Nikos Kavvadias was born in 1910 in a small town in Manchuria close to Harbin, to Greek parents from the island of Cephalonia. When he was still a small child, his family returned to Greece. They remained for some years in Cephalonia, and then, from 1921 to 1932, moved to Piraeus, where Kavvadias completed his schooling. It was while at school that he wrote his first poems. In 1921 he began working in a shipping office and a few months later took to see on a cargo ship. For a number of years he continued working at sea, eventually returning home penniless and exhausted. He then began training to become a qualified radio operator. He had originally wanted to become a ship’s master but he had already spent too long at sea to start this long career path. He was awarded his radio operator’s diploma in 1939. But then the war intervened to and he had to join the Greek forces on the Albanian front. Subsequently he was stuck in Athens during the years of the Nazi occupation. He eventually went back to sea in 1944. He stayed in this job until he retired in 1974. He died three months later from a stroke, on 10 February 1975.
The Shift is Kavvadias only novel. His collections of poetry – Marabou (1933), Fog (1947) and Traverso (1975) – and his short stories – Li, Of War and On My Horse (1987) – are all published by Agra.
Nikos Kavvadias (1910-1975) is a representative of a poetry of introverted exoticism, which projects the agony and spectres of a permanently restless and wakeful conscience onto alien and often mysterious seascapes.
Kavvadias was born in a small town in Manchuria, but his family returned to Greece when he was still a small boy. A committed seaman and writer, he
encountered some extremely difficult moments, facing them with the courage that is the preserve of those rare individuals who have absolute faith in what they do. He was in every sense a poet of the sea.
The difficult life of the sailor, the daily grind of work, but also the freedom of the eye to travel over new horizons opened by the increasingly longer and bolder voyages he undertook mark Kavvadias’ entire poetic output. The poet constantly transforms external observations of the environment into a subdued, internal drama, often of a deeply existential nature. Indeed, critics described him as the ‘poet of internal exile’, and were not slow to identify in his verse and in his imagery the tendency to displace straight realistic description with scenes of reverse images which represent, in a particularly eloquent manner, the poet’s journey from the open seascape into the closed and dimly lit realm of the conscience.
Kavvadias was greatly inspired both by Baudelaire and the poetes maudits and observed his marine environment from precisely this viewpoint. His characters frequently descend into apathy, decay, decadence and self-destruction, and the space they inhabit has a suffocating effect on them. Kavvadias also enjoyed the cosmopolitan life (the constant journeying from port to port, country to country, ocean to ocean) which was equated with the pleasures of opportunistic love and the paralysing effects of hallucinatory substances. From these kinds of motifs emerged his
overwhelming passion for travel, which he identified as the fate of the absolutely free yet totally defenceless artist.
A poet who deliberately wrote little, Kavvadias directly addressed the metrical tradition, but always managed to take liberties with its strictures. He exploited tradition for his own purposes, adapting metres and rhyme schemes to his own linguistic and musical codes.
(V. Hadjivassiliou, from the volume Greece-Books and Writers, National Book Centre of Greece, 2001).