After my piece on Nikos Kazantzakis, I have decided that every now and then I will write about my favourite Greek novelists and poets. I have a long list of amazing people, but my main problem is the barrier of language. For instance, I would love to write about Kostas Kariotakis, but I haven’t been able to find good translations of his poems. It’s the same issue I had with Nikos Kazantzakis: what sounds good in Greek might sound awkward in English. Imagine my pleasure when I discovered that one of my favourite poets, C. P. Cavafy, is not a victim of bad translations and his poems maintain their beauty even in a different language. April is Poetry Month, so let’s explore some Greek poetry together!
C.P. Cavafy (or Κωνσταντίνος Καβάφης) was born in 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt. Armed with the attitude of a true cosmopolitan, he tried to reconcile the many aspects of his Greek heritage: he was born in Alexandria, his parents were from Constantinople, and he always carried in him the spirit of Ancient Greece. He visited Greece only four times throughout his life, and he also spent some time living in London, Liverpool and Constantinople. He spent most of his life in Alexandria, where he died in 1933. Cavafy’s poetry is easy to spot: he opts for a laconic language, he is an excellent user of metaphors and symbolism, and manages to create personal experiences out of larger than life events. His poems are usually divided into three categories: Cavafy wrote historical, philosophical and sensual poems. Cavafy’s historical poems use as inspiration the Hellenistic tradition of Alexandria, the Greco-Roman antiquity, Byzantine history and Greek mythology. Interestingly enough, Cavafy chooses to describe historical moments of decline and destruction, rather than triumph. In his poetry, decline is a better setting for reflection and honesty. His philosophical poems are didactic poems, and they deal with issues such as human morality, dignity and duty. His sensual poems focus on same-sex love, not in a vulgar way, but with lyricism and warmth. These poems also offer a glimpse at Cavafy’s private life, as Cavafy was notoriously secretive and led a rather quiet and scandal-free existence.
Alexandria helped form Cavafy’s poetry. In Cavafy’s mind, Alexandria was—and always had been—the centre of the world, both historically, socially and financially. The power struggles and history of Alexandria are not absent from his poetry. In Cavafy’s poetry, Alexandria becomes a symbol. The use of Greek antiquity and folk tradition in his poetry is enabled by the fact that he didin’t live in Greece, he was, therefore, able to stay away from the Greek poets of his time. This distances allowed him to build an idealized version of Ancient Greek history and art. Being in Alexandria also meant that he didn’t need to get involved with the ugly side of Greek politics. It would be hard to imagine Cavafy’s poetry away from Alexandria.
Cavafy makes good use of historical figures. Many of his poems are monologues of history’s most famous men, and Cavafy is not afraid to assume ownership over Kings who are about to lose their cities (“The god forsakes Antony”), or come face to face with their last moments of power. Still, he manages to create empathy and intimacy. His use of irony is characteristic, and his poems always have a twist at the end. The poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”, for instance, is a gradual build-up to the arrival of the barbarians, a build-up that is shattered in the last two lines of the poem: “And now, what will become of us without barbarians? / Those people were some sort of a solution”. The whole poem implies that the arrival of the barbarians would have catastrophic consequences, but the last two lines reveal that the barbarians were essentially saviours. Irony, ambiguity and sarcasm are Cavafy’s favourite companions.
Cavafy’s most famous and celebrated poem is, undeniably, “Ithaca”. In “Ithaca”, Cavafy borrows the Homeric idea of nostos—the Greek word for homecoming—and reaches out to every potential Odysseus. In Homer’s Odyssey, poor Odysseus went through countless troubles, he fought monsters, he suffered the wrath of Poseidon, he lost his crew, he descended to Hades, and all that because he wanted to return to the poor and barren island he called his home. To Cavafy, however, Ithaca isn’t the endgame; what matters the most to him is the journey to Ithaca. Cavafy’s didacticism shines as he tries to write down a set of rules: enjoy the ride and respect yourself. Ithaca is a symbol: it is home, but a home that gets to exist because of the journey.
When you set out on the journey to Ithaca,
Pray that the road be long,
full of adventures, full of knowledge.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
The raging Poseidon do not fear:
you’ll never find the likes of these on your way,
if lofty be your thoughts, if rare emotion
touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
the fierce Poseidon you’ll not encounter,
unless you carry them along within your soul,
unless your soul raises them before you.
Pray that the road be long;
that there be many a summer morning,
when with that delight, what joy,
you’ll enter into harbours yet unseen;
that you may stop at Phoenician emporia
and acquire all the fine ware,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
as many sensuous perfumes as you can;
that you may visit many an Egyptian city,
to learn and learn again from lettered men.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your final destination.
But do not rush the voyage in the least.
Better it last for many years;
and once you’re old, cast anchor on the isle,
rich with all you’ve gained along the way,
expecting not that Ithaca will give you wealth.
Ithaca gave you the wondrous voyage:
without her you’d never have set out.
But she has nothing to give you any more.
If then you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
As wise as you’ve become, with such experience by now
you will have come to know what Ithacas really mean.
I love Cavafy so much. Cavafy, Kariotakis and Kavvadias are the three poets who made me fall in love with poetry. Later on, they were followed by Seferis, Elitis, Ritsos and Eggonopoulos. I will try to find good translations of their poetry as it is a shame not to share their beauty. For the time being, I leave you with one of my favourite poems by the wonderful C.P. Cavafy and urge you to explore the beautiful word of his poetry.
AS BEST YOU CAN
Even if you cannot make your life the way you want,
try this, at least,
as best you can: do not demean it
by too much contact with the crowd,
by too much movement and idle talk.
Do not demean it by dragging it along,
by wandering all the time and exposing it
to the daily foolishness
of social relations and encounters,
until it becomes an importunate stranger.
(The translations of the poems can be found in: Cavafy, C. P. C. P. Cavafy: The Collected Poems. Ed. Anthony Hirst. Trans. Evangelos Sachperoglou. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007. Print. )