In honor of Greece’s most celebrated modern author, C.P. Cavafy, we feature an eclectic array of articles from leading Cavafy scholars. Dr. Vassilis Lambropoulos, the C.P. Cavafy Modern Greek Chair in the Department of Classical Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, was a tremendous help in providing the names of four contributors, all of who graciously shared their unique perspectives on the renowned poet.
Natalie Bakopoulos, a Lecturer at the University of Michigan, and author of the novel The Greek Shore, is a fiction writer and essayist whose work has been published in the New York Times.
George Economou, Emeritus Professor of English, University of Oklahoma, has published 14 books of poetry and translations, including Complete Plus: The Poems of C.P. Cavafy.
Professor Karen Emmerich teaches comparative literature at the University of Oregon and has studied Cavafy’s archive.
Peter Jeffreys, an English Professor at Suffolk University, has published various articles and books on Cavafy.
We present the articles in alphabetical order by the author’s last name which, fittingly, conclude with Prof. Lambropoulos’ piece, the last line of which offers advice to all of us.
What Else Could We Be?
By Natalie Bakopoulos
He who refuses has no second thoughts. / Asked / again, he would repeat the No. And /nonetheless/ that No –so right– defeats him all his life.
-C. P. Cavafy, “Che Fece…Il Gran Rifiuto.” Trans. Daniel Mendehlson
I first came to Cavafy as a teenager visiting Greece, when my father’s sister Eleni handed me The Complete Poems of C.P. Cavafy (the 1961 edition, translated by Rae Dalven)1 and told me to read it, lest I waste my mind lying empty-headed in the sun after dancing in bars all night long. The book jacket notes that Cavafy was born in Alexandria, where I was heading with her later that summer, and I like to think that I may have noticed he was a Greek born and living outside of Greece. Most likely I didn’t. My mind was not yet making such connections, but I was already a reader and happy to be introduced to a “new” writer, as if I was being let in on a brilliant, well-kept secret.
Certain poems my aunt pointed out as significant, such as “Waiting for the Barbarians” or “Ithaca,” and I read them with great interest. I skimmed the poems whose historical references seemed obscure and inaccessible but devoured the ones about desire. Only years later would I see that these two things, desire and history, were far more closely linked than I had understood. And only years later would I return to Cavafy and begin to consider his work in a more complex way, to note the way it grappled with longing and history and art, with choice and disappointment, with identity and Greekness.
I’ve often returned to the poem “Homecoming from Greece,”2 both in its original Greek and in various translations. The speaker of this poem and his companion Hermippus are both Greeks from the East returning home. I’ve always read this poem as the speaker addressing a sullen companion, whose his silence I understood as the wistfulness and loneliness that overcomes us when we are leaving a place that we love, or that has moved us, or that has simply changed the way we think of the place we call home.
The speaker asks: “Why so silent? Ask your heart: as we drew ever farther from Greece, weren’t you happier, too?” Relieved, seemingly, to be going home, he questions his companion’s perceived ambivalence, as if he might be trying to convince him that their home is indeed superior to the place – perhaps Athens – they have just left. And as when anyone tries to convince you of his or her own choices, the agenda is aggressive but apprehensive. After all, when we’re confident of our choices we’re not compelled to defend them. We barely even register them as choices.
But Hermippus contributes neither a response nor a gesture, and though the more literal, and I grant truer reading, is that he is indeed simply the speaker’s traveling companion, I sometimes wonder if his silence is due not to his contemplative brooding but instead to the speaker’s own duality and uncertainty, his wavering between two places and states of mind, between necessity and resource, ignorance and wisdom.
That is, might he be talking to himself?
His split identity– both of Greece and of the Greek East – could be his real source of anxiety, and perhaps the poem is an attempt to explore whether he is indeed happier away from Greece, where he can be both a Greek and of another tradition.
“We too are Greek,” the poem continues, “what else could we be? But with loves and with emotions…that now and then are alien to Greek culture.” The speaker derides others who have attempted to hide their Eastern influences, noting this is decidedly un-Greek. “Ah no, such things don’t become us. / For Greeks like us such pettiness won’t do.” Cavafy’s version of Greekness, then, seems cosmopolitan, open-minded and encompassing, less concerned with rigid lines. How significant now are these ideas, when Golden Dawn, for instance, is invoking the idea of a true “Greekness” to encourage racism and hate?
