Saturday, February 26, 2011

An Ode to My Hometown... 's Namesake

On being (delightfully!) contacted by an old friend who was passing through Ithaca, I was informed that this blog gave no indication of my current residence. And, I guess, that's right. I mean, there are some clues -- on my about page, updated last fall, I mentioned that we're still living in Ithaca; last fall I blogged about an Ithaca-based book group that I was running; and I've mentioned teaching at HWS, which is in Geneva, NY, about an hour's drive north. But it's hardly blazoned. I should blog more about Ithaca! (Where, yes, I still live. If I ever leave, I promise I'll make it obvious here.)

So, of course, I thought of C. P. Cavafy.

Cavafy is an important, foundational (modern) Greek poet. I was first introduced to his work on my trip to Greece (over two decades ago) when I bought an English-language anthology of modern Greek poetry (this one); Cavafy was the first in the book. He wasn't one of the two Nobel-prize winners included, but he was clearly central to the cannon of modern Greek poetry.

Interestingly, however -- and I only learned this when googling around a big for this blog post -- he was actually born in, and lived most of his life in, Alexandra, Egypt. His parents were Greek, he spoke Greek and wrote in Greek, but he lived in Egypt -- part of the Greek diaspora there, I suppose. I think that's kinda cool, myself.

He also -- and as someone about to turn forty in less than a month, this really won him my heart -- is described by Wikipedia as someone who's "most important poetry was written after his fortieth birthday." God bless you, Cavafy! There's hope for us after all.

Anyway, his Cavafy's most famous poems -- in English, that is; I have no idea what works his Greek reputation rests on -- are "Waiting for the Barbarians" (whose title was borrowed for a novel by the Nobel-prize winning J. M. Coetzee) and "Ithaca", which is our topic here. It was first published, if Wikipedia can be trusted in this instance, exactly a century ago -- in 1911. (Update: In his anthology, Kimon Friar lists it as 1910. Darn.)

Anyone who can read modern Greek can read the original poem here. On the other hand, I suspect that anyone who can read the original doesn't need me to tell them about it. So let's move on to English-language translations.

Cavafy's official site presents five different translations of the poem -- and it's not a complete list. I first read the poem in a translation by Kimon Friar; there also seems to be a version by Rae Dalven, and (another?) by Edmund Keeley without Philip Sherrard's revisions, which have that word in the first line; but most of the reposting I can find online don't list translators at all (highly annoying), and I'm not sure of the translators for any but those at the official site.

Just to give you a sense of how they compare -- I like this sort of thing, after all -- here are the opening three lines in each of the various translations included on Cavafy's official site. (Some of the poems used the spelling "Ithaka" instead of "Ithaca", a spelling which is, I think, more accurate as far as strict transliteration goes, but not the typical English spelling.)
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.

-- trans. Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard

When you set out for distant Ithaca,
fervently wish your journey may be long, —
full of adventures and with much to learn.

-- trans. John Cavafy

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.

-- trans. Daniel Mendelsohn

When you set out on your way to Ithaca
you should hope that your journey is a long one:
a journey full of adventure, full of knowing.

-- trans Stratis Haviaras

When you start on the way to Ithaca,
wish that the way be long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.

-- trans George Valassopoulo
Not knowing Greek, I can judge these only on the basis of their quality as English-language poetry. And reading through the entire poem (I'm not going to reprint the entirety of all five here; you can go look on Cavafy's site if you're curious), I think that I have a slight preference for the Haviaras -- although, truth be told, I don't have as strong feelings about this as I do about, say, Onegin.

But rather than simply reprint any of those five -- which, again, are already available online on the official Cavafy site -- here is the translation by Kimon Friar, from his 1982 anthology Modern Greek Poetry, which is my favorite -- quite possibly simply because I read it first. But here it is:

When you set out on the voyage to Ithaca,
pray that your journey may be long,
full of adventures, full of knowledge.
Of the Laestrygones and the Cyclopes
and of furious Poseidon, do not be afraid,
for such on your journey you shall never meet
if your thought remain lofty, if a select
emotion imbue your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygones and the Cyclopes
and furious Poseidon you will never meet
unless you drag them with you in your soul,
unless your soul raises them up before you.

Pray that your journey may be long,
that many may those summer mornings be
when with what pleasure, what untold delight
you enter harbors you've not seen before;
that you stop at Phoenician market places
to procure the goodly merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and voluptuous perfumes of every kind,
as lavish an amount of voluptuous perfumes as you can;
that you venture on to many Egyptian cities
to learn and yet again to learn from the sages.

But you must always keep Ithaca in mind.
The arrival there is your predestination.
Yet do not by any means hasten your voyage.
Let it best endure for many years,
until grown old at length you anchor at your island
rich with all you have acquired on the way.
You never hoped that Ithaca would give you riches.

Ithaca has given you the lovely voyage.
Without her you would not have ventured on the way.
She has nothing more to give you now.

Poor though you may find her, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Now that you have become so wise, so full of experience,
you will have understood the meaning of an Ithaca.

-- C. P. Cavafy; translated by Kimon Friar

(I've kept the original capitalization, rather than changing it to the English standard custom of a capital letter for each new line.)

I find it sort of odd to read this poem as someone who lives in Ithaca -- even though I know that my Ithaca is not that Ithaca, and that for that matter that Ithaca isn't really Ithaca either, since Ithaca here is just a symbol. Nevertheless.

I like this poem -- and "Waiting for the Barbarians" too -- but I will admit that, at least to this English-language reader in 2011, they both seem rather didactic. They make Points, and make them heavily. They have a Moral. It's not subtle. Oh, they're both good points, but still: heavily made. I'm somewhat reluctant to label this as a criticism, for a variety of reasons: I'm reading them in translation, which undoubtedly weakens the effect; I'm reading them in 2011, and I'm not sure that they seemed quite as didactic a century ago. And maybe the points (the journey not the arrival matters, a foreign enemy gives a culture focus and meaning although not in a good way) didn't seem so cliched then. (If anyone reading this knows either Greek or the historical context (or both) better than I, I hope you'll enlighten us in the comments.) Perhaps this is a case like the apocryphal reader who thought Hamlet was just a bunch of quotations strung together.

Or maybe it's just a didactic poem by a didactic author. Who knows.

But I will maintain that it's quality survives both its didacticism and translation: and thus I present it to you, Noble Reader, as an ode to my hometown... 's namesake.

(Note: This post was substantively updated after its first posting (once I laid my hands on my dead-tree copy of Friar's Modern Greek Poems.))

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