Commentaries - March 2013

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project consists of 162 poems, the 154 “Collected” or “Published” poems, seven poems from the group known as the “Unpublished” poems, and one poem from the “Repudiated Poems,” i.e., early poems that Cavafy withheld from publication.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. On the cover and the title page I will recognize my good friend and reader, Stavros Deligiorgis of Athens, who diligently read and critiqued my translations in their first and second drafts, by adding his name to mine, “Translated by George Economou with Stavros Deligiorgis.” The translations are mine and I must take responsibility for them, though I am convinced they are the better for his close reading of them, just as the two earlier small collections were.

As I worked on a book of translations of ancient Greek amatory poetry, mostly from The Greek—also known as The Palatine—Anthology for the Modern Library imprint of Random House (published in 2006), I was struck again by a certain resonance of the ancient Greek love poems in Cavafy’s poetry. As everybody knows, Cavafy was deeply familiar with these poems (as well as the work of the Greek writers of the Second Sophistic (first three centuries C.E.), but it seemed to me that while it may have been noticed it had not been thoroughly explored. This awareness might have instigated my interest in doing more translations of Cavafy, but the whole range of my concerns with his opus has led me to try to accommodate all of it with new translations. Meanwhile a number of friends kept urging me to do this book and, as it turns out, I have finally acquiesced with great pleasure and gratitude.

I have been reading Cavafy since 1956 when I moved to New York to do graduate work at Columbia (in medieval literature, which is another story). I remember picking up a used copy of Mavrogordato’s book of translations at a bookstore in Greenwich Village and becoming intrigued. Then In 1957, after earning my master’s degree, during my first trip to Greece, I was introduced to the poetry of C. P. Cavafy in Greek by my mother’s eldest brother, a long-retired general and chief justice of the court martial in the Greek army. Delighted to learn that I considered myself a poet and would-be translator, my Thio Stathi sat me down in the study of his Athens apartment and began to read the poetry of Cavafy with me, a practice that came to occupy many an afternoon. I still have vivid memories of us following in the footsteps of the early evening stroll and adventure of the central character in the poem entitled “He Asked About the Quality” and of the two of us joining the speaker of the poem “In the Month of Athyr” in trying to decipher the eroded fragmentary inscription on a stone marking the burial place of a young man named Lefkios.

I believe the persistent calling for translations of Cavafy is a clear indication of the power of his work. May they continue. I definitely suppose part of the attraction to his work is due to the important changes taking place in our society, changes that he seemed to hope for in the closing lines of his poem “Hidden Things.” Cavafy’s hopes for a world without intolerance adds yet another dimension to the profound humanity of his poetry.

In translating I aim first and foremost to write a poem in English that partakes, as much as it is within my power to achieve, of the salient qualities of the original. This is and always has been my guiding principle, whether I am translating poetry from ancient or modern Greek, or a Middle English dialect, as in my translation of Langland’s Piers Plowman. I do not follow any particular theory of translation though I have read my share, I guess, of Benjamin, Venuti, and others. I have always chosen as my motto the statement of my late friend Paul Blackburn that “much depends on the translator,” in both of its senses. Since I am a poet-practitioner of the art, I strive to write as good a poem, in the American English of my time, as did—in this case—Cavafy. I want to give readers not only Cavafy’s intellect and sensibility but also something of its art as defined by Paul Valéry, “constraining language to interest the ear directly.”

There is something to be said about wanting to check out the translations that Cavafy read and, as you say, “tacitly tolerated,” at least because he probably didn’t find them absolutely intolerable. I don’t think we have any way of knowing what he really thought of them. I believe a prospective translator of Cavafy should read and appraise as many of the previous translations as possible, but when the time comes to do the job should set them aside, with the exception of occasionally consulting about how a special problem was solved.

