Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Cavafy’s Other Worlds

Mike Doyle

Collected Poems, C.P. Cavafy
(New York: Knopf, 2009) translated, with an introduction and commentary by Daniel Mendelsohn

Poems, C.P. Cavafy
(Surrey, B.C.: Libros Libertad, 2008, translated and introduced by Manolis, edited by George Amabile)

Given that the last new English translation of Cavafy’s work, Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard’s C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems appeared as long ago as 1975, these present offerings, coming as they do from very different sources, are a bonanza.

To sketch a background: Cavafy, an Alexandrian Greek, was one of the great international poets whose life straddled the 19th-20th centuries. Like W.B. Yeats, Cavafy lived from the 1860s to the 1930s, but whereas Yeats was already famous in his twenties, Cavafy remained relatively obscure until late in life. English was Cavafy’s second language, his family had a strong business connection with England, and the poet himself lived there seven years from the age of nine. It is perhaps pertinent to mention that his mother longed for a daughter (he had a clutch of brothers) and in his infancy Cavafy (like Hemingway) was kept in long curly hair and frocks.

Cavafy’s poetry was first published in English by E.M.Forster in a 1922 anthology. It was Forster who said that Cavafy, ‘lived at a slight angle to the universe’. That Forster was a friend, coupled with the fact that Rae Dalven’s The Complete Poems of Cavafy (1961, expanded edition 1976) is introduced by W.H. Auden, may signpost a central aspect of Cavafy’s life. A middling bureaucrat with modest (or no) income, he was a deeply discreet homosexual, which accounts for much of the flavour of his work. Like Forster’s Dr.Aziz, a central character in A Passage to India, Cavafy wrote a poetry of pathos and nostalgia, in Cavafy’s case often of haunted memories of passion, freqently embedded in classical history.

For myself, I discovered Cavafy’s poetry in the 1950s, most likely source being the poet’s ‘presence’ in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, a gift from my wife in 1958. The first edition of Dalven (1961) has been a standby for nearly fifty years. I should also mention the very first English translation, John Mavrogordato’s The Poems of C.P. Cavafy (London: Hogarth Press, 1951), but I’ve not seen that one for many years.

For me then, in a sense, the ‘default’ translation is Dalven’s, but now we come to the question of translation itself, particularly translation of poetry. On this there are two schools of thought, with nuanced positions between. Loosely speaking, these may be dubbed ‘literalist’ and ‘Poundian’. A literal translation is one in which as nearly as possible, the English version should be an exact transfer from the original language; in contrast, the idea of Pound and others was (and is) that a translation first and foremost tryto capture the ‘spirit’ of the original and transform it into poetry in English. Pound himself, and Robert Bly, are two notable exponents of this method, the method I favour because I am more interested in poetry than in literal accuracy. This can lead to problems, though, and it is common for one poet to provide ‘versions’ of poems from half a dozen different languages only some of which he speaks! (Pound and Bly each did this).

As regards Cavafy’s poems, I have no knowledge of their original language, Alexandrian Greek, but have been in their (English) company for near half a century. What I can do is read the new books, Mendelson and Manolis as poetry (I am not sure of the extent and nature of Amabile’s editing of Manolis, but he is a fine poet in his own right.) My first thought was to compare, poem for poem, these new texts with the ones provided by Dalven and Keeley. I have not the space to do that, but will try to give some indication. Otherwise, it is a pleasure in store for the reader.
Some points should be made. Cavafy’s poetry is close to prose. He makes little use of figurative language. He had a strong sense of history, but took little or no interest in the twentieth-century. As the critic and memoirist Timos Malanos said that the past was the atmosphere of Cavafy’s imagination. Any number of the poems, many featuring classical Greece, manifest this. The distinctive, indeed unique, character of his poetry is in his tone of voice and, in looking at several translations one valid and useful criterion is to figure out which best captures that tone of voice.
Mendelsohn sets out to explore Cavafy’s technical abilities.He provides two hundred pages of contextual, historical and technical notes, including 18 pages on technique, plus a sketch of the life. Thus his text is valuable for scholarly approaches. It does not follow that his translations are always the best available as poetry. As a print job, his book has the textual elegance of Knopf’s Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, published over fifty years ago, plus some of the distinction of British Nonesuch and Reynard books published back then.

