literature into poetry and song/alexandra leaving

That Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson used Constantine Cavafy’s poem “The God forsakes Antony” written in 1911, as inspiration for their song/poem “Alexandra Leaving” is not news.cohen cavafyThe first surprise is how the songwriters have taken Cavafy’s historically based poem and transformed it into a love poem. Antony, of course, is Marcus Antonius, Cleopatra’s husband. When I compared the Cavafy poem with Cohen’s new creation, I was struck by just how much of the poem/song was made from direct and associative borrowings from Cavafy’s poem. I’ve copied both pieces below; you’ll probably find even more relationships between the two than I have.

In both we find similar words and phrases: suddenly, exquisite music, forms of the word ‘deceive’, voices, dream (ing), courage, long prepared, say(ing) good-bye, go firmly to the window, coward

Cohen and Robinson transformed phrases like ‘the Alexandria you are losing’ to ‘Alexandra lost’. They take the title idea of a god, use it in the second line as ‘some deity preparing to depart’, and as Alexandra ‘leaving with her lord’. They write lines like “Do not choose a coward’s explanation” from “don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these”.

The whole tone of Cavafy’s poem is echoed in couplets such as: “Do not say the moment was imagined/ Do not stoop to strategies like this”.

There is play with homonyms: from ‘whine’ to ‘wine, and from ‘mourn’ to ‘morn(ing)’.

All the desire of Antony for Cleopatra and the consequent sadnesses and the loss of the Alexandria Donations comes across hauntingly in Cohen’s love-based poem. The phrase “crucifix uncrossed” may have been inspired by Cavafy’s first name of Constantine, as the Emperor Constantine’s mother is supposed to have discovered the True Cross.

It’s as if Leonard and Sharon cut up a copy of the poem into all its disparate parts, shook them up in a paper bag and poured them on to a tabletop next to a bottle of ouzo. It’s cool in the white- plastered room, and the shadows outside run from blue to deep purple as they work. They are excited about the idea they’ve come up with, and immerse themselves immediately in the self-delegated task of making something new, humming along as musical phrases come to them, making a game of it to see just how much of “Alexandria” they could integrate into “Alexandra”.

We poets/songwriters all do this, take poetry or music with us from the country we are visiting to try to come closer to the heart of that country. I took Chinese poetry in my suitcase when I went to China, sat reading John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch in bars on a trip to New York. Unfortunately, I didn’t come away with anything like Alexandra’s Leaving. But masterpieces or not, good poems can be made in this way, and writers should not shy away from looking at the fine writings of others, whether novel, poem, or article on poetics as grist for the mill.

I’m intrigued by the richness that can be developed by getting into the works of other creators, and how that richness can come out as completely different works. Ekphrastic poems look at Art from the inside out.  Many great poems happen while the writer is lost in a favourite piece of music, when the music muse suddenly becomes the writing muse. Now the original feels more intimate and important to the writer who has delved into it, examined it, tried to climb inside to see how and why it worked.

When I look at how closely and caringly Cohen and Robinson examined Cavafy’s poem, and how they dared to turn the parts of the original into something completely different while not losing the dignity and solemnity of the original, I see how this transposition validates a certain Japanese way of thinking.  The Japanese venerate their master artists and writers by recognizing their mastery, by not making ‘originality’ sacrosanct.

I leave you with Leonard Cohen, Sharon Robinson, and Constantine P. Cavafy.

Leonard Cohen/Sharon Robinson – Alexandra Leaving

Suddenly the night has grown colder.
The god of love preparing to depart.
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,
They slip between the sentries of the heart.

Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure,
They gain the light, they formlessly entwine;
And radiant beyond your widest measure
They fall among the voices and the wine.

It’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving,
A fitful dream, the morning will exhaust –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for this to happen,
Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.
Exquisite music. Alexandra laughing.
Your firm commitments tangible again.

And you who had the honor of her evening,
And by the honor had your own restored –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving;
Alexandra leaving with her lord.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked –
Do not choose a coward’s explanation
that hides behind the cause and the effect.

And you who were bewildered by a meaning;
Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Alexandra Leaving lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
from Ten New Songs, 2001

The God Forsakes Antony

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

– Constantine P. Cavafy (1911)

Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

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