The long period of work on my translation of Langland’s C-text of Piers Plowman has had a transformative effect on my way of going about my work as a translator. By concentrating on the original text, word by word, phrase by phrase, line by line or more, looking for “salient features” such as wordplay, allusions, rhetorical devices, registers of voicing, sound (alliteration of course) and cadence—everything in my ability to ascertain, including what I believe to be the most salient feature of all, the intelligible sense of it—I found myself confidently and easily slipping or sliding the South West Midlands dialect of 14th century Middle English into a 20th century American English double or mirror-like version of it. Sure, there was some of the inevitable distortion in the translation, but for me it clearly partook of the very character and nature of its source to an unusual degree, a most satisfying feeling.

This approach guided my subsequent work on the two small Cavafy books, I’ve Gazed So Much and Half an Hour, and my Modern Library translations of ancient Greek amatory poetry, Acts of Love, though moving from ancient and modern Greek to contemporary English, more like a leap than a subtle shift, certainly does not duplicate the process of middle to modern English. I’ll take a look with you at how it informed my translation of the poem “Half an Hour.” For a relatively literal translation of this poem, see Keeley and Sherrard. This is one of those Cavafy poems that does not reveal the gender of the beloved—more out of the mechanics of the Greek language, I believe, than out of a deliberate desire to withhold it by the poet, though I’ve nothing against ambiguity if it contributes something of significance. In any case, using the second person of the pronoun in the poem makes the question irrelevant to translating it. (A true story: A friend in Norman, Oklahoma printed elegant postcards of this poem, one of which I thumb-tacked alongside other literary and artistic curios on the front door of my office for student edification when I was teaching at the University of Oklahoma. I lost count of the number of times I had to replace it there after it was ripped off—carefully I trust—by passing students whose eyes were hooked by the poem and who, I imagined, may have also perceived it as an aid to their own making-out ambitions as a kind of Cyrano de Bergerac intermediary.)

Half an Hour

Never made it with you and don’t expect
I will. Some talk, a slight move closer,
as in the bar yesterday, nothing more.
A pity, I won’t deny. But we artists
now and then by pushing our minds
can—but only for a moment—create
a pleasure that seems almost physical.
That’s why in the bar yesterday—with the help
of alcohol’s merciful power—I had
a half-hour that was completely erotic.
I think you knew it and
stayed on purpose a little longer.
That was really necessary. Because
with all my imagination and spell of the drinks,
I just had to see your lips,
had to have your body near.

First, this poem is unusual among the erotic poems of Cavafy for its direct address to a single would-be and likely never-to-be lover, in the second person. This is, after all, one of the “hidden” or “unpublished” poems, which Cavafy might have held back because of its directness. I seriously doubt if he thought his Greek audience of the time wouldn’t know the gender of the person addressed. (Of course, my thieving students—did any of them consider themselves artists, too?—did not know or care, I daresay, whether it was a male or female, and that’s also to the good. If one of them becomes a serious reader of Cavafy, she or he will get it.) It is, above all, a love poem about frustrated but nevertheless insistently passionate desire. That’s why much of its intensity is conveyed by the rhythm of its discourse, short bursts of pleading words, breath-stopping line breaks, etc. This I had to retain in my version as a foundation. Then I wanted—could not see any other way of doing it—to make it idiomatically as contemporary as possible, for the sake of its urgency. This urgency is one of the reasons I believe Cavafy did not rhyme this poem, though there is, as one expects in Greek, plenty of assonance. The poem’s center of gravity, as well as source of title, is “icha misi ora teleia erotiki” (I had / a half-hour that was completely erotic), marked by the assonances of a’s and o’s and the internal rhyme of misi and erotiki. To translate this salient feature as fully as I could, I moved the verb back to the end of the previous line to continue the halting language. I also added the word “power” between “merciful” and “alcohol,” not really a big stretch of the literal sense “merciful alcoholism,” in order to gain a comparable center of the poem’s sound effect through the “power/ half-hour” slant rhyme of the line and the one that follows.

