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M&G LitFest: ‘The only job in which one cannot lie is poetry’

Three anniversaries were marked at a session at the Mail & Guardian’s Literary Festival this weekend: the birth of Constantine Cavafy 150 years ago, his death in 1933, as well as the conferral of the Nobel Prize for Literature to George Seferis in 1963.

Writing in the M&G, Stephen Gray credited the late poet Don Maclennan with reigniting his interest in Seferis and Cavafy and convincing him of their continuing relevance. It seemed a lost opportunity then that Gray did not read from Maclennan's poem The Plan, which contains the lines: “I want the immediacy/ of Cavafy's Alexandria/ that words make real,/ whether it was or not”. The conjuring power of words and the mythical magnetism of Alexandria was a recurrent theme in the session.

Gray began with a humorous monologue on the relationship between South Africa and Greece and traced the etymological roots of several English words: “without Greek we wouldn't have the word poet” which is from the Greek "poi?t?s". His introduction came complete with props (such as feta cheese).

Gray briefly sketched the key events in the biographies of Cavafy and Seferis. Cavafy, born in Alexandria in 1863, wrote often of the themes of the Hellenic era and Empire. Poets Wopko Jensma and Douglas Livingstone were influenced by him. EM Forster, a friend of his, revealed to Gray only that “Cavafy was a Greek gentleman who wore a straw hat and stood motionless, at a slight angle to the universe”.

Cavafy's connection to South Africa is famously encapsulated in the fact that the title of his poem was adopted by JM Coetzee, an appropriation which panellist Renos Spanoudes doubted Coetzee ever officially acknowledged.

Seferis's connection with South Africa is more tangible. He spent the war years of 1941-42 unhappily in South Africa. His journals of those years, published by Roy Macnab, are "horrifying to read", said Gray. Seferis experienced his exile as traumatic: “I'm nothing without the substance of my country, which weighs on me". He was a diplomat, living in an apartment in Pretoria East — an area not traditionally associated with poetic inspiration, yet which is immortalised in Kerkstra Oos, Pretoria, Transvaal. His poems have also been translated into Afrikaans by Uys Krige.

The microphone was then handed to South Africa's poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, who waxed lyrical about Cavafy. He admired this "linguistically schizo poet" who could move fluidly between English and Greek.

In characterising Cavafy's style, he mentioned the "deceptively simple language", which conveys "the striving at all times to try to capture that gesture, movement of light, response, depth of feeling".

He read from the short poem Voices, which begins: “Ideal and beloved voices of those who are dead, or of those/ who are lost to us like the dead./ Sometimes they speak to us in our dreams”.

The second guest was human rights lawyer George Bizos, whose autobiography Odyssey to Freedom was published in 2007. He arrived in South Africa as a refugee at about the same time as Seferis, although their paths did not cross. Bizos shared the ways in which poetry influenced his life, notably in his learning of English. He interrupted his narrative several times to recite the poems he had committed to memory years before.

He recalled reading The Hymn to Liberty by Dionýsios Solomós to his clients who were charged with terrorism. Bizos said they drew strength from it and recognised the shared struggled.

Thermopylae was Bizos's chosen poem, a "short poem which I think has some lessons to teach". The poem commemorates the battle which the Greeks lost to the Persians and begins: “All honour to those who in their lives/ have set themselves to guard Thermopylae./ Not swerving from their line of duty,/ upright and just in all their actions,/ yet filled with pity and compassion”.

Writer, actor and radio show host Renos Spanoudes was the final speaker. He dramatically read Cavafy's The Candle and Seferis's Waiting for the Barbarians. Spanoudes quoted from a Paris Review interview with Seferis in which he insisted that “in order to write, one must believe in what one does, not seeming to believe that one is believing something” and that “the only job in which one cannot lie is poetry”.

Actor Irene Stephanou was also invited on to the stage to read a Cavafy poem Anna Comnena, which she chose as a tribute to Greek women. She also discussed a work-in-progress called Letter to Cavafy.

In closing, Gray read his own poem for Seferis, Love Flowers, named for the agapanthus which Seferis was surrounded by during his time in South Africa.

The audience was clearly appreciative of the chance to listen to these poems and the oneiric voices of Cavafy and Seferis echoed into the cold Johannesburg night.

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