Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Necessary and unnecessary steps in Constantine Cavafy

No matter how many times one has read the poems of Constantine Cavafy, to come back to them again, after all those encounters with others books, other poems, is to be taken once again by surprise. "Sadly I see the ladder of poetry/reaches high, so very high" complains the novice poet to a more experienced one in Cavafy's poem "The First Step". "Unhappily for me, I'll never climb higher/ than this first step where I stand." Of course Cavafy went well past that first step, all the way up the ladder: those who think him the twentieth century's greatest poet are not few in number. But it is worth noting, as an example of Cavafy's practicality and clearsightedness, that even this poem about a poet fretful about his lack of progress beyond one step ends with the older poet's wise counsel: "Even this first step/is a long way from ordinary people./..../You've reached here, no small feat. Just what you have done is a great glory."

This is among the sentiments that emerge most powerfully from Cavafy's poetry: that setting out on one's own requires unusual courage, and even the person who has taken only the first step has done something truly worthy, for he has knowingly made himself an outsider, exposed himself to the gaze of those very same "ordinary people" with whom he has broken (this idea carries a particular charge in Cavafy's poetry because he was homosexual). Here is the thought again in the poem "Growing Strong", taken from Aliki Barnstone's fine new translations of Cavafy:
Growing Strong

He who wishes to strengthen his spirit,
must abandon reverence and submission.
He will honor some laws,
but mostly he will break both law and custom,
and he will stray from the accepted, inadequate straight path.
He will be taught much by sensual pleasures.
He will not fear the destructive act;
half the house must be torn down.
This way he will grow virtuously towards knowledge.
How easy and economical the poem is: it seems almost to write itself from the first line onward, and it is resolutely unmetaphorical - Cavafy always choses understatement over ornament. The effect of the poem lies almost totally in the varying force and strength of the individual lines, which give us the sense of a voice thinking aloud, its pitch rising and falling (note the work done by the words "will" and "must", and the slightly self-satisfied and therefore self-ironising air - "virtuously" - of the tidy close, the only line of the poem that is also a complete sentence). And observe also that Cavafy is never the advocate of total, all-consuming revolution, whether in personal life or in politics: even here he says, of the person who wishes to grow strong, that "He will honor some laws" and "half the house must be torn down".

Cavafy's insistence that we not be afraid of "the destructive act" goes hand in hand with a respect for tradition: politically he was a conservative and not a radical. His poem "In A Large Greek Colony, 200 BCE", although set two thousand years in the past, seems to speak directly to the twentieth century and its totalitarian horrors with its message that nobody is as likely to repeat the errors of history as those who want to sweep away all of history. This is Barnstone's version:

In A Large Greek Colony, 200 BCE

There is not the slightest doubt
that things in the Colony don't go as one would wish,
and though we move forward, anyway,
perhaps, as not a few think, the time has come
for us to bring in a Political Reformer.

Yet the obstacle and difficulty
is that they make a big deal
out of everything, these Reformers.
(It would be a stroke of good luck
if one never needed them.) Everything,
every little thing, they ask about and examine,
and instantly radical reforms come to mind
and they demand they be implemented without delay.

They lean toward sacrifice.
Give up that property of yours,
your owning it is risky:
such possessions are harmful to the Colonies.
Give up that income
and that coming from it.
and this third one, as a natural consequence.
They are essential, but it can't be helped;
They create an adverse liability for you.

And as they proceed in their inspection,
they find (then find again) needless things,
which they demand must go—
things that are nevertheless hard to dismiss.

And when, with good luck, they finish their work,
having ordered and pared everything down to the last detail,
they leave, taking away their rightful wages, as well.
We'll see what remains, after
so much expert surgery.

Perhaps the time had not yet come.
Let's not rush; haste is a dangerous thing.
Premature measures bring reget.
Certainly, and unfortunately, there is much disorder in the Colony.
But is there anything human without imperfection?
And, anyway, look, we're moving forward.
As Edward Said notes in his book On Late Style, in Cavafy "the future does not occur, or if it does, it has in a sense already happened. Better the internalized, narrow world of limited expectations than that of grandiose projects constantly betrayed or traduced." (Said's five or six pages on Cavafy make up probably the best passage of the book. He also writes: "One of Cavafy's greatest achievements is to render the extremes of lateness, physical crisis, and exile in forms and situations and above all in a style of remarkable inventiveness and lapidary calm.") Lapidary is exactly the word for Cavafy.

Barnstone's work compares favourably with the standard English translation of Cavafy: the Collected Poems by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Although her lines often depart only slightly from those by Keeley and Sherrard, sometimes they produce an improved tone. Here is a comparison of two versions of one of my favourite Cavafy poems, the plangent and totally unforgettable "Voices":

Ideal and loved voices
of the dead, or of those
lost to us like the dead.