A couple of words at the end of the poem tell an interesting story. As you can see, I’ve translated the line Keeley & Sherrard translate “all the magic alcohol” (literally in Greek “the magic or magical wine-spirits”)  “the spell of the drinks.” My friend Stavros at one point wanted me to consider using the literal “wine-spirits” instead of “drinks” but I stuck to my guns because that’s what people drink in bars, whatever they’re drinking: “drinks.” Keeley and Sherrard’s use of “alcohol” again doesn’t cut it for me. Lastly, the last word of the poem––konta––means “near” or, followed by a noun or pronoun, “next to,” and Cavafy could have written konta mou, but for good reasons didn’t. The “near me” of Keeley and Sherrard seems to me to dilute (word-play not intended) the finality of “had to have your body near.”  Two last points––1) My sense that this poem requires a special directness and clarity also led me to simply use “artists” in the 4th line rather than something like Keeley and Sherrard’s “we who serve Art” for the literal sense of “belonging to Art” or “of Art” of tis Technis. This poem, like numerous others, demands that those who fail to recognize Cavafy’s melopoieia, granted his own brand of it, should listen carefully again. 2) Early invidious comparisons of his sound to that of his contemporaries, by Seferis and others, that he sounds flat or that his poetry is “as prosaic as an endless plain” (Seferis) need to be rethought if not abandoned. Why should he want to sound like Palamas or Varnalis or Greek surrealists like Elytis and Gatsos (not that there’s anything wrong with them) when he searched out and found his own way, possibly better heard today than then?

Let me say a couple of things about dealing with rhyme in translating Cavafy. The conventional way of translating poetry into English, including the way a good number of Cavafy translators have chosen, recommends avoiding rhyme because English is not a rhyme-rich language. As a translator, just as I have as a poet, I’ve looked for many different ways to go about my work. I’ve translated a lot of rhymed poetry without rhyme, or I’ve simply given some attention to rhyme in a more relaxed way, and in some cases I have just decided, after studying the poem, that I could really do this. I could actually preserve the rhyme scheme without distorting the poem. As an example here’s an early little Cavafy poem called “Prayer.” Now, Cavafy used rhyme in some, but by no means all, of his poems, though he rhymed a lot more than some people think. From most other translations, you’d never know it was written in rhyming couplets. After thinking about it, I decided that I could take my translation closer into the original by using several kinds of imperfect, or as some prefer, near rhyme.  


The sea took a sailor down to her depths.
His mother, unaware, goes and lights

a tall candle before the Virgin Mother
for his quick return and for good weather—

and ever towards the wind she cocks her ear.
But while she pleads and says her prayer,

the icon listens, sad and solemn,
knows the son she awaits will never come.

To be truthful, I have to say all this happens almost intuitively after the hard study of the original and not as if one is planning moves in a game of chess. I’ll give two more examples of translations of poems that seemed fine after working over their originals but which I later decided lacked the élan I felt Cavafy’s texts demanded of me. In these two sets, the first version given is the earlier, carefully worked out but eventually discarded one. Each second version “slipped” or “slid,” so to speak, out of its anglo-predecessor. Neither of these poems fits into the accurate but perhaps too-comprehensive description of Cavafy’s work as one of decline. But more about this, briefly I promise, below in closing.


Just because we’ve broken up their statues,
just because we’ve chased them out of their temples,
the gods are by no means dead for all that.
O land of Ionia, it’s you they still love,
you their souls keep on remembering.
When an August morning breaks its light over you
a force from their life pervades your atmosphere,
and at times an ethereal, youthful figure,
indistinct, moving fast,
glides across your hills.



So what if we’ve smashed their statues,
so what if we’ve thrown them out of their temples,
the gods are not dead on account of that.
Ionia, Ionia, they love you still,
in their souls they remember you still.
When an August morning breaks light on you,
the power of their lives fills your air,
and at times a young unearthly form,
hazy and fleeting,
glides above your hills.