A book on the same scale as Mendelsohn’s is the Keeley/Sherrard Collected Poems (Princeton, 1975.) These translators, with their editor George Savidis, aimed at working from a reliable text to present an English-language one, presenting the poems in proper chronological sequence. This work appears to have maintained status as the ‘go to’ text for at least three decades. That said, there is no need in my view to choose among available texts, though perhaps Mendelsohn will take precedence with scholars, but rather to make use of all of them as far as the poetry is concerned. The fact that I have clung to Dalven is more or less accidental.

Cavafy’s homosexuality began to come to public notice when he was around twenty. This, combined with his family’s loss of wealth and position, made him and his brothers feel declasse even when they returned from Constantinople, where their family business had shifted from London, to Alexandria in 1885 (Cavafy was 22). For one reason or another Cavafy’s psyche embedded a sense of loss, as expressed in ‘Voices’. This short poem (nine lines) ends, in Dalven:

return from the first poetry of our lives –
like music that extinguishes the far-off night.

sounds from our life’s first poetry
like distant music fading away at night.

sounds from the first poetry of our life –
like music, in the night, far off, that fades away.

return from the first poetry of our lives –
like distant music, at night, that slowly fades away.

These scraps begin to show how differently the same text can be translated. Manolis’ ‘slowly’ seems gratuitous. In a deft move, Dalven shifts the fade-out from the music to the night itself. Both Mendelsohn and Manolis use commas in the final line. In Mendelsohn’s case this seems to be done with a purpose as the commas chime in with the rhythm to create a hesitancy opposite in effect to Dalven’s extinguishing. Such consideration may be applied to every poem in all four translations. As I’ve experienced them, no one translator stands out as superior to the others. Matters vary from poem to poem. One point worth making is that our local translator, a Greek-Canadian in background, does not suffer from the comparison.

His book’s forward, however, takes us right back to the ‘CanLit’ question: ‘The moment you translate something as a Canadian, because you are interpreting it into English as spoken in Canada, and it is informed by the imagery and culture of the target language, it becomes a work of Canadian literature.’ This is quoted in Manolis from Quill and Quire, May 2008. Well, yes, maybe, well, uh sure, but does it matter? That business about, ‘informed by the imagery and culture of the target language’, seems highly dubious, especially in the present context where presumably the translator undertook the task because he is ‘informed by the imagery and culture’ of the Greek language?

Let us shift nimbly away from that one! It has been said of Cavafy that he was not a ‘born’ poet, but developed slowly. This point has also been firmly denied, by none other than Cavafy’s great successor, George Seferis. On the other hand, Dalven followed by Keeley and Sherrard divide their collections into ‘before 1911’ (the date from which the poet, age 48, felt he had fully become ‘Cavafy’) and after. Our two new volumes, on the other hand (is there research behind this?) follow a strictly chronological presentation.

Back in the seventies, as if supporting Seferis, Robert Liddell, in Cavafy: A Critical Biography, wrote: ‘in Cavafy’s work from first to last there is a unity of mood, of mental climate, of Weltanschauung – and it would be hard to deny this’. Seferis wrote: ‘at about 1910 [the very year in which Modernist novelist Virginia Woolf claimed ‘human nature changed’!] – the work of Cavafy should be read and judged not as a series of separated poems but as one and the same poem, a “work in progress”’ (Seferis, On Greek Style, UK trans, 1966) which seems right, though it compromises Seferis’ own claim about the unity of Cavafy’s work. It chimes in with the approaches of such writers as Joyce, Eliot, Pound and Williams, and in and of itself marks Cavafy as a Modernist

The Manolis and Mendelsohn translations are welcome additions in making the work of a great poet more accessible.

Mike Doyle is a poet, critic, biographer and editor. He is the author of Paper Trombones: notes on poetics, a journal of his life as a poet in Canada.