On Cavafy’s Side


From 1977, Joseph Brodsky in the NYRB (image from Wikimedia Commons):

The uneventfulness of Cavafy’s life extends to his never having published a book of his poems. He lived in Alexandria, wrote poems (occasionally printing them infeuilles volantes, as pamphlets or broadsheets in a severely limited edition), talked in cafés to local or visiting literati, played cards, bet on horses, visited homosexual brothels, and sometimes attended church.

I believe that there are at least five editions of Cavafy’s poetry in English. The most successful renderings are those by Rae Dalven and Messrs. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. The hard-cover version of the latter is bilingual. Since there is little or no cooperation in the world of translation, translators sometimes duplicate others’ efforts without knowing it. But a reader may benefit from such duplication and, in a way, the poet may benefit too. In this case, at least, he does, although there is a great deal of similarity between the two books in the goal they set themselves of straightforward rendering. Judged by this goal, Keeley and Sherrard’s versions are certainly superior. It is lucky though that less than half of Cavafy’s work is rhymed, and mostly his early poems.

Every poet loses in translation, and Cavafy is not an exception. What is exceptional is that he also gains. He gains not only because he is a fairly didactic poet, but also because, starting as early as 1900-1910, he began to strip his poems of all poetic paraphernalia—rich imagery, similes, metric flamboyance, and, as already mentioned, rhymes. This is the economy of maturity, and Cavafy resorts to deliberately “poor” means, to using words in their primary meanings as a further move toward economy. Thus he calls emeralds “green” and describes bodies as being “young and beautiful.” This technique comes out of Cavafy’s realization that language is not a tool of cognition but one of assimilation, that the human being is a natural bourgeois and uses language for the same ends as he uses housing or clothing. Poetry seems to be the only weapon able to beat language, using language’s own means.