers and swathing himself in clouds of obscurity while hiding in the passages of a labyrinth. Cavafy on the other hand appears less mischievous on the surface but certainly was also interested in transformations of identity, in particular the way that an individual in the present can absorb some of the sentience, attitudes, even wisdom of those who are long dead. Both poets are considered loners and yet their work yearns for connection. Was isolation necessary in order to continue with the elaborate deception?

No, of course not, and yet I wish that was the answer. If Cavafy was really one of the heteronyms of Pessoa, I would regard the trick as surely the greatest ever played in the history of literature. But Pessoa died first. So might Pessoa have been a reverse-heteronym of the older but longer-lived man? We tend to believe that a subset must exist inside the set it belongs to. Perhaps Cavafy was a heteronym that was so realistic it came alive and hopped off the page into the world. He might have been a tulpa, one of those mythical entities brought into life by an act of sheer thought. A wish made true.

None of this speculation has any place in serious poetic studies, but I am not here to be serious, I am here to scratch an intellectual itch. Habits can be shared by men, talent too, but if we look closely at photographs of Pessoa and Cavafy we see the same elusive quality in their eyes, sadness and strength mixed together, interiority without inferiority, a deep ironic wisdom. They are figures who exist outside the time that frames them, a pair of warped mirror images, somewhat neglected during their lives but always with the promise of greater recognition later. And that recognition came in a surge and lifted up their reputations to such a high point that we now acknowledge them both as obvious geniuses and find it very difficult to believe they were ever unappreciated.

Pessoa employed at least seventy-two heteronyms, identities not only with individual names but distinct signatures, temperaments, biographies, ambitions and destinies. And if Cavafy was the secret seventy-third of the heteronyms? Is there any evidence for this wild proposition? Consider the Cavafy poem entitled ‘Nero’s Deadline’ and the essential function in the text of that same number, seventy-three.

Nero wasn’t worried at all when he heard
the utterance of the Delphic Oracle:
“Beware the age of seventy-three.”
Plenty of time to enjoy himself still.
He’s thirty. The deadline
the god has given him is quite enough
to cope with future dangers.

Now, a little tired, he’ll return to Rome—
but wonderfully tired from that journey
devoted entirely to pleasure:
theatres, garden-parties, stadiums…
evenings in the cities of Achaia…
and, above all, the sensual delight of naked bodies.

So much for Nero. And in Spain Galba
secretly musters and drills his army—
Galba, the old man in his seventy-third year.

Spain is not Portugal but it is an adjacent country. Cavafy was not an ancient Roman, but he was an adjacent sort of fellow, a modern Greek. It is very unlikely that he was a heteronym but would he have been willing to admit it if he was? None of Pessoa’s other heteronyms were especially keen to reveal themselves as fictional. Nero thought that the oracle was a reference to himself and his own age whereas in fact it alluded to the age of the man who soon succeeded him.

And why is seventy-three a magical number? It is a prime number and Pessoa died in the prime of his life. In binary it is written as 1001001, the neat symmetry of a line with one end in Lisbon, one in Alexandria and a middle in Tunisia. In octal it is written 111, three men or the same man in different positions? It is a star number, a centred figurate number that can form a regular hexagram, and both Pessoa and Cavafy were stars. It is an emirp number, meaning that written in reverse it is also a prime. It is used by radio operators as a substitute for “best regards” because when written in Morse Code it is also a palindrome and sounds the same forwards as it does backwards, another mirror image.

Shall I continue in this fashion? It is unnecessary.

I will finish by pointing out that 73 is the atomic number of tantalum and that both poets remain tantalising. At no point do I really believe that Pessoa and Cavafy were the same man.

Yet there is something satisfying about the idea.


Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.