Discovering Cavafy

ΚαβάφηΚαβάφηThis week, I remembered what is was like to be back at university, studying literature. On this occasion, though, I was in Greece. And it was a thrilling experience.

I came to Athens to participate in a recital of works by the great Greek poet, Cavafy, set to music by Athanasios Simoglou and sung by the wonderful soprano, Sonia Theodoridou. I read in both English and Greek and learned a huge amount in both languages.

I found that Cavafy, both in the original and in translation, spoke so directly and honestly to me that it was almost shocking. His voice seemed loud and clear, his words sprang off the page. Here is a poet that unites intellectual ideas with emotion, but where emotion never plays a secondary role. In my years at university, I rarely came across this in English poetry.

In translation, Cavafy’s poems taught me new things about the Greek soul and mentality. I discovered how close is their sense of mortality. At times I found him over-pessimistic (in “Monotonia”, for example), but then he would pick me up again and urge me to seize life and enjoy the journey. I listened to him, and realised this gave me a new understanding of Greece and why many of my friends here seem to grab life with both hands, as though each day might be their last. Their attitude makes more sense to me now.

Equally fulfilling for me was to learn new words and to expand my knowledge of the language. It’s not my role to criticise translators, but reading a translation against the original made me more determined than ever to master Greek, so that nobody gets in the way with their own interpretation. The beauty of the Greek was not always matched by the sometimes clumsy English words printed on the page.

I have much more to learn about Cavafy, both the man and his work. It is a journey I know I am going to enjoy. (Courtesy