Thursday, April 30, 2015

I’ve looked on beauty so much that my vision overflows with it - one side of C. P. Cavafy

Still in or near the 1890s but away from England, to the poems of Konstantinos Petrou Kavaphes, or as I know him C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), secret poet of Alexandria, printing up copies of poems for a few friends while working “as special clerk in the Irrigation Service (Third Circle) of the Ministry of Public Works” for decades (p. 439).  Poetry not only without money – we can take that for granted – but without prestige, without status.  Bold.

I have never read Cavafy, yet I have, because he has been one of the most reviewed poets due to the baffling number of Cavafy translations over the last twenty years.  I briefly knew an expert in modern Greek poetry, and she was baffled, too – there are so many other great Greek poets, she said.  But every couple of years there is a new Cavafy.

I’ve Looked So Much…

I’ve looked on beauty so much
that my vision overflows with it.

The body’s lines.  Red lips.  Sensual limbs.
Hair as though stolen from Greek statues,
always lovely, even uncombed,
and falling slightly over pale foreheads.
Figures of love, as my poetry desired them
. . . . in the nights when I was young,
encountered secretly in my nights.  (written 1911, “published” 1917)

Cavafy has two modes, almost exclusively two, one being poems drawn from his deep knowledge of Greek history and culture, Classical, Hellenistic, and Byzantine, the other mildly erotic poems about his homosexual love affairs.  Sometimes, as here, the two modes meet.  Cavafy makes sure that a poem that could be merely a metaphor, a poem about poetry, is pulled back to the actual object of desire.  The phrase that does the work, that is not generic, is “even uncombed.”  The poet has someone in mind. 

There, now that he’s sitting down at the next table,
I recognize every motion he makes – and under his clothes
I see again the limbs that I loved, naked.  (from “The Next Table,” 1919)

To my surprise, the editor says that “[i]n the original, the sex of the person sitting at the next table remains ambiguous” (412), an effect unavailable to the English translators.  Cavafy seems to give up this ambiguity in later poems.  “A good-looking boy, a tailor’s assistant / (on Sundays an amateur athlete)” adjusts his tie in a mirror, which

was full of joy now,
proud to have embraces
total beauty for a few moments.  (“The Mirror in the Front Hall, 1930)

Or the friend’s lover who dies “doesn’t want suits any longer”:

Sunday they buried him, at ten in the morning.
Sunday they buried him, almost a week ago.

He laid flowers on his cheap coffin,
lovely white flowers, very much in keeping
with his beauty, his twenty-two years.  (“Lovely White Flowers,” 1929)

The Greek, I am told, generally rhymes and is more metrical if not completely strict, so it must be less plain-spoken than this, which is fresh enough to have been published as prose in the Village Voice in the 1980s.  The puzzle might be that there have not been more versions, that the Cavafy boom did not really start until this century.

I went against fashion and read an old one, the Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard Collected Poems from 1975, source of all of the above.  I now see that there are so many Cavafy translations that this is not even the right Keeley and Sherrard, since a revised version of their book was published in 1992.  It’ll do for now.

Any suggestions for my next Cavafy will be warmly appreciated.


  1. The one about the mirror is pretty good, pure reality-bending imagery: a mirror full of joy for embracing beauty! It seems so simple, but who could come up with it? Only a poet!

  2. I wonder if the ingenuity of Cavafy's conceits are why he does so well in English. Even without whatever he is doing with language, there is still a lot to do with his poems.

    1. According to Paul Valéry, Degas once said to Mallarmé that he had so many ideas for poems but he just couldn't write them down. "You don't make poetry with ideas." said Mallarmé "You make poetry with words." All the same, there are some poems or poets where the ideas "work" even in translation even if the words can't be brought across from one language to another.
      The best poetry is where the words and ideas are one.

    2. Yes, so true. The translator does supply some words - different words, like less interesting words, but something, and in the best cases, a lot.

  3. I am no expert on Cavafy and have also wondered where to start for a viable translation, having encountered some radically different interpretations. On the anniversary of Cavafy's birth/death on April 29, Daniel Mendelsohn posted a number of poems on twitter. I had a look at his site and think I will have a look at his complete poems.

  4. Mendelsohn is a good possibility. A likely possibility. I read good things about his translations.

  5. I have several Cavafy translations but would not yet acquired a Mendelsohn, so would be interested. But really I'm leaving you a note to say that there's a buried Cavafy homage in Thaliad. You probably don't need me to give you that hint, though; I expect you will recognize it.

  6. No, the hint was helpful! Certainly helpful.

    This remains me that I should have mentioned the Cavafy Archive, which easily allows comparison across translations. That would be a fun project, less rewarding but less work than learning Greek.