CAVAFY

cavafyIntroduction

C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933), the most influential poet in modern Greek, was the ninth child of rich Constantinople merchants. He was educated in England and Alexandria, but moved back to stay with his grandfather and two brothers in Constantinople when the family business collapsed. Cavafy worked briefly for an Alexandrian newspaper and the Egyptian Cotton Exchange, but at 29 became a clerk in the Irrigation Service of the Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria, a position he held for 30 years.

He lived with his unmarried brothers and their mother until the latter's death in 1899, had two brief love affairs with men, and thereafter lived on his own in a furniture-filled flat above a much-frequented male brothel. A dapper but solitary man, Cavafy made few friends or literary contacts. His poems were never sold in book form, but appeared in pamphlets, creating little stir. He was awarded the Order of the Phoenix in 1926, but his reputation is largely posthumous. He became a little seedy towards the end, and died of cancer of the larynx.

Cavafy wrote in modern demotic Greek, in a style not far from prose, and a stripped prose at that. His sparse style avoided rhetoric and metaphor, but conveyed a mythical world of Hellenic exile with irony, erotic hedonism and sometimes humorous acceptance. Cavafy's poetry has an unmistakable tone: realistic, taking life for what it is, small in the dark lens of history but filled with individual moments of happiness, particularly of sensual pleasure. Alexandria is never far away, a city murmurous with past greatness but also mercantile, hardheaded and business-like. The second importance of Cavafy is his style: very simple, unemphatic, almost throwaway. The poetry is created by a finely-honed sensibility and not verbal fireworks. The language does not call attention to itself, but has been carefully constructed from everyday speech so that an individual, almost random event or recollection becomes something significant and worth dwelling on.

The Greek language spread, but Greece itself lost its identity as city states were amalgamated into the Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Greek poetry of the Alexandrian school inspired the great Roman poets, but was somewhat derivative of the classical. Literature specifically Greek survived on the fringes of the Ottoman Empire, particularly areas under Venetian influence, and joined the European mainstream after liberation in 1828. Cavafy's work is modern, in some ways more contemporary than the poetry of Nikos Kazantzakis (1885-1957), Kostas Varnalis (1895-1974) and Takis Papatsonis (1895-1976). Modernism proper began with the Generation of the Thirties movement, two of whom won the Nobel Prize in Literature: George Seferis (1900-71) and Odysseus Elytis (1911-96). Seferis created a language rich in nuance, and Elytis a mythology of images with surrealistic overtones. W.W.II brought somber realism in the work of Takis Sinopoulos, Manolis Anagostakis, Miltos Sachtouris and Nikos Karouzos. Contemporary poetry flourishes, and is much influenced by postwar American figures.

Cavafy translates well into English his Greek was indeed influenced by the English he spoke well and online versions of his poems are provided by: George Barbanis, Huck Gutman, Aliki Barnstone, Alicia Ostriker, Rae Dalven, Keeley & Sherrard, thrace,and the other world. What little biography exists for Cavafy is collected in R. Liddell's Cavafy: A Critical Biography (1974), and the following will also be of interest: E. Keeley and P. Sherrard's C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (1992), G. Jusdanis's The Poetics of Cavafy (1987), C.T. Dimaris's A History of Modern Greek Literature (1972) and E. Keeley's Modern Greek Poetry: Voice and Myth (1983).

Suggestion: The Complete Poems of Cavafy: Expanded Edition. Translators Konstantinos Petrou Kabaphes and Rae Dalven. Harvest/HBJ Book. 1976. $11.56.

It's difficult to make recommendations: so many versions of Cavafy have appeared in recent years. This is a fairly old edition, but still popular. The Introduction is by W. H. Auden.

Learning Greek

Ancient Greek differs considerably from modern, and is not easy to learn or appreciate. But its study yearly by thousands of university students throughout the world shows the task is not impracticable. Try these if you want to begin understanding what readers over 2800 years have felt: ancient greek tutorials, and translatum . Excellent resources exist at gnomon, classics, persius, tlg, internet ancient history sourcebook and didaskalia. General books include The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (1989) and those listed in biographies following the Greek and Oral Poetry sections of The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993).

Modern Greek — very different from the classical — can be learnt with book, CD and cassette: try dealtime, abroadlanguages, worldlanguage or filoglossia. There are also free learning sites at: introduction to modern Greek, and modern Greek as a foreign language. Greek speakers will find these useful: modern Greek poetry, and Internet resources in modern Greek

Greek-English-Greek dictionaries can be found at: ancient: persius, translatum, woodhouse and kamous For modern Greek: ectaco, freelang, stars21 and worldlingo.

Some useful language exchanges: friends abroad, xlingo, mylanguage exchange, polyglot learn language, and lingozone.

Homer

Homer is a classic in many senses. Though odd at times, his language has never been bettered. The morality is primitive, but formed a basis of Greek and later education. The two epics are the fountainhead of western literature. No translation quite recaptures the splendour and nobility of the original. The Homer bibliography is immense, but short listings can be found on cal. state univ. You can hear ancient Greek spoken on hagel and daitz, and music on the austrian acad. of sciences.

Sophocles

Workable translations exist — Lattimore, Fitzgerald, Pevear, Michie, and others — and some which are better as poetry — Butler, Murray, Pope — but none come close to the experience of reading the original. Those who possess no Greek may wish to approach Sophocles by first reading the plays in English, then immersing themselves in the history and culture of the classical world, perhaps then moving to some of the great poetry the work has inspired, and finally to seeing the plays enacted.

Cavafy

Cavafy translates well into English — his Greek was indeed influenced by the English he spoke well — and online versions of his poems are provided by: george barbanis and huck gutman. What little biography exists for Cavafy is collected in R. Liddell's Cavafy: A Critical Biography (1974), but the following will also be of interest: E. Keeley and P. Sherrard's C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (1992), G Jusdanis's The Poetics of Cavafy (1987), C.T. Dimaris's A History of Modern Greek Literature (1972) and E. Keeley's Modern Greek Poetry: Voice and Myth (1983).

 

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.