Books covered in this dual review:
• C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (trans. Daniel Mendelsohn). Knopf. 624pp, $35.00.
• C. P. Cavafy: The Unfinished Poems (trans. Daniel Mendelsohn). Knopf. 144pp, $30.00.
There appears to be a revival of interest taking place in the work of C. P. Cavafy. Two years ago, Oxford University Press issued C. P. Cavafy: The Collected Poems under its Oxford World’s Classics imprint. Now, Knopf comes forth with its own edition—including not only Cavafy’s collected poems but his unfinished poems as well.
As a poet, Cavafy is controversial. Writing in a rather straightforward manner without the embellishment of metaphor and other poetic devices, he seems to have aroused the antipathy of other Greek poets/writers. Giorgos Seferis, another giant of contemporary Greek poetry, wrote that Cavafy “stands at the boundary where poetry strips herself in order to become prose” and that he is the “most anti-poetic (or a-poetic) poet” Seferis knew.
Mendelsohn strongly disagrees in his introduction to the book, stating that Cavafy’s “style . . . is far less prosaic, far richer and more musical, and indeed is rooted far more deeply in the 19th century . . . than is generally credited.” Mendelsohn continues: “there is no question that Cavafy in Greek is poetry, and beautiful poetry at that: deeply, hauntingly rhythmical, sensuously assonant when not actually rhyming.” As to music, Mendelsohn informs us at that “however much Cavafy’s language may eschew the devices—metaphor, simile, figurative, and ‘lyrical’ language—that we normally associate with poetry, his verse, in Greek, is unmistakably musical.”
Cavafy achieves this through two poetic devices common in both Greek and English, meter and rhyme, which permits Mendelsohn to attempt to capture this in his translations. This attempt, however, increases the difficulty of translation, as Mendelsohn is at the same time attempting to capture two additional elements that make Cavafy Cavafy—the first is the attempt to capture “two quite different registers of the language: demotic Greek, the vernacular spoken by the people, and the far more formal Katharevousa, or ‘pure’ Greek, the high language of literature, intellectual life, and officialdom”; the second is Cavafy’s idiosyncratic use of enjambment.
Poet C.P. Cavafy
The first poem encountered is “The City.” In it, someone (Cavafy perhaps) is regretting their life of failure and is blaming the city, which has assumed an ominous personality, for this failure, wondering whether another city would have been more rewarding. Cavafy begins the second stanza as follows:
You’ll find no new places, you won’t find other shores.
The city will follow you. The streets in which you pace
will be the same, you’ll haunt the same familiar places,
and inside those same houses you’ll grow old.
Here he admonishes the protagonist that it is not the defects of the city that are to blame, and that, unless the protagonist recognizes this fact, all cities will be the same. Note how Mendelsohn translates this to include the rhyme between the second and third lines, highlighting this through enjambment. Note also the music of this translation, the last line of this quatrain concluding with a spondee as if the sound of a heavy door closing.
“Trojans” exemplifies Cavafy’s historical genre. He draws upon the Iliad and the Odyssey and the legend of the Trojan War. The first stanza speaks, at the outset, of hope but with an ominous tinge:
Our efforts, those of the ill fated;
our efforts are the efforts of the Trojans.
We will make a bit of progress; we will start
to pick ourselves up a bit; and we’ll begin
to be intrepid, and to have some hope.
Here we have progress as the illusion of hope: something to be quickly dashed against the rock of reality just like the Trojans were, after a ten-year siege, defeated, and Troy destroyed and buried within the annals of time.
Mendelsohn notes that “The Retinue of Dionysus” was written in rhyming couplets. He attempts to render this into English as much as possible. The first six lines show the difficulty in doing so as the first four rhyme abba with the internal rhyme being a near rhyme:
Damon the artisan (none as fine
as he in the Peloponnese) is
fashioning the Retinue of Dionysus
in Parian marble. The god in his divine
glory leads, with vigor in his stride.
Intemperance behind. Beside
In order to effect this rhyme structure emulating the original Greek, he is forced to end the second line with the word is, which, quite frankly, is a ridiculous way to end a line in English verse, as it places an inordinate emphasis on a minor word. Mendelsohn runs into difficulty again at lines 12–15, which he translates as:
Song and Melody, and Festival
who never allows the hallowed processional
torch that he holds to go out. Then, most modest, Ritual.—
That’s what Damon is making. Along with all
Here, the Oxford translation is much to be favored:
Molpos and Hedymeles, and Comus,
who never lets go out the procession’s sacred torch
which he holds; and most modest Teleté.—
These Damon is elaborating. And while so doing,
Evangelos Sachperoglu, the translator for the Oxford volume, leaves the Greek names as is in the poem, using his notes to translate them. He translates Comus as theatre and Teleté as initiation, which is considerably different that festival and ritual. However, in favor of Mendelsohn, the syntax of the middle two lines of the latter translation is severely twisted, almost into incomprehension.
