modernism

Translating Cavafy: eros, memory, and art

C.P. Cavafy
C.P. Cavafy (Cavafy archive)

“Just the place to bury a crock of gold,” said Sebastian. “I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.”  — Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

I wanted to draw out George Economou on the task of translating Cavafy as he was finishing up an extended project to be released, by coincidence, in the poet’s sesquicentennial year. I began by asking him to describe that project. (To conserve space, many of my subsequent questions are elided; they are implicit in George’s discursive responses.)

Economou: My current project consists of 162 poems, the 154 “Collected” or “Published” poems, seven poems from the group known as the “Unpublished” poems, and one poem from the “Repudiated Poems,” i.e., early poems that Cavafy withheld from publication. The title is Complete Plus, The Poems of C. P. Cavafy in English, to be published by Shearsman in early 2013.

What survives translation

C.P. Cavafy
C.P. Cavafy (Cavafy archive)

In his 1961 introduction to Rae Dalven’s translations, W.H. Auden catalogued the poetic “conventions and devices” that Cavafy’s poetry fails to provide the English translator looking for equivalents: the imagery of metaphor and simile, a style or register of diction (English has “nothing comparable to the rivalry of demotic and purist” Greek, the mixture of which is the most characteristic aspect of Cavafy’s texture), ornament. Yet of the versions by several translators Auden had read, “every one of them was immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could have written it.” So what is it, he asks, that “survives translation and excites?” Auden’s answer was a tone of voice, one that “reveals a person with a unique perspective on the world.” Later, in his 2006 introduction to Aliki Barnstone’s translations, Gerald Stern amends this to a sensibility, a “tender humanism, a humanitas supreme.” Peter Bien had called it an attitude of “resignation,” understood not as despair but a kind of wisdom.

The Cambridge connection

King's College, Cambridge University
King's College, Cambridge (© Richard Humphrey, Creative Commons license)

C.P. Cavafy’s introduction to the English literary world was accomplished largely through the efforts of E.M. Forster. Forster met Cavafy during the First World War in Alexandria where, as a conscientious objector, he served with the Red Cross. Already a successful novelist, he was intrigued by both the poet (Daniel Mendelsohn characterizes Forster’s interest as a “crush”) and his work. He composed a vivid portrait of Cavafy, published in 1919 in The Nation and the Atheneum and again in his collection Pharos and Pharillon, which included the description — by now a cliché — of “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” This essay also featured a translation of “The God Abandons Antony.” After the war Forster brought Cavafy’s poems to the attention of T.S. Eliot, who published “Ithaca” in The Criterion in 1924, and Leonard Woolf, who published “The City” in The Nation and the Atheneum the same year. The translations of all these poems were made, with Cavafy’s involvement, by George Valassopoulo. Woolf also tried unsuccessfully for years to persuade Cavafy (who did not publish a book of his poems in Greek during his lifetime) to let the Hogarth Press bring out a collection of Valassopoulo’s English versions.[1] Cavafy and Forster continued to correspond until the poet’s death.

Poet of aftermath

Study for bust of Cavafy by Michalis Tombros (detail)
Study for bust of Cavafy by Michalis Tombros, translating dimensions (detail)

But there is one unfortunate difference between us [the British and the Greeks], one little difference. We Greeks have lost our capital – and the results are what you see. Pray, my dear Forster, oh pray, that you never lose your capital.  — C.P. Cavafy to E. M. Forster, 1918

The proliferation of English translations of Cavafy’s poems in recent years has been remarkable, notable even for the work of a poet to whom recognition came belatedly and international acclaim largely after his death in 1933. The first extensive selection, by George Valassopoulo—presumed to be the only one seen by Cavafy himself—remained unpublished until 2009. John Mavrogordato’s versions, preferred by Cavafy’s executor, appeared in 1951; Rae Dalven’s volume, introduced by W.H. Auden, came out in 1961.

Editions and additions

Gertrude Stein and the iterations of the book

Gertrude Stein, Lucy Church Amiably
Gertrude Stein, Lucy Church Amiably (Paris: Plain Edition, 1930)

In our digital age, the printed book is often seen as resisting the immateriality and inauthenticity of the digital text through its “aura,” “singularity,” “authenticity,” “materiality,” and “bookness”––to cite some key terms from a conference on the future of the book that I attended last year. Even book versions that sit alongside versions in other media––what Marjorie Perloff terms “differential texts”––seem to stress the differences between the book and digital media and so each medium’s materiality.

Yet in a range of poetic practices developed in response to the age of mechanical reproduction and to our digital age, the book becomes a site for exploring––rather than resisting––reproduction and iteration. In the final posts in my “Iterations” commentary, I want to focus on the dual role of the book as both material object and copy, beginning with the work of modernists such as Walter Benjamin and Gertrude Stein before turning to some recent iterative texts that challenge the commonplace contrast between the singularity of the print and paper book object and the repeatability and mutability of the digital text.

The rise of new technologies of mechanical reproduction in the modernist period heightened attention to the book as copy, both in terms of the aura and materiality of the individual copy and as a reproduced non-original object. Gertrude Stein played with these two possible ways of looking at the book through her own press, the Plain Edition, which she used to publish a number of her works in the 1930s.

