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Politics

Nikos Kavadias: Life at Sea and Poems Set to Music

February 4, 2018

The poet Nikos Kavadias passed away on February 10, 1975 and though 43 years have passed since then, his poems continue to impress and inspire as they resonate with the imagery and sublime power of the sea. In the years following his death, musicians set his poems to music, creating a whole new way to appreciate the poet’s work.

Born in Nikolsk-Ussuriysky (now called Ussuriysk), Russia, a small town near Harbin, China, to Greek parents from the island of Kefalonia, Kavvadias moved with his family back to Greece early in his life. He would always feel a connection to the Far East as he noted in one of his short stories entitled Li.

The family moved from Kefalonia to Piraeus in 1921 and Kavadias began writing poems in elementary school. After graduating from high school, he had intended to take exams for medical school, but his father’s ill health led the young Kavadias to take a job as a clerk for a shipping company instead. He only lasted a few months as a clerk and after his father passed away, Kavadias shipped out on the freighter Agios Nikolaos beginning his life as a sailor.

After years working onboard freighters, he considered becoming a captain but instead became a wireless operator, receiving his diploma in 1939 just as World War II broke out. Kavadias became a soldier and was sent to fight on the Albanian front. He lived in Athens during the German Occupation.

In 1944, Kavadias again went to sea as a wireless operator, traveling the world for about 30 years until he retired in November 1974. He passed away on February 10, 1975 from a stroke. Kavadias had published some of his work early on in literary journals and his first collection of poems, Marabou, was published in 1933. His second book of poetry, Pousi was published in 1947. A third collection, Traverso, was published in 1975. Kavadias’ poems were drawn from life experience and his use of the vernacular and sailor’s language made his work unique, but also difficult to categorize for the establishment and his poems were often overlooked early in his literary career by poetry anthology editors of the time. A profound nostalgia characterizes most of his work as does the romantic connection to the sea so closely associated with the Greek soul.

His only novel, Vardia, was published in 1954, and his short stories in 1987. In 1995, Kavadias’ short story Li was adapted for the big screen under the title Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea directed by Marion Hansel, and starring Irish actor Stephen Rea.

Kavadias poetry also gained popularity in Greece as lyrics set to music by Greek composer Thanos Mikroutsikos in the hit albums Stavros tou Notou (Southern Cross) (1979) and Grammes Orizonton (Horizons’ Lines) (1991). Other artists who also set Kavadias’ poems to music include the group Xembarkoi who released the album Nikos Kavadias, S/S Ionion 1934 in 1986 and Mariza Koch in her self-titled album from 1977 with 8 poems by Kavadias.

The Collected Poems of Nikos Kavadias (The Modern Greek Literature Library) translated by Gail Holst-Warhaft is a bilingual Greek and English edition available online. His works in Greek and the albums featuring songs with lyrics by the poet are also available online.

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