An ode to Grecian earnestness

Shortly before his demise in 2009 the venerable South African poet Don Maclennan was wheeled into a gathering held in his honour. Anxious to know what still kept him productive, I tentatively asked him who inspired him. Boldly he replied, insofar as he could vocalise at all: "Two Greek poets."

Since he was a classicist as well, I assumed he must mean Homer and Sappho. After all, the former taught how elderly military leaders should sacrifice their patriotic youths in order to build a nation, and how their wives should be faithful and patient, even if their heroic spouses wandered for a whole decade while returning from the war zone.

With the basis of Western civilisation thus laid in epic terms, all dear Sappho-stuck-on-Lesbos had to do of course was write the hottest erotic lyrics ever. These I guessed Maclennan most now be piecing together once and for all.

But no, tremblingly he said he would have no more of any of those ancient pretenders to culture. He meant something much more democratic: Cavafy and Seferis.

One knows that Grahamstown, where this took place, is occasionally behind the times, but for my generation the names of Constantine Cavafy and George Seferis meant the Swinging Sixties. That was when the Greek republic was recovering well from the occupation of World War II, so that every flower child had to venture there for vegetarian meze at the Hotel Byron, for ouzo and socialism in the sun, exchanging a few quid for dozens of drachmas.

Then love was available every day except on Orthodox Sundays (thank you, Melina Mercouri), Zorba the Greek needed a hand on the zither and packed, reconstructed Epidaurus still had the best acoustics in the entire universe.

That was also when Penguin Modern European Poets launched their paperback of four Greek ones, including substantial selections from Maclennan's favourites priced at 50c.

Others were pitching in to make modern Hellenism fashionable, like Jan Rabie the Sestiger, who located to one of their dozens of islands. And it was Mary Renault down in Camps Bay who was rendering their heritage accessible with her bestsellers about Alexander the Great.

In the very provincial city of Alexandria, which the conqueror had founded, the poet Cavafy – whom Maclennan had in mind – was born in 1863, so that it is his 150th anniversary we are marking.

Thanks to his family's commercial interests, he was brought up and educated in England, often using his second language thereafter. That is probably why his poems, picked up from interviews on the corniche back home in Egypt, translate so readily.

Probably the best known, iconic one is his satirical Waiting for the Barbarians, also rendered as Expecting the Vandals.

This portrays all the pomp of an Imperial senate in Roman times, with its devastating last line about how "they" – the others – would have been a solution to terminal ennui. Such critiques came from a loner who knew how to live under two brutal empires (the Ottoman, then the British).

lncidentally as well, like many others of his country's diaspora, he visited the motherland only a few times, and then as a tourist. When he died aged 70 in 1933 he was so little known that he had not yet collected together his some 150 verses.

Born in 1900, Seferis the diplomat in contrast had most of his literary dilemmas solved by Cavafy, especially once George Katsimbalis, the hero of Henry Miller's The Colossus of Maroussi, had pulled the scattered opus together. He needed to write in the demotic and keep the classics at arm's length.

His well-publicised successes earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963, which meant a certain fillip for his recovering country's postcolonial revival, and which means another anniversary today.

But it was another cultural officer and poet, South Africa's Roy Macnab, who ferreted out that, after a refuge in Alexandria as well, Seferis had actually transferred to this country with the Greek government-in-exile during 1941-1942. Lawrence Durrell was left to translate his earlier items for the Allied cause.

Resident here, he kept off-duty diaries, wrote more poems and many letters. He even had himself snapped by a street photographer in Johannesburg's Commissioner Street in a resentful pose, as the cover of the 1990 Carrefour edition of this trawl shows.

Casting himself as "Stratis the Mariner", he famously rued being cast away in the Highveld's endemic "agapanthi". Yet he was fascinated by how the local expatriates adapted vocabulary the other way (baiscopi, tsfkis for a cheeky type).

His "Kerkstra Oos, Pretoria, Transvaal" about that "Venusberg of bureaucracy with its twin towers and its twin clocks" (that is, the Union Buildings) remains a masterpiece of biting ironic landscaping in the Symbolist style of the period.

So when I dared to mention to their devotee Maclennan that perhaps both Cavafy and Seferis, despite their connections to poetry in Africa, had maybe had their day, his retort was firmly corrective. They needed only to be rediscovered, he said, for the next generation to realise they are for all time.

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