April 29, 2013 § 2 Comments
Today, the 29th of April, marks the 150th anniversary of Constantine Cavafy’s birth. Daniel Mendelsohn, one of Cavafy’s best translators in English, has been celebrating this special occasion during the entire month of April by tweeting a Cavafy poem every day. Visit his Twitter feed to enjoy the poems, or visit the official C.P.Cavafy website to read almost all of Cavafy’s poems in Greek along with their English translations. You can also learn more there about the life and work of this important Alexandrine Greek poet.
I talk about all of this here not only because Cavafy is one of my favourite poets but because he’s certainly for me the most personal one, the one most linked to my own biography. He’s the fist “proper” poet I ever got to hear and remember. Yes, not ‘to read’ but ‘to hear’. I was in the elementary school and although my mum may have been reciting and singing nursery rhymes to me before then, I honestly don’t remember her doing so. I only remember myself contentedly taking a place next to her in her bed, her opening (with a movement of solemnity) the leather-bound copy of Cavafy’s Selected Poems, and her reciting in her warm voice Ithaka, Walls, or Myris: Alexandria, A.D. 340. I was enchanted by my mother, enchanted by the power a poem had on my mother, enchanted by the possibility a poem gave us to share all these emotions with each other. Later, the same power of poetry would bring me together with many important people in my life.
Mum read the most profound verses twice sometimes: “Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey“, Do you hear that, M.? “And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you“, “without her you’d not have set upon the road.“, Do you understand what the poet wants to tell us, M.? I would nod ‘yes’, but sometimes also an extra ‘no’, just for the joy of hearing her interpretations again.
Mum would read repeatedly the same poems for a certain period of time; night after night she would go through her repertoire, changing it only when she felt that we both had got the essence of it deep into our souls. Yes, mum has been a melancholic person and so am I, although we both can be very silly and laugh at jokes that I’d be ashamed to admit here, but still, well, reading Cavafy to a seven-year-old…
Never mind her reasons though, I will always be utterly thankful to her for introducing me to poetry and my reading is dedicated to her.
Ithaka (Translated by Daniel Mendelsohn)
As you set out on the way to Ithaca
Hope that the road is a long one.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.