Sunday, 24 August 2014

Tattooed Poetry

It is often said by ignorant philistines who want to be thought witty — people like Public School housemasters — that a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about absolutely nothing. I am a specialist in Nikos Kavvadias. Who? Well exactly. In spite of my best efforts, Kavvadias is virtually unknown to English readers who may well have heard of Cavafy, Seferis, and Elytis. Fair enough, compared to those giants of twentieth century Greek poetry, Kavvadias is a minor poet, but in Greece, especially among those who don’t often read poetry, he is perhaps more loved than those three put together.

So I was not entirely astonished, when I went for my morning coffee in the square yesterday, to be told by Eleni the waitress ‘Hey Simon there’s a chap outside who’s got a poem by Kavvadias tattooed on his arm.’

I went out to investigate. She wasn’t kidding: an unusually difficult, strange and above all long poem of his, covering one arm, in small Greek handwriting, nearly all the way round and from shoulder to wrist. He told me his girlfriend had been instrumental in his getting the tattoo, so I warned him, out of her hearing, of the fate of William George Allum, a stoker about whom Kavvadias wrote another poem: poor William had a picture of the woman he loved tattooed on his chest, and when she betrayed him he tried to erase it, with bleach, caustic soda, acid — nothing worked and finally in despair he stabbed himself through the heart.

Dear me. Nothing like that will happen to Elias; he and his girlfriend are very happy together. Oh, the poem? Well as I said it’s an unusually difficult one for Kavvadias, so not one I included in my book of translations. It is oddly like John Donne’s ‘Goe, and catche a falling starre,’ and here are just the first four of its nine verses:

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