SK: I would claim that this poem might be seen to be about the creative process itself (not just the writing of poetry), almost providing ‘instructions’ to do with approaching one’s own creativity, represented in this poem symbolically through the notion of walking. And I think we appreciate the poem’s apparent ease in this and its intellectual relaxedness (its capacity to avoid the doctrinaire and ‘tread’ lightly among important concerns). This tonal quality, as well as the poem’s implication that thoughts and ideas become transfigured through an attentive understanding of sensual experience, reminds me very much of Cavafy, who, while also deeply engaged in classical history and culture, was not at all interested in exploring nature and whose own philosophical interest was greatly informed by the stoics, probably Seneca among them (whom you refer to in the poem). I’m thinking here particularly of ‘Ithaca’, his great poem about the significance of the journey and journeying:
Pray that the road be long ... Always keep Ithaca in your mind. To arrive there is your final destination. But do not rush the voyage ... Better it last for many years ...
Your lines in ‘Walking Instructions’:
Don't worry about arriving where you've planned or better set off without a destination ... Let yourself get side-tracked ...
This extract (as well as many others in your work) seems to me to be tonally very close to Cavafy and indeed creates something of the same almost elegiac mood. Do you see yourself as influenced by Cavafy? I know that you love and admire Rilke but is Cavafy also an important antecedent even if he wasn’t so moved by the natural world?
LF: Though I wouldn’t count Cavafy as a major influence on my work, I admire his poetry, and his poem ‘Ithaca’ is marvellous. He is an antecedent to modern Greek poets, whom I feel a strong affinity towards; I’m thinking of Angelos Sikelianos, in particular, but also of the Nobel Prize winner George Seferis. Right now I am in Poland and in my highly restricted travelling library is the anthology of modern Greek poetry, Voices of Modern Greece (transl. Keeley and Sherrard), which includes these poets. I like to keep this book close to hand. I have found Philip Sherrard’s writings on modern Greek poetry especially valuable and illuminating. What I admire in these poets is their elemental quality, an elemental relation to place and life, as well as to large historico-philosophical concerns. (I also relate to the spirituality in Sikelianos and his attempts to synthesise ancient Greek mythology and Christianity.)
There are poems that one returns to in moments of doubt about poetry. When one is frustrated with one’s own writing or dissatisfied with recent reading experiences, one looks for a reminder of what it is all about. Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca’ is a poem that I have returned to in this sense. I see it as an existential poem about human ideals and goals, which draws wonderfully on Homer’s Odyssey, which is also, of course, really about the journey and obstacles rather than the ‘homecoming’ (in this case, a brutal one––those poor suitors). There is a wonderful paradox at the heart of this poem, which seems to get at the heart of human life (with a certain melancholy or elegiac mood), namely that while one needs goals to strive towards in life, their meaning is really in all that is learned on the journey towards them.
I notice too, on re-reading this poem, these lines towards the end: ‘And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you. / Wise as you have become…’ At first, in response to your suggestion, I was not sure whether I could see a link between my poem ‘Walking Instructions’ and Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca’ but in these lines there does seem to be a similar sense that the ‘true destination’ is not identical to the one we imagine, and that the wisdom is to be found in the process of the journey. Perhaps a key difference between their approaches to this theme is that Cavafy’s poem is focused on individual human destiny, whereas my poem is focused on an open attentiveness to nature. Cavafy’s poem intimates a kind of wisdom in the journey of human life, whereas ‘Walking Instructions’ looks for a kind of wisdom in the natural world. Nevertheless, they do share in common, as you have implied, an emphasis on dynamic process, on a way rather than a static object or goal.
‘Walking Instructions’ can also certainly be regarded as a metaphor for the creative process. I’ve spoken mostly about content whereas your comparison had to do with tonal qualities – a ‘relaxedness’ and an ‘elegiac’ mood. A certain ‘relaxedness’ is central to the creative process (in poetry and elsewhere) but this is not a passive state; art requires a state of mind that is at once highly concentrated and at ease (unforced).
While Cavafy is not a direct influence on this tonal quality in my work, classical Greek art is. ‘Walking Instructions’ is placed among a sequence of poems related to Greece (‘Epidaurus’, ‘Everything is water’, ‘Augury?’, ‘Near the Summit’). ‘Everything is Water’, which is about classical sculpture, comes directly after ‘Walking Instructions’ and ends with the lines: ‘See the step / of Artemis, graver than air / lighter than earth!’. These lines affirm a sculpture’s lightness of step as embodying the elementary quality of water (the element between air and earth). I also think a water-like agility of attention can attune us to subtle living processes (see also Theodor Schwenk’s Sensitive Chaos), such as the encounter with the grove in ‘Walking Instructions’. In short, while I don’t see Cavafy as having a direct influence on this tonal quality, there is a Greek influence (and that I have a French mother is perhaps also relevant; there is a lightness to much French art and culture; to offer one marvelous example, think of the late watercolours by Cézanne).
Now to the ‘elegiac’ mood. If we have significant ideals (and are we fully alive if we don’t?) we will always have to deal with disappointment, shortcomings, not to mention all that is simply tragic in the world. I certainly associate an elegiac mood with Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca’ (and other poems), which is one reason why it can offer such powerful consolation. In this respect Cavafy has perhaps also learned from the ancient Greek tragedians, whose works reconcile us to the tragic in the world (it is for this reason that the plays are cathartic – we bear witness to the tragic in calmness because we are dealing with a dramatic presentation and not an actuality, yet at the same time the play reconciles us to the existence of the tragic). Had you not mentioned it, I would not have identified an elegiac tone in ‘Walking Instructions’ (many other poems in Paths of Flight are more obviously elegiac – ‘Snowdrops in West Philadelphia’ and ‘Zeitgeist’, for instance) but perhaps you are right to see it there (in a less existential form than Cavafy’s poem – perhaps a more epistemic form?): it similarly seems to forego the idea of a final destination and it is premised on a lack of knowledge that needs to be remedied. But how is this to be remedied? Not through passivity, the acquisition of an object, the arrival at a predetermined goal, but through a process of attentiveness! And while the longing for insight is temporarily fulfilled in the transformative encounter with the grove, the journey continues (and the final actual destination of the waterfall is, like Ithaca, not an ultimate destination). That said, I think that ‘Walking Instructions’ (perhaps like ‘Ithaca’) is a celebration of process (the dynamic concept of process is higher than the static concept of a goal).
In relation to the elegiac, one contemporary poet whom I particularly admire is the Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski, who stands in a lineage with other major Polish poets (Zbigniew Herbert, Miłosz, Szymborska). I value both his search for transcendence and his acknowledgement of the burden of history and sorrow. There are also a number of twentieth century German poets I appreciate for what could be called their meditative melancholy (Rose Ausländer, for instance; and, in my reading experience, no other poet engages as profoundly with the tragic as Paul Celan). Though I also see myself as indebted to a long tradition that identifies poetry with the possibility of transcendence and affirmation, poetry needs, I think, to engage with light and dark, joy and sorrow, ecstacy and fallenness, insight and ignorance (even if one of the terms remains no more than an unspoken background to a specific poem). Perhaps transfiguration (see my poem ‘Near the Summit’) is a yet higher concept (than the mentioned oppositions), but who can speak of total transfiguration (Christ and the Buddha perhaps – but the rest of the world, in any case, remains behind)? I share the sentiment memorably expressed in one of Zagajewski’s well-known poems … that we should ‘try to praise the mutilated world’.