And what is Greekness? Are those who’ve left Greece whether for political or economic or personal reasons any less Greek for having left? I think of “Homecoming from Greece” in relation to my father, who left Athens for Detroit in 1966, and perhaps all the Greeks I know who have left the country and feel sadness and nostalgia and even perhaps relief when considering their new home in relation to the old. The pain of exile is a pain of gain and loss. Exile might be a choice, to paraphrase Cavafy, that defeats one all one’s life. But what of those of us who identify as Greek but have always lived elsewhere, rooted in one place yet always aware of the other? Do we not feel a splitting of the self when we are in Greece, when we experience the country’s intense pull and comfort and tradition yet remain somehow outside it?
Cavafy was certainly no stranger to this splitting of the self. In his prose piece “On the Poet C.P. Cavafy,”3 he writes: “Cavafy, in my opinion, is an ultra-modern poet, a poet of the future generations. . .Rare poets like Cavafy will thus secure a primary position in a world that thinks far more than does the world of today.” This self-irony and the way Cavafy references himself in the third person, as if the poet Cavafy is different than the man Cavafy, is surprising and delightful, but also telling. As Arthur Rimbaud famously wrote in a letter to George Izambard in 1871: “Je est un autre.” I is someone else. At the root of all self-irony is a combination of humility and arrogance, bravery and cowardice, and the tension between actor and observer, things that seem to run through much of Cavafy’s work.
And Cavafy’s comments reflect his interest in the interplay of past, present, and future. Daniel Mendelsohn, in his introduction to C.P. Cavafy: Complete Poems, writes that what unites Cavafy’s work is the idea of Time: “What matters to Cavafy….is the understanding…that however fervently we may act in the dramas of our lives…only time reveals whether the play is a tragedy or a comedy.”4
Cavafy is reported to have said, when he was ill and in Athens, only months before his death: “I still have twenty five more poems left to write.” Writers will understand the anxiety of ideas and creative desires swirling through their minds faster than they can articulate them. But his words are also about the sense of time passing too quickly, about the perpetual desire to slow time down mixed with the anticipation of what might come next. Art after all, comes from life, whether reflecting or shaping it, and life is what gives it meaning. To have twenty-five more poems left to write is perhaps to wish for not simpy more artistic output, but more experience to channel into those poems. In short, more time.
When I first encountered Cavafy, I was drawn to the erotic poems because to read such openness about sex and yearning felt provocative and liberating. The poems that referenced history, at that time, interested me less. I feel differently now, of course, not only because I better understand the historical reference; Mendelsohn’s point about Time strikes me as an organic way to approach Cavafy. Time brings with it an ache, a certain longing. Cavafy’s longing is unapologetically erotic but it goes beyond sexual desire. Often its concern is with what could have been, or what might have been, or more important, what wasn’t. Isn’t this really our fascination with history? Longing often feels so powerful because it’s for something we can’t quite articulate or something we can never have. Or, in the case of the exile, the impossible longing to be in two places, to belong to two places, or live two lives, at once. This is how I think about Greece: a place of which I will always be a part but to which I will always, even if I were to spend the rest of my days there – to paraphrase E. M. Forster on Cavafy – stand at a slight angle.
Reading Cavafy has shown me this complexity, “of the blood . . . that flows in our veins,” is a rich experience in itself: “let’s not be ashamed; / let us revere it, and let us boast of it.”5
1Cavafy, C. P. The Complete Poems of C. P. Cavafy. Trans. Rae Davlen. Introduction by W. H. Auden. London: Hogarth Press, 1961.
2All translations are from Cavafy, C. P. Complete Poems. Trans. Daniel Mendelsohn. Vintage: New York, 2012.
3Cavafy, C. P. Selected Prose Works. Trans. Peter Jeffreys. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.
4From Introduction to C. P. Cavafy: Complete Poems. Trans. Daniel Mendelsohn. Vintage: New York, 2012.
5“Homecoming from Greece.” From Cavafy, C. P. Complete Poems. Trans. Daniel Mendelsohn. Vintage: New York, 2012.
Why Has Cavafy’s Poetry Attracted So Many Translators?
By George Economou
Since translators are readers before they become translators, the answer to this question should begin, though it certainly need not end, with the more basic consideration of what it is about Cavafy’s poetry that has attracted such a large audience. One of Cavafy’s earliest and most eminent readers, another of Greece’s great poets of the twentieth-century, George Seferis, provides us with a definitive insight into how the Alexandrian poet first struck his Greek contemporaries, and continues to strike his world-wide following in similar if not exactly the same terms to this day.
During the early 1940s, Seferis noted in one of his journals that Cavafy, being a man of so many parts that “one transforms another” caused him to use the Homeric Proteus so often when he referred to him. How suitable a figure for Cavafy is Proteus, who lived on the island of Pharos near the mouth of the Nile tending his flocks of seals and eluding through his lightning-like shape-shifting the attempts of mortals to exact from him his prophetic powers.