One of their Gods

When one of them passed through Seleucia’s
marketplace around the time of nightfall
like a tall and utterly handsome youth,
with the joy of incorruptibility in his eyes,
with his scented black hair,
the passersby looked at him
and asked one another whether they knew him,
if he was a Syrian Greek or a stranger.
But some, who observed with greater care,
caught on and stepped aside;
and as he disappeared under the arcades
among the shadows and the evening lights,
heading for the quarter that comes to life
only at night, with orgies and debauchery,
and every kind of “high” and lechery,
they’d wonder which of Them he was,
and for which unnamable desire of his
he’d stepped down into the streets of Seleucia
from the Worshipful Hallowed Mansions.


One of their Gods

When one of them rushed through Seleucia’s
center of town round about dusk time
like one of those tall, fabulous looking young men,
his eyes ashine with his incorruptibility,
with his black hair perfumed,
those he encountered stared at him
and asked each other who he was,
a Syrian Greek, maybe, or a stranger.
But those who looked more sharply
got it and got out of his way;
and as he disappeared through the arcades
into the shadows and lights of the night,
making his way to the zone that lives
only after dark on orgies and debauchery
and all kinds of “highs” and lechery,
they wondered which one of Them he was,
and for what questionable pleasure
he’d descended onto Seleucia’s streets
from that high and hallowed home of his.


Finally, Cavafy as poet of decline. Well, yes, but recognizing that there are some exceptional poems. But perhaps a twinge or two of loss or sadness can be squeezed out of even those poems. How about Cavafy as the modern poet par excellence of lacrimae rerum? The Virgilian handle is one I think he would have liked, a truly Roman element comfortably at home within his deeply Hellenic- and Hellenistic-informed vision of the world.

Dec, 15, 2011 at M/E/A/N/I/N/G launch. Photo © Lawrence Schwartzwald (No reproduction without express permission)

If anything happens to me,
                                    Kleoboulos my friend,
(For I am not safe—
                                    I lie like a curling vine
Flung in the fire of girls)
                                    before you send
My ashes under earth
                                    pour in strong wine,
Then on the drunken urn write,
                                    “Hades, know
Love sends this gift to death”—
                                    And bury me and go.

"Instructions for Meleager's Death"
Meleager of Gadara, tr. Thomas McEvilley

Scholar, poet, novelist, art historian, critic, and translator Thomas McEvilley died this morning at Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital in New York. He was 73 years old. He is survived by his wife, Joyce Burstein and two sons, Thomas and Monte (his middle son, Alexander, died some years earlier). His death was the result of complications from cancer, according to his wife.

 McEvilley is best known as a provocative and influential art critic. His art essays are collected in several books published by McPherson & Company: Art & Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity (1991), Art & Discontent: Theory at the Millennium (1992), Yves the Provocateur: Yves Klein and Twentieth Century Art (2010); Art, Love, Friendship: Marina Abramovic and Ulay (2010); The Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-Modernism (2012).  His other books of art criticism and history are Sculpture in the Age of Doubt (Allworth Press, 1999) and The Exile’s Return: Toward a Redefinition of Painting for the Post-Modern Era (Cambridge University Press, 1994). In addition, McEvilley wrote monographs, catalog essays, and critical reviews of James Lee Byars, Carolee Schneemann, Julian Schnabel, Les Levine, Pat Steir, Antoni Tapies, Sigmar Polke, Dennis Oppenheim, Kara Walker, Nancy Spero, Thornton Dial, Leon Golub, Richard Tuttle, Agnes Martin, Joseph Beuys, Paul McCarthy, William Anastasi and many other artists.

 McEvilley was also the author of two monumental philological studies, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies (Allworth, 2001) and Sappho (Spring, 2008). At the time of his death he was working on a study of the Greek anthology.

 In 1987, McPherson and Company published McEvilley’s North of Yesterday: a Menippean Satire,  part novel, part poem.