English and Yíngēlìshī

Jonathan Stalling's homophonic translations

Yíngēlìshī
The cover of Jonathan Stalling's Yíngēlìshī, as published by Counterpath Press in 2011

Like Place’s iterations of Gone with the Wind, Jonathan Stalling’s Yíngēlìshī 吟歌丽诗 also takes as its impetus the copying of another text and also addresses racial stereotyping and the negative attitude toward accents and dialects of English that differ from enforced norms. In Yíngēlìshī , Stalling appropriates an English phrasebook for Chinese speakers. The phrasebook uses standard characters for representing English speech. These characters are not meaningless but their use is conventionalized and in this context they are meant simply to stand for the English sounds––their meaning in Chinese is considered irrelevant. Stalling reproduces the Chinese and English from the phrasebook.

To keep you from going

Defining key aspects of the modern — can’t be done simply. But why not try? Here’s one. The modern poem isn’t about expression or expressiveness, something the poet has urgently wanted to say. It’s primarily neither topical nor personal in the accepted 20th-century sense of the person who has things “inside” that must be said, written, conveyed. The poem isn’t telling you you should or must know something. It doesn't cover or fill a gap, a need, a want. The poem is merely (oh that huge “merely” — but I don’t mean it trivially) a means of keeping a reader from going from it, a detention, a planning to stay, and then — in it — is a remnant of the poet, all we know of him or her at that moment, then (now, the time of coming upon the words) and here (in the poem itself, making an inside that's nowhere else but where it is).

To the extent that the above definition is apt and useful, then the modern verse mode derives largely from Emily Dickinson, who in more than half her poems makes the point I've made above the matter of the poem.

And Cid Corman, not otherwise deemed Dickinsonian, is surely getting at this in this poem:

It isnt for want
of something to say—
something to tell you—

something you should know—
but to detain you--
keep you from going—

feeling myself here
as long as you are—
as long as you are.


And here is a recording of Cid Corman reading that poem.

Writers reading themselves through modernism, circa 2000

Back in the fall of 2000 we invited nine poets to “read through” their relationship to a modernist poet. They talked and read their own and that modernist’s poems. Each presented for 20 minutes. We recorded the events (three nights) and made audio recordings available (then in RealAudio format). Recently, one of our digital editors, Mike Van Helder, organized all this material, converted the streaming RealAudio files into downloadable mp3s, made the links really easy to use, and copied the poem files onto the PennSound author page of each of the nine poets.

Experiment is exhausted, so it's time to interpret rather than explore

American Quarterly, which at the time was the true home in print of the surging postwar “American Studies” (or: “American Civilization”) movement in academe, sought out poet Louise Bogan to write a short summary of “Modernism in American Literature.” It was published in the Summer 1950 issue. Bogan (1897-1970) was very loosely associated with Euro-American poetic modernism of the 1920s, and perhaps it helped that her first book was published in 1923, the time of Harmonium. Her particular Eliot was the writer who’d discovered a modern mode as part of a “personal point of departure [from] Elizabeth drama and the irony of Jules Laforgue.”  She admired the way Yeats and Pound “achieved modernity” yet happily distinguished them from the real thing: “Eliot,” on the other hand, “was modern from the start.”

Bogan, in my view, was essentially done as a poet of significance in 1941, by which time, in any case, most of her poems had been published. She stayed with us a long time, though, and that’s because she’d been hired by the New Yorker to be their main poetry reviewer, holding that powerful position for 38 years, until 1969. I suspect most poetry people would thus know her from the byline on all those short New Yorker notices. (There is, to be sure, a corridor in the house of poetry along which Bogan is said to be “the most accomplished woman poet of the twentieth century.” So begins the introductory note on her at the Poetry Foundation web site.)

Problems are flowers and fade

In philosophy and art humanity is no longer worthy of our enquiry or representation. Philosophy as an attention to human problems must yield to science dealing with mechanical masses of non-human material. The questions of medicine, hygiene and psychology are being relegated gradually to physiology. Art no longer attempts to mirror man, or the things in nature as seen by man, but depicts unrecognisable patterns which are like nothing on earth—lines, cubes, inhuman designs. The art of representing visible likeness is relegated to the science of photography. The philosophies and arts of one age are the exact sciences of the next. Philosophy, searching for what is true, and art, searching for what is new, may be discovered as being always out in front of society, in the vanguard; while the sciences and industries—the more utilitarian and moralistic activities—may be considered as forming the main body of the army, moving into the positions the spearhead establishes. This division of labour is rarely seen operating on a large scale, but viewing the world as a whole it will be seen that the humanism which has inspired so many of the great philosophers and artists of the past is a goal attained. We have arrived at humanity; there is work for science, enormous work—but the vanguard has to look to new goals ahead.Harry Hooton, excerpt from "Problems are Flowers and Fade," from Things You See When You Haven't Got a Gun, self-published booklet, 1943.

Over the last few months, Harry Hooton has been on my mind. His name has been mentioned a number of times as I have progressed through this archival project, and on my first visit to Amanda Stewart's house she lent me a copy of Poet of the 21st Century: Harry Hooton, Collected Poems, selected and introduced by Sasha Soldatow and published by Angus & Robertson in 1990. I didn't open the book until I knew I could take it to bed and read it entirely. My gut told me Harry and Sasha would eat me, my night, my bed, effortlessly. And they did!

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