Topic #23: Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.
Book: Collected Poems: Revised Edition, by C. V. Cavafy
Publisher: Princeton University Press (1992)
Guard, O my soul, against pomp and glory.
And if you cannot curb your ambitions,
at least pursue them hesitantly, cautiously.
And the higher you go,
the more searching and careful you need to be.
Excerpt from “The Ides of March”
Throughout his lifetime, Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) wrote numerous poems, of which one hundred and fifty four were completed and published. A Greek born in Alexandria, Egypt, Cavafy made his living as a journalist and civil servant and gained little renown as a poet until after his death. Today, he is considered one of the great modern Greek poets. This second edition of Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keely and Philip Sherrard, and edited by George Savidis, offers a chronologically arranged selection of his works, both published and unpublished during his lifetime.
Cavafy’s poetry is based in topics related to the ancient world, so I knew that I had to read it. It was an interesting experience, given that I am not used to reading collections of poetry, let alone collections of poetry in translation. Unfortunately, my first impression was that the wide-ranging differences between Greek (both modern and classical) and English renders the translation process difficult and not necessarily rewarding. Of course, a translated text is never the same as the original, but when two languages have different flows to them, it makes conveying even an approximation of tone impossible. In this case, the alleged intricacy of Cavafy’s style (especially the verse) did not usually seem to be well-reflected in the English.
Although not all of the poems made an impression, those that did carried a powerful impact. I was struck by two poems in particular: The Ides of March and Waiting for the Barbarians. They struck a chord due to the political and philosophical statements that Cavafy makes through them — statements that are still true today. The Ides of March, quoted above, addresses political ambition and the dangers it carries, highlighting the inevitable downfall resulting from over-confidence.
Waiting for the Barbarians was particularly powerful and relevant to the present political situation. I will quote a few slivers of the poem here and let it speak for itself:
Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit here without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
But, in the end, the barbarians do not come. So Cavafy asks:
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
Cavafy’s poems can be divided in several general categories: mythological (alluding to Greek and Roman myth), historical (alluding to historical figures or events), erotic (especially homoerotic), and contemplative/instructive. A reader does not have to be acquainted with many of their subjects to appreciate them (I was not really familiar with the majority of Byzantine figures he alludes to); the message of these poems has a certain amount of universality which can impact anyone. Turkish Nobel Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk is one example. His New York Times essay on his relationship with one of the poems is worth reading and considering.
Whether you are a reader of poetry or not, I find that this collection has something for everyone. I would recommend looking through it, even if you do not read the entire collection. Like me, you might be surprised, or even inspired.