Thomas McEvilley grew up in Cincinnati, where he studied Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and classical philosophy in the classics programs of the University of Cincinnati (B.A.), and the University of Washington (M.A.).  In 1969, he received a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati in classical philology. McEvilley taught at Rice University from 1969 to 2008, commuting there for many years after he moved to New York. In 2005, he founded the M.F.A. Art Criticism and Writing program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. McEvilley has been a visiting professor at Yale University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has received numerous awards, including the Semple Prize at the University of Cincinnati, a National Endowment for the Arts Critics grant, a Fulbright fellowship in 1993, an NEA critic’s grant, and the 1993 Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism from the College Art Association. McEvilley has been a contributing editor of Artforum and editor in chief of Contemporanea, as well as a frequent contributor to Art in America.

McEvilley became a major art world figure when he wrote a critical account in Artforum about William Rubin’s and J. Kirk Varnedoe’s 1984 Museum of Modern Art show "Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern."

McEvilley reads Sappho in Greek and Latin on PennSound (where you can also read his Sappho translations). You can listen to McEvilley in conversation with Charles Bernstein on Close Listening. Jacket 2 recently published his translation of 17 ancient poems, from his study of the Green anthology .

No funeral is planned.

Links to responses to McEvilley's death:
Jerry Salz, New York Magazine
Roger Denson, Huffington Post
David Carrier, Art Critical
George Quasha
Charles Bernstein: a talk in memoriam
Raphael Rubinstein, Silo
Holland Cotter, The New York Times

also this comment by his publisher Bruce MacPhearson (posted on FB 3/30/13 in response to Times obit):
Thanks to Holland Cotter, Tom is today being recognized on the national and international stages he so deserves. There is much more, however, that might have been said: about his resuscitation of Yves Klein, for example, with the Houston exhibition 32 years ago that wound up at the Guggenheim and the Pompidou; or his three-decade engagement with the work of Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen) and Marina Abramovich; or his contributions to monographs on dozens of important artists such as Arman, Pat Steir, James Lee Byars, and R.B. Kitaj (and his profound friendships with them); or his championing of under-recognized artists like Bill Anastasi and Eric Orr; or his revolutionary work on defining the channels of communication between ancient Greek and Indian philosophy; not to mention the remarkable book on Sappho, or his creative work (three novels, many poems, and translations -- he was, finally, a poet); or his editing of a contemporary arts magazine (Contemporanea); or dozens upon dozens of incisive magazine essays on a grand panoply of artists; or his engagement with film as an art form (he taught experimental film courses at Rice in addition to the subjects mentioned). Tom, you were an amazing force, a wonderful friend, and a trailblazer of ethical thought about how we must understand the great human continuum. You will be remembered, and your work will reverberate for generations.



Song of the Wandering Poet

            For Thomas McEvilley

I must now to the green wood go
And make a house of clay and stone
And lay upon the barren floor
And weep for what I have no more.
There will I make a diadem
Of broken glass and borrowed hemp
Remembering true the times I’ve spent
In wasted moment’s sweetly scent
Torn by maelstroms, frail, unkempt.

[charles bernstein]

Tom, Jerry Rothenberg and me, at the M/E/A/N/I/N/G launch.
Photo © Lawrence Schwartzwald (No reproduction without express permission) 