Having explored the pitfalls of translation and having adequately represented Cavafy’s historical side, it is time now to move on to his eroticism. As Mendelsohn states,
However tormented and secretive he may have been about his desire for other men, Cavafy came, after a certain point in his career, to write about that desire with an unapologetic directness so unsensational, so matter-of-fact, that we can forget that barely ten years had passed since Oscar Wilde’s death when the first of these openly homoerotic poems was published. As the poet himself later acknowledged, he had to reach his late forties before he found a way to unify his passion for the past, his passion for “Hellenic” civilization, and his passion for other men in poems that met his rigorous standards for publication.
One of the earliest poems exhibiting this homoeroticism is “One of Their Gods” where we find the lines, “Whenever one of them would cross Seleucia’s / marketplace, around the time that evening falls—/ like some tall and flawlessly beautiful boy, / with the joy of incorruptibility in his eye,” which Mendelsohn indicates as being heavily influenced by the Parnassians and Baudelaire. Often, particularly in the early poems, this homoeroticism would be sublimated within the confines of eroticism in general, permitting the reader to imbue the verse with whatever interpretation she wanted. For example, in “In Evening” we read: “The life of loveliness was brief, / But how powerful our perfumed unctions were, / how exquisite the bed in which we lay, / to what pleasure we gave our bodies away.” There is no indication within the poem as to whether the evening was spent with a male or a female. At this stage in Cavafy’s writing, he remains reluctant to make clear the exact nature of his erotic impulse, providing us only with hints that this may be homoerotic. Later in his career, the veil is removed, as in “The 25th Year of his Life”:
Not to betray himself: this is what he arrives for, of course.
But sometimes he’s almost indifferent.
Besides, he knows what he’s exposing himself to,
he’s made up his mind. It’s not unlikely that the life he’s living
will lead him to some devastating scandal.
As Mendelsohn points out, the unification of the historical and the homoerotic occurs within the tense—the past tense, where it is always a looking back at events, although, in the last poem cited, there occurs a fusion of the past and the future in an interesting admixture where the event is in the past but the fear is for a potential future.
Toward the end of his life, while he was in Athens being diagnosed with throat cancer and receiving a tracheotomy, Cavafy declared that he still had twenty-five poems to write. These, and apparently others, remained hidden within the Cavafy archives until unearthed by Cavafy’s editor, George Savidis, in 1961. Savidis proceeded to engage Renata Lavagnini to bring these drafts, “some of them awaiting the most minor of finishing touches, others apparently in the final stage of preparation but complicated by various textual problems” to a state of completion awaiting publication. The Unfinished Poems includes those poems as translated by Mendelsohn, who states that: “Renata Lavigni’s Greek edition of the Ateli is a work meant for scholars and for Greek-speaking devotees of Cavafy; the present volume must be geared to the needs of the English-speaking reader with no specialized interests, apart from an interest in knowing more about these poems.” One finds it hard to imagine that there would be interest in unfinished poems completed by someone else unless, and this is a huge caveat, this were the only Cavafy available. As we have two extant collected editions, reality must intervene.
The notes in this volume of unfinished poetry are extensive—sometimes too extensive resulting in a diminishing of the value of the poem. When you have a half page poem and a three page commentary, you must wonder why the poem cannot sustain itself. But, in the case where the commentary consists of a discussion of the process by which Cavafy came to write the poem and offers earlier written examples in support of the analysis, such an extensive commentary is a worthwhile read. The care by which Cavafy created his art becomes more appreciated through this.
Whether both of these volumes are worthwhile additions to the realm of poetry in translation will be left to the discernment of the reader and the degree of their interest. Both the Oxford Collected and this new edition from Knopf offer unique perspectives on Cavafy, both in their introductions and notes and in the poetry itself. The benefit of Knopf over Oxford is that each poem is presented on a single page. On the obverse, the Oxford is bilingual. As examples of the translator’s art, both belong on the poet’s bookshelf. As to the Unfinished Poems, no matter how Mendelsohn wants to market it, this is a book for the Cavafy scholar and will be of little interest for the casual reader who has stumbled upon Cavafy. Cavafy has been a significant influence for a number of English poets. With these offerings, we can see why.
The author of poetry, reviews, and essays published in a number of literary journals both in the United States and Canada, John Herbert Cunningham has recently become host of the half-hour radio program, “Speaking of Poets,” which is available for download or streaming from The University of Winnipeg’s CKUW. He is currently working on a manuscript of poetry.
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