Sometimes they speak to us in dreams;
sometimes the brain hears them in thought.

And, for one moment, with their sounds,
sounds come back from the first poetry of our lives—
like music at night, remote, fading away.

(translated by Aliki Barnstone)


Voices, loved and idealized,
of those who have died, or of those
lost for us like the dead.

Sometimes they speak to us in dreams;
sometimes deep in thought the mind hears them.

And with their sound for a moment return
sounds from our life’s first poetry—
like music at night, distant, fading away.

(translated by Keeley and Sherrard)

Though there is not much to choose between them, I find I prefer the opening of the first, with its simpler formulations and fewer pauses making for a graver sound. On the other hand, Keeley and Sherrard have a smoother close, while Barnstone's version has the word "sounds" twice one upon the other, which to some ears might sound jarring as it does to mine.

Some more translations from Barnstone's book are available here and here, and the entire set of Keeley and Sherrard translations here. Here are some of my own choices: "Body, Remember", "Candles", "He Asked About The Quality", "But The Wise Perceive Things About To Happen", "Waiting For The Barbarians", "Since Nine O'Clock", and "The God Abandons Antony".

Also, the writer André Aciman compares four different translations of Cavafy's poem "The City" in an essay called "Translating Cavafy". And there is a large selection of essays on the theory and practice of translation in this old Middle Stage post.


equivocal said...

Very nice post, Chandrahas. I especially like your close and relevant comparison of the two translations at the end and, at least with respect to this particular poem, you seem to be right.

I think I read "The First Step" a little differently from you. Evmenis, as I see it, is *not* a "mediocre" poet, nor quite a novice. He is, as Theocritos says quite without irony, exaggeration or false encouragement, "a member [in his own right] of the city of ideas" ie. someone with his own clearly distinct voice, someone with something important and different to say-- and this, after two years of hard and completely devoted study. Even the very first step, in this poem, is not at all an easy achievement, and mediocre and untalented poets would never be able to reach it. Furthermore, a mediocre poet, who would likely be not only ill-practised, undevoted, unreflective, but also badly (and not deeply) read, would not be fully aware of how low he really was. A mediocre poet or novice would not necessarily even be able to conceive of ambition beyond a point. Evmenis on the other hand, after finally having completed an idyll that he is actually satisfied with, suddenly stands from his height and realises, at that moment, with shock and despair, how much higher the climb actually goes, as well as the utter impossibility of reaching the peak, which is beyond any poet's control and much beyond "ability" or "achievement".

[Technically speaking, then, "The First Step" is not quite what we today, in our democratic age, would normally consider an artist's first step. Perhaps we might recallibrate it as "The Middle Stage"?]

What is interesting, as I read the poem, is that we (and perhaps not even Theocritos) have no access to Evmenis' idyll. Theocritos deduces Evmenis' position, perhaps, by his emotional state and his reaction of sudden, despairing awareness. I even think it possible that Cavafy [however much in error] saw himself on the first step or thereabouts when he wrote this poem in self-reassurance-- facing the mountainous ranges of not one but successive great ages of Greek poetry.

Anonymous said...

A somewhat weak post on cavafy, but the mention of Said´s essay and the word "Lapidary" redeem it.

Maybe I am a bit miffed that you havent mentioned Rae Dalven among the translators. Cavafy is a musical poet. The originals in greek follow strict metres. In capturing that cadence - Dalven is better than Keeley & Sherrard is better than Barnstone.

While her Growing Stong is good, In a large Greek Colony is appalling. Sometimes, Barnstone appears to have a tin ear. This is the first time in my life that I have read the words "Adverse Liability" in poetry. Soon masses of accountants wil fill their ledgers with poetry!

But no harm done. A translation of Rae Dalven is worth getting just for a great introductory essay by WH Auden.

I leave you with a gem you might have missed. "Hidden", which might be Cavafy´s autobiography:


Anonymous said...

Dear Chandrahas,
I loved your last two posts on two of my favourite writers-the one on Naipaul I came across by chance in the Observer on the train from London two weeks ago; but more on that maybe later.

You have judged well in your preference for the new translation-in ‘Voices’ and the few others you link to, it’s more faithful to the directness and simplicity of the original tone. I am not sure how well either translation does-or could have done-in capturing the semi-archaic idiosyncratic Greek he writes in. But (unlike perhaps most other Greeks) I tend to think that aspect of Cavafy’s language is not at the core of the beauty of his poems.

You are right I think in emphasizing the element of personal originality and endeavour in ‘The First Step”-but maybe this is part of a greater theme in Cavafy’s poetry, that of individual dignity and conviction, the internal possibilities of character against a difficult environment? One can see this clearly in many of his poems, for example ‘The Walls’, ‘God abandons Anthony’ ‘The City’ ‘Che fece…il gran rifiuto’ ‘Thermopylae’ and of course ‘Ithaca’. ‘The First Step’ in particular is fitting not just for poets or even artists but perhaps for many areas of human enterprise.

