Tuesday, May 22, 2012

C.P. Cavafy

C.P. Cavafy was a Greek poet (born in 1863) who lived much of his life in Alexandria, Egypt. He isn't an especially well known poet, although he did publish during his lifetime and seems to have been read by some of the avant-garde writers of the day (such as Gide).  I was drawn to him because of several factors, the main two being that he used Classical motifs and characters as inspirations in his poetry (something I liked doing for quite a while) and that he was open - and apologetically open - about being gay.

Many of his poems are love poems to and about gay men, which the author of the introduction to the hardcover volume of his poetry that I bought recently suggests may be why Cavafy did not publish more work. Back then, naturally, it was not acceptable to be out.

I've picked up several works by writers who were openly gay at around the turn of the century, so hopefully I'll get to reading them soon. I've always been fascinated by the first 20-25 years of the 20th Century. It seems like such a heady time, with all the rebellion in painting and writing, music and philosophy. And I've always wondered how fantastic and exciting it would have been to be in Paris at this period, which seemed like such an epicenter of the new culture of bohemians, intellectuals, and radicals. Reading gay men at that time seems like an interesting project!

Anyway, Cavafy has a rather unique writing style for his time. He seems to be blank verse yet very direct in his writing, a clarity which seems opposed to some of the work that would come after him. And yet he was devoid of the flowery trappings of poets before him and perhaps of his own time.  I was struck by this particular piece written in about 1910 - one of his more famous - called Ithaca.  The message is clear and well-expressed, and the references to the Odyssey speak to his fascination with ancient Greek and Roman culture. I also really like the cadence of the words; they flow with a meter as patient and quiet as the speed of travel the work recommends to us in life.

(translation by Daniel Mendelsohn)

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with discoveries.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you won't find such things on your way
so long as your thoughts remain lofty, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you won't encounter them
unless you stow them away inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when - with what pleasure, with what joy -
you first put into harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire the finest wares:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
Many Egyptian cities may you visit
that you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always in your mind keep Ithaca.
To arrive there is your destiny.
But do not hurry your trip in any way.
Better that it may last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you've gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave you the beautiful journey;
without her you wouldn't have set upon the road.
But now she has nothing left to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca didn't deceive you.
As wise as you will have become, with so much experience,
you will understand, by then, these Ithacas; what they mean.

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