And how fitting the inference of Menelaus as a figure for us who must take hold of and master Protean Cavafy through all of his dazzling transformations if we are ever to find our way home. As another major Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos put it thirty years later, to read Cavafy is to become entangled in his singular complexity. This complexity, though often conveyed in a poetic medium that appears on its surface to be relatively simple is also characterized by the poet’s use of a form of diaspora rather than mainland Greek as well as by his subtle blurring of the lines he used to separate his own categorization of his work into the three areas of philosophical, historical, and sensual.
Cavafy’s poetry can make exceptional demands on any reader, but especially on those who are motivated to undertake the task of translating it. Crossing the line that separates reading a poet’s verses from trying to render them anew in another language implicates those so engaged in what Jorge Luis Borges described as the fundamental problem posed by translation, a problem that is “consubstantial to literature and its modest mystery.” More than two dozen scholars, writers, and poets, ten within the last decade alone who have published complete collections of the poems in English, have taken this serious step from readership to one or another form of authorial partnership.
Although there may be as many reasons for translating Cavafy as there are translators, it would be safe to say that on the rock bottom level every effort to do so is borne both of a sincere desire to enable those who cannot read him in the original to experience as much as possible the unique and rewarding complexity of his artistry, and also to involve themselves even more deeply in this complexity by signing on to the time-honored compact between poet and translator. The degree and nature of their individual successes may vary, but two things are certain: every translation contributes something of value to our literary community, and all translators, myself included, with the possible exception of scholars interested in providing a literal rendition, believe – even if they keep it to themselves – that they have done and can do it better than anybody else.
Explaining some of my own reasons for translating Cavafy would surely be more instructive than trying to speak for others, and I trust that, despite our inevitable differences, by doing so some common ground shared among those of us who have joined the ranks may also be detected. To start with the ultimate lesson of a poet’s unwavering commitment to his language, about which to quote Seferis once again, “Cavafy wrote in his own language, but those who attempted to imitate him wrote in the language of no one at all.”
Because the language in which he wrote belonged to a culture and class within the Greek diaspora known for its cosmopolitan character whose speakers did not make a strong distinction between its components from the demotic and purist forms of their Greek, his poetic diction was distinctly his own and impossible for others to impersonate convincingly.
While most of the Greek world was battling over the question of dimotiki versus katharevousa, Cavafy was thinking and writing above the fray and complaining that “the two sides aimed to throw away half of our language.” At the time of my first reading of Cavafy in the original 56years ago during my first visit to Greece, his Greek seemed pronouncedly different from that of the other modern Greek poets like Elytis and Gatsos, whose poems I had begun to study before I made that trip to Athens, and the process of sorting out the difference began to follow.
Decades later when I decided to translate Cavafy poems in earnest, I arrived at and have steadfastly held to the conviction that my versions in English should not sustain the notion put forth by a number of my fellow translators that his texts exhibit a clash in high relief between demotic and purist Greek and that translations into English ought to reflect it.
While I agree with those translators who argue such an effort rarely, if ever, enhances the translation, I prefer to base my own position on the socio-linguistic evidence and on my approach to dealing with Cavafy’s Greek texts first and foremost as one poet working for another. The prerequisite lesson learned was to emulate Cavafy’s commitment to his language through my commitment to my own language, the respective source and target languages of translation in this case, and to work with equal intensity on each of our poems as on one of my own.
Among the several other compelling reasons for my translating Cavafy are two literary qualities of his work that, once recognized, exerted an undeniable attraction on me and had a pervasive influence from the first day forward on how I would direct my own creative involvement in his singular complexity by making English language versions of his poems.
When I first started to write critically about Cavafy in the early 1980s, I realized that many of his poems transcended his familiar division of his work into the categories of philosophical, historical, and sensual through a brilliant unification of all three that I call the dynamic of “Eros, Memory, and Art,” a perception that brings into focus the view that many of Cavafy’s poems deal specifically and notably with the problem of the effects of time upon the artist’s ability to memorialize in his work a deeply cared for individual or experience invariably recalled for their erotic significance.
This dynamic, whether interacting in a historically-based monologue or in one of the so-called autobiographical poems, stands among the major topical forces in all of Cavafy’s writing; for it is through this successful integration of the meaning of eros, memory, and art for him that he achieved the multi-layered vision he so consummately expressed through so many different voices and characters in so many different times and places. One of the best single examples of this achievement is “Craftsman of Wine Bowls,” a poem whose three versions Cavafy worked on over a period of 18 years.
On this wine bowl of pure silver –
made for the house of Herakleides,
where grand style and good taste rule –
observe the elegant flowers, streams and thyme,
in whose midst I set a handsome young man,
naked, amorous, with one leg still
dangling in the water. – O memory, I prayed
for your best assistance in making
the young man’s face I loved the way it was.
