Friday, November 23, 2007

Question of the day ...

... Should you enjamb a poet's work? (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

I am currently reading The Canon (Harvard, $24.95), Stratis Haviaras's new translation of C.P. Cavafy's 154 poems. I find it something of a page-turner. As soon as I finish one poem, I can't wait to get to the next. I have to restrain myself in fact. I tell myself it's best to read only a few and save the rest for later.
These poems were never collected into one volume during Cavafy's lifetime. They mostly circulated privately. They have a purity to them that most poems lack. For Cavafy, it seems, poetry was not a profession, but a vocation, a way of crystallizing experience in all its complexity and ambiguity and emotional resonance. And because nothing is more personal than experience, the effect of reading his poems is an uncanny sense of the poet's own presence. The cover of the Haviaras translation is a segment of a photo of the poet, showing only his eyes peering through his spectacles. It is a perfect illustration of what one can look forward to in the book: the world as seen by C.P. Cavafy. It's an enriching view.

It is interesting, by the way, to compare Cavafy's Ithaka with Auden's Atlantis. I can't help thinking Auden's poem owes something to Cavafy's.

1 comment:

  1. "Ever since I was first introduced to his poetry by the late Professor R.M. Dawkins over thirty years ago, C.P. Cavafy has remained an influence on my own writing; that is to say, I can think of poems which, if Cavafy were unknown to me, I should have written quite differently or perhaps not written at all. Yet I do not know a word of Modern Greek, so that my only access to Cavafy’s poetry has been through English and French translations.

    "This perplexes and a little disturbs me. Like everybody else, I think, who writes poetry, I have always believed the essential difference between prose and poetry to be that prose can be translated into another tongue but poetry cannot.

    "But if it is possible to be poetically influenced by work which one can read only in translation, this belief must be qualified."

    "What, then, is it in Cavafy’s poems that survives translation and excites?"
    --W. H. Auden, "Introduction to Cavafy's poems"