Transcription & reconstruction by George Quasha

It is a test you have to pass.
Then you can learn to heal
with the finger, said Essie
pointing over our heads:
I went thru every test on the way,
that's how come I'm a shaman.
Be careful on the journey, they said,
the journey to heaven. They warned me.
And so I went.
Thru the rolling hills
I walked and walked,
mountains and valleys, and rolling hills,
I walked and walked and walked –
you hear many things there
in those rolling hills and valleys,
and I walked and walked and walked
and walked and walked until
I came to a footbridge,
and on the right side were a whole lot of people
and they were naked and crying out,
how'd you get over there,
we want to get over there too
but we're stuck here,
please come over here and help us cross,
the water's too deep for us –
I didn't pay no attention,
I just walked and walked and walked,
and then I heard an animal, sounded like a huge dog,
and there was a huge dog and next to him a huge lady
wearing blue clothes,
and I decided I had to walk right thru –
I did
and the dog only snarled at me.
Never go back.
I walked and walked and walked
and I came to one only tree
and I walked over to it and looked up at it
and read the message:
Go on, you're half way.
From there I felt better, a little better.
And I walked and walked and walked and walked
and I saw water, huge water
how to get thru?
I fear it’s deep. Very blue water.
But I have to go.
Put out the first foot, then the left,
never use the left hand,
and I passed thru.
Went on and on and on, and I had to enter a place
and there I had to look down:
it was hot and there were people there
and they looked tiny down there in that furnace
running around crying.
I had to enter.
You see, these tests are to teach my people
how to live.
Fire didn't burn me.
And I walked and walked and walked.
On the way you're going to suffer.
And I came to a four-way road
like a cross. Which is the right way?
I already knew.
East is the right way to go to heaven.
North, South, and West are dangerous.
And at this crossroad there was a place in the center.
North you could see beautiful things of the Earth,
hills and fields and flowers and everything beautiful
and I felt like grabbing it
but I turned away.
West was nothing but fog and damp
and I turned away.
South was dark, but there were sounds,
monsters and huge animals. And I turned away and
Eastward I walked and walked and walked
and there were flowers, on both sides of the road,
flowers and flowers and flowers
out of this world.
And there is white light, at the center,
while you are walking.
This is the complicated thing:
my mind changes.
We are the people on the Earth.
We know sorrow and knowledge and faith and talent
and everything.
Now as I was walking there
some places I feel like crying
and some places I feel like talking
and some places I feel like dancing
but I am leaving these behind for the next world.
Then when I entered into that place
I knew:
if you enter heaven
you might have to work.
This is what I saw in my vision.
I don’t have to go nowhere to see.
Visions are everywhere.


SOURCE: George Quasha, “Somapoetics 73,” in Alcheringa, New Series Volume One, Number1, 1975.

Essie Parrish (1902-1979), a Kashia Pomo healer & Dreamer from California & the final leader, along with Mabel McKay, of the revitalized Bole Maru Dreamer religion, spoke at the New School in New York on March 14,1972. The text as given here is a reconstruction by poet/artist George Quasha of her narrative of a dream-vision, based on notes he took as she spoke; he remarks (1975) that “the greater portion of the lines are as I wrote them in the notebook. I’m just a humble scribe.” And further: “My only ‘formal’ concern was to distort her tone and overall temporal curve as little as possible. What I'm concerned with in the Essie vision is Dharma transmission. It was clear to me that, despite her sharp irony about talking to white people and the protective distance she kept, she was offering us a portion of the sacred. What would it mean to take it on (as in Yeats' ‘Did she put on his knowledge with his power ...’)? To my mind it meant getting the words and their hidden alcheringa. And that's literal enough.”

Does it exist?

Proust, Woolf

The Poet’s Novel:  What is it?  Does it exist?

Let’s begin at the beginning, is there such a thing as a “Poet’s Novel”?  If so how would one begin to define the various forms this form takes?  In this commentary you’ll find a continuing exploration of this elusive form including: consideration of novels written by poets, conversations with poet’s who have written novels and with poets who are fascinated by particular novels by poets.  I will be asking questions such as: what are the qualities of prose which tend to be classified as those of a poet’s novel and why?  Why do poets turn to prose?  And within a body of any given writer’s work (one who writes both poetry and prose) what is the relationship between the two forms?  What purposes does prose fill which poetry perhaps does not?  Where do we distinguish a line between forms?  Does it matter? What of the verse novel? How does the poet arrive at the desire to write a novel and where to begin?

I began asking these questions when I noted long ago that various novels are indispensible to poets.  Of these, there are various categories— novels not written by poets, but which behave in some manner like poems.  These works are generally beloved by vast numbers of poets.  A few that come to mind in this category would be Virginia Woolf’s  The Waves, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Melville’s Moby Dick.  Then there is the category of novels written by poets which in some ways feel indistinguishable from poems. In this category I’d place novels by Etel Adnan, Bhanu Kapil’s Incubation, a Space for Monsters and Martin Adán’s The Cardboard House, to name a few.  I’ll have more to say about these works in commentaries to come.