Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Seattle has been cooler and cloudier of late. Strange how we love the familiar.

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An interesting little article about some "new" translations of Cavafy. I think I will have to check them out:

"C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems" (Translated with notes) by Daniel Mendelsohn; Knopf (524 pages, $35)
"C.P. Cavafy: The Unfinished Poems" (Translated with notes) by Daniel Mendelsohn; Knopf (144 pages, $30)

A Greek who did not live in Greece, he lived a quiet life with his mother, Herakleia, until her death in 1899, then with unmarried brothers, then alone in his own apartment. An agonized Christian, a voracious reader of ancient history, and a closeted homosexual, he distributed poems and pamphlets privately, but never published a book. His poetry didn't fit the verse of the time, and he gained very limited notice until the 1920s.

So he fell, and still falls, athwart categories. His muted, direct poetry tends to work not through metaphor or simile, but through characters and situations. His effects in Greek are so subtle that translations usually miss them and fall into prose.

Of his two favorite realms, one is Greek/Byzantine history - especially moments narrated by little-known greats, peripheral kings, philosophers, generals, and onlookers. As Mendelsohn so beautifully puts it, the ancient world Cavafy evokes is "rich yet exhausted, glorious yet doomed, proudly attempting to uphold great traditions even as it disintegrates."

Here you'll find a parade of lessers - Alexander Balas, Antiochus Epiphanes, John Cantacuzenus, Anna Dalassene, once-greats now buried by history. They speak of their hopes, disappointments, achievements; few realize they will be swamped in time. These poems teach us much about history, politics, and the foolishness of ever thinking you've got it made.

Cavafy's other realm is sexuality and sensuality. He may have had his first gay encounter when he was 20; for much of his adult life, he'd have a long dinner with Mom at home and then leave her, to visit the tough side of town shopping for tenderness. Although he was extremely discreet about his own life, his poetry becomes more open, especially after her death. After 1911, his attitude and poetry seem to embrace the life he struggled with for so long.

Cavafy's triumph is that his love poems can evoke the same enduring, compelling themes as his history poems: loneliness and loss, the nature of nobility, the ravages of time, the power of pleasure, and the fleeting nature of happiness. The unfinished, exquisite poem "The Photograph" begins with a speaker looking at a former lover's "beautiful youthful face":

3 comments:

T. Clear said...

Glad to hear that the thermometer is back to normal.

Brian Campbell said...

Thanks for this quote -- quite interesting details about his life, and observations on the work. I've long been a fan of Cavafy -- the Rae Dalven translation, since I can't read Greek. I wonder though about this "never published a book" business. According to the blurb on the back of my translation, "His first book of poems appeared in 1904, and a second collection in 1910. Thereafter, his poems were published in magazines in Alexandria and in Greece, and his work began to be known in translations, but he published no other books during his lifetime."

Brian Campbell said...

The Poetry Foundation website bio seems to straighten this out:

"During his lifetime Cavafy was an obscure poet, living in relative seclusion and publishing little of his work. A short collection of his poetry was privately printed in the early 1900s and reprinted with new verse a few years later, but that was the extent of his published poetry. Instead, Cavafy chose to circulate his verse among friends."

Another Cavafy-dedicated site says (I'm paraphrasing) he never offered a volume *for sale* in his lifetime.