Nikos Kavvadias (Νίκος Καββαδίας) (January 11, 1910 – February 10, 1975) was a Greek poet and writer; currently one of the most popular poets in Greece, who, used his travels around the world as a sailor, and the idealised life at sea and its adventures, as powerful metaphors for the escape of ordinary people outside the boundaries of reality.
Early life and education
He was born in the small town of Nikolski Ousouriski, near Harbin, in the historic region of Manchuria, in the northern part of today’s People’s Republic of China. This fact, according to him, linked him emotionally to the Far East, expressed in his short story “Li” (published 1987). His parents were Greeks from the island of Kefalonia and as a young child he had the opportunity to travel extensively. His family returned for a few years to their home island and finally moved to Pireus, Athens‘ port, in 1921. He wrote his first poems while in grammar school.
After graduating from high school in Pireus he took the entrance exams to become a doctor in 1928. His father fell sick that same year and young Kavvadias was forced to get a job as an office clerk in a shipping office to help his family. He lasted only a few months there and after his father’s death, he went on board the freighter ship “Agios Nikolaos” as a sailor. He worked for a few years on freighter boats, coming back home always wretched and penniless. He decided to get the captain diploma, but settled for a radio operator’s diploma. He got it in 1939, but by that time World War II had started and he was sent to fight in Albania.
During the German occupation of Greece, he was stranded in Athens. When the war was over in 1944, he embarked and traveled continuously as a radio operator all over the world until November 1974, having the opportunity to get to know the sea and its exotic ports. Through his experiences in the sea he collected material for his poetry. Returning from his last trip and as he was preparing the publication of his third collection of poems, he died suddenly from a stroke on February 10, 1975.
His work is filled with references to life in the sea. His poetry was popularized in Greece, partly because some of his poems have been set to music by Thanos Mikroutsikos in his very popular albums Stavros tou Notou (Southern Cross) and Grammes Orizonton (Horizons’ Lines).
His first collection of poems, “Marabou”, was published in 1933 when Kavadias was in his early twenties and carries within it the spirit of a romantic young man, impressed with the marvels of the world. Most of these poems tell half fictitious stories that happened on the sea and the different places he visited. The collection begins with a poem about the catastrophic love for a young wealthy girl that ended up a poor prostitute that he could barely recognise. Other events recount the stories of a Norwegian captain who died homesick watching a ship sailing towards Norway, a dagger carrying the curse that whoever carries it shall kill someone he loves, and an African story-telling sailor who rescued him from a brawl only to die of fever in the Far East. Artistically he was influenced by French literature and the poet Charles Baudelaire whom he cites in many of his works. Like much of Greek poetry, Kavadias’ work is characterized by a heavy degree of nostalgia.
His other two collections are “Pousi” which published in 1947 and “Traverso” which was published after his death 1975 . Meanwhile, he had served as a soldier in the Second World War and fought on the Albanian front against the Italian forces. Another short story, “Of War”, published after his death in 1987, recounts the story of his rescue by a local during a storm. The war had a deep effect on him and these later collections show a politically aware man, in support of the somewhat more liberal communists, often helping them by transporting illegal material from abroad, such as books and letters that where banned by the Right wing government that was in power. One of these later poems is about the death of Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto (Che) Guevara and was written as an answer to the accusations by some active communists who thought that his poems romanticized too much on the otherwise harsh and dangerous life of sailors, who were potential symbols of class struggle. Another is about the execution of Andalusian poet and writer Federico García Lorca by the Franco dictatorship, which, in the poem, is associated with the destruction of the Greek village of “Distomo” and other brutal acts done by the Nazi forces occupying Greece during the Second World War.
His only novel “Nightshift” was published in 1954 and recounts the stories told by the sailors on their nightshift at the ship’s bridge. Images from exotic places, prostitutes, captains gone mad and memories of the War blend in to form a dreamy world full of lucid forms, part fictitious, part true.
He is not considered to be an innovator of prose or a match for the greatest Greek poets like Odysseas Elytis but is extremely popular in Greece and his best poems are taught in schools throughout the country. He is considered by many to be the embodiment of the Greek “soul” for his romantic affiliation with the sea and its journeys and for his genuinely humane look on things he could barely understand.
A selection of his poetry, with some of his shorter prose, translated into English by Simon Darragh, is available under the title ‘Wireless Operator’ from the London Publisher Enitharmon.
Nikos Kavadias poems: