Scene at Greek Yacht Club of Alexandria, Egypt, 1920’s. Konstantinos Kavafis spent most of his life in this city.
One of the books I’ve been spending time with lately is a marvelous recent collection of poetry in translation entitled ‘Modern Greek Poetry: An Anthology’, edited by Nanos Valaoritis and Thanasis Maskaleris and published in 2003. Since my own smattering of Greek has been confined to a year of reading the ancient language with a private tutor, followed by a year of New Testament Greek in a classroom, and then some enthusiastic but very undisciplined attempts to learn modern Demotic on my own, I am extremely grateful for the existence of this great collection of translations representing the work of many modern poets. Now and then I’d like to share a few of them here, along with an occasional comment.
I have never really taken to Konstantinos Kavafis (1863-1933), perhaps because his rich assortment of historical Hellenistic allusions are mostly lost on me, perhaps because I have always been puzzled by his rather flat or even non-existent use of metaphor, and certainly because his quirky blending of ancient, modern and regional colloquial speech can simply not be reproduced in translation at all. But I have been struck forcefully by two short poems in this collection and would like to share them here, hoping that someone else will find them remarkable and move that person to investigate Kavafis’ work in more detail on his or her own. Here are the two, then. They are good examples of what I might call ‘catalytic poetry’, verse which prompts a kind of interior reaction or conversion in the reader which could be identical, similar or even entirely different from anything which might have been happening within the poet himself when he wrote it.
Of all the things I’ve said and done
let them not ask who I was.
Obstacle it was and it transformed
my actions and my way of life.
Obstacle it was and it stopped me
often when I would speak.
My most unnoticed actions
and my most covered up writings–
only from these will they understand me.
Perhaps it wasn’t worth expending
such care and such labor to reveal myself.
Later–in a more perfect society–
someone else made up like me
will surely appear and freely act.
I do not examine whether I’m happy or unhappy.
But one thing with joy I always set in my mind–
that in the great addition (their addition which I hate)
which has so many numbers, I’ll not be there,
one of the many numbers. In the whole sum
I was not counted. And this joy is enough.