How about this translation of the two lines you didn’t like in the Barnstone ‘Voices’ version: ‘And with their sound for a moment return/sounds from the first poetry of our life’

Chandrahas said...

Equivocal - That is a lovely reading of "The First Step", and I think every reader of the Middle Stage will take something from it. Many thanks for your efforts towards making this a better weblog. If you promise to leave a comment on every post I do for the next four weeks, I will buy you an alcoholic drink, or many alcoholic drinks, when I am in Delhi next month. So just take care not to come down with jaundice or some such illness, because then you'l have written all these comments and won't be able to drink.

Chandrahas said...

Avataram - Welcome, I've never seen you here before. I'm so glad that Edward Said has redeemed such a humble thing as my blog post, when all his life he'd only been redeeming graduate theses and cantankerous academic monographs.

I agree - the Rae Dalven translations are well worth looking at, and you do well to alert readers to them. But every translation also reflects the current state of the language (or to put it another way, classic works always stay classic but their translations are mutable), and some Dalven phrasings - such as the "mayhaps" in the poem you link to - sound awkward today.

Also, you write of one of Barnstone's choices of phrase: "This the first time in my life that I have read the words 'Adverse Liability' in poetry. Soon masses of accountants will fill their ledgers with poetry!" I feel bad tampering with your witticism, but you should think carefully about what that "adverse liability" signifies within the context of the poem. It is not a locution of the speaker of the poem, but one used by the Political Reformers who are its subject - prosaic unimaginative people who might be very likely to use a phrase like "adverse liability". Once the context of the poem and that speech in italics is accounted for, your adverse remark turns out actually to be a compliment to Barnstone.

Chandrahas said...

Michalis - What a pleasure to hear from you. This continues all the pleasant and enriching discussions of Cavafy's work in years gone past. Let me acknowledge my indebtedness to you for refining my appreciation of Cavafy; I can still hear your voice speaking out some of the lines in Greek.

You're quite right: "The First Step" has a meaning that can easily be extended to many walks of life. But I am not sure that Cavafy unambiguously affirms the dignity and conviction of the individual in his poems. That is to say, somewhere his speakers are also conscious of the framework of the world and struggle with its values.

I am thinking, for instance, of a poem like "On The Stairs", in which the speaker speaks of passion that is deeply felt but writhing in guilt. An indicator of his internal struggles is the repeated word "sordid", which seems to refer to the decrepit house of pleasure where the two men pass each other but also seeps out through implication to the entire web of relations between the men who come here, and ends with the lines: "And yet the passion you wanted, I possessed to give you;/ the pleasure I wanted - your tired and suspicious/ eyes told me - you possessed to give me./ Our bodies felt and sought each other;/ our blood and skin understood./ But shaken we two hid ourselves."

"But shaken we two hid ourselves" - this mood in Cavafy is prominent alongside the idea of the fortitude and dignity of those who struggle with their environment and are willing to take the first step and perhaps more steps.

anish said...

chandrahas thank you for this post and the poems you mention. I had only read 'The City'. Cavafy is great!
Your reviews are mast. Recently I read 'Death in Venice and other tales' by Thomas Mann (new translation by Joachim Neugreschol) and 'Seven Gothic Tales' by Isak Dinesen. Could you review them someday?

Chandrahas said...

Anish - I am glad you liked the post. Also you seem to be reading some very impressive books. I have to confess here that you are actually ahead of me - I have never read either Mann or Dinesen, so I don't have an opinion on their work. Getting myself one would require some work, and just like you and every other committed reader in the world I already have a long list of books I want to read. But I'll keep your request in mind. Pleasure to hear from you.

Anonymous said...

My intention is not to criticize your post at all. You are a pleasure to read. My apologies.

Also the translation of Hidden is by John Ioannides, not Rae Dalven...

I still cannot trust Barnstone. If you look at the greek original - maybe you could translate the words as "harmful responsibility".

To coin a strange phrase like "adverse liability" to describe it seems too much. Even plain "liability" would have covered it, dont you think?

IMHO, Keeley and Sherrard seem to get this right..


Wouldnt you say their version is more elegant, more faithful to the original?

Chandrahas said...

Avataram - I don't read Greek as you seem to, so I'm afraid I carry my own adverse liability as a judge of these translations - I compare them and judge them not against the Greek original but off each other and as English poems.

Looking through the Barnstone and comparing some of her versions against Keeley and Sherrard, I find I prefer some of one or some of the other. There may be some Dalven versions that are better than either.

I'd go along with your point that the word "adverse" is not absolutely essential in the Barnstone, but the rendition of the line in the rival version doesn't seem very satisfying either. Barnstone may have been trying to "fill" the line up a little.