CULTURE

Special Ithaca pays homage to C.P. Cavafy

For the past two years, the Fall issue of Ithaca – Books from Greece has been dedicated to a single author, with marked success on both occasions. Last year’s tribute to George Seferis included articles on the writer’s poetry and essays, his influence on later Greek writers, the impression he made on foreign writers and some of his own work. The September-October 2001 issue pays tribute to C.P. Cavafy, placing equal emphasis on his international recognition and his influence on other poets. Some early influential articles on Cavafy’s work appear in this discriminating collection by Dimitris Daskalopoulos, poet, critic and bibliographer. Among them are the pieces by E.M. Forster and Marguerite Yourcenar that aroused the interest of so many English and French-speaking readers in the Alexandrian poet’s work, and which are still worth reading for their insights. Writing about the poem Ithaca, Forster comments on one of Cavafy’s moods as being intensely subjective; scenery, cities and legends all re-emerge in terms of the mind. There is another mood in which he stands apart from his subject matter, and with the detachment of an artist hammers it into shape. Yourcenar pinpoints sensuality as the pivot of his work. It is the poet’s point of view that intrigues Rex Warner, who calls it the inversion of the heroic. He loves to insist not on some great or completed accomplishment or successful quest, but on the importance of the first steps or of incidents along the way. Stephen Spender also comments on this reverse heroism: Cavafy is particularly fascinated by the moment of choice, of misfortune or disgrace. What his great poems… and his small poems.. have in common is the fascinated sense of the die being cast with fatal results which are still exquisite in the moment of the casting… Of all poets he is the one who most makes success look like grandiose failure and failure look like hidden fatal success. Several poets voice their debt to Cavafy in this selection. W.H. Auden says outright, I can think of poems which, if Cavafy were unknown to me, I should have written quite differently or perhaps not written at all. In the manner of… The most fervent homage to the poet comes from fellow practitioners who have written works in his manner. Nassos Vayenas, poet and professor of literary theory at Athens University, has edited a collection of 153 poems from 53 countries in Conversing with Cavafy: An Anthology of Foreign Poems Inspired by Cavafy, 21 of which are reprinted in Ithaca. Vayenas makes the point that Cavafy’s influence on non-Greek writers is now getting the attention it deserves, and these poems demonstrate the extent of the influence. Cavafy’s settings, subject matter, atmosphere, point of view, unadorned style and irony are variously reworked here, in poems ranging from James Merrill’s poignant yet humorous take on missed opportunities: After Cavafy, where the barbarians are on the outside; and Blaga Dimitrova’s The Barbarians, with a different twist: For the barbarians lie in wait /inside each of us. /And not outside, but walking on their toes / surge forth from within us. /And we raise our arms in the air. /Helpless. The illustrations are a joy in themselves. The poet is portrayed in photographs, a silk screen print, woodcut and batik, while the scenes of his life and work are reproduced in photographs old and new. A selected bibliography of translations competes this special issue.