A great difficulty this proved because
about fifteen years have passed since the day
he fell, a soldier, in the defeat at Magnesia.
Another, though at first unanticipated, literary activity that ended up providing a decisive reason for translating Cavafy, occurred during my work on a book of translations of the erotic poems in one of the world’s most famous collections of poetry, The Greek – known also as – The Palatine – Anthology. In the course of preparing this book, which was published in 2006, I recalled that the well-read Cavafy is known to have been an avid reader of the renowned anthology, being a connoisseur of the writings of Greek authors from all periods and places.
Hearing one resonance after another between those old amatory epigrams and many of Cavafy’s poems led to the realization that his erotic poetry is full of subtle but unmistakable intimations, rather than imitations, of thematic and tonal parallels with the poems of a wide-range of Hellenic and Hellenistic writers. Recognizing his enrichment by them enriched my own efforts at translating their works, and helped settle the question of making a complete Cavafy my next assignment.
The path followed by me and my fellow readers-become-translators through the demanding task of conveying Cavafy’s poems in English has been lighted by their beauty in his Greek, by their subtle, steadfast morality, and by their affirmation of the worth of a life devoted to art. While some may question the need for and why there have been so many of us, the truly remarkable story is the one in which we collectively provide passage to all in English speaking lands who wish to take the journey offered by the splendid Alexandrian. Like Cavafy, more than a few of us are also children of the Greek Diaspora, whose history he incorporated with poetic genius into his superlative life work.
No Two Snowflakes, or Cavafy Canons, are Alike
By Karen Emmerich
When we pick up a book of poems by C. P. Cavafy, either in Greek or in translation, what exactly are we going to find? Examining a sampling of recent titles for English-language books of Cavafy’s poetry can be a fairly confusing enterprise: Selected Poems; Collected Poems; Complete Poems; Complete Plus: The Poems of C. P. Cavafy in English; The Poems of the Canon; The Canon: The Original One Hundred and Fifty-Four Poems. What makes some poems “original” and others not?
What is this “canon” of Cavafy’s poetry, and who decided what it includes? Where does the number 154 come from? What relationship do these collections bear to the collections that were in circulation during Cavafy’s own life? If a Complete Poems includes all the poems Cavafy wrote, what on earth might a Complete Plus have between its covers? Matters in Greek are no better: people speak of the “canonical” or “acknowledged” poems; the “repudiated”; the “unpublished” or “hidden”; and the “unfinished” poems. What do all these categories mean?
Much of the confusion here arises from the fact that Cavafy never published a conventional book of poems with a commercial publisher during his lifetime. In fact, he brushed away interest from publishers both in Greece and in England to do so, including the highly-esteemed Hogarth Press, run by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who had been introduced to Cavafy’s work by E. M. Forster. And yet – much like American poet Emily Dickinson, who never published a volume of poems but routinely included individual poems in letters to family and friends – Cavafy did share his work. ‘
Starting in 1886, he published countless poems in magazines, journals, newspapers, and yearbooks, in Alexandria, Athens, Cairo, Thessaloniki, Lefkosia, Leipzig, Paris, London, even New York and Chicago. He also self-published two small chapbooks in 1904 and 1910, containing only 14 an 21 poems, respectively, and printed in very limited runs.
Then, during the last three decades of his life, he developed his own, idiosyncratic system for compiling and circulating his work, hand-producing loose folders and provisionally bound volumes that were never made commercially available, but were distributed either in person or through friends to a relatively small circle of individuals, most of whom were known to the poet himself. In fact, he made over 2,200 of these collections, between 50 and 200 in any given year.
We know this because he kept meticulous lists not only of the poems he wrote, rewrote, and destroyed, but also of when each of these volumes was produced, who it was intended for, and sometimes who the intermediary was—if, for instance, a friend had been trusted with the task of bringing several collections to Athens to distribute.
Some of these collections look more or less like books, though they were hand-bound in the poet’s home; others are simply folders containing sheaves of poems that had been individually printed in a typesetting studio in Alexandria. And since Cavafy sent these collections out into the world at different times, and was constantly having poems printed, revising them, and having them printed again, the contents vary a great deal from one collection to the next, even for those prepared within the same year. This, of course, creates great difficulties for an editor who wishes to present the poems in book form: which collection is the “authoritative” one, when all of them issued from the poet himself?
The first commercial edition of Cavafy’s work was published in 1935, two years after his death, and was edited by Rika Sengopoulou, wife of the poet’s heir. This rather luxurious, leather-bound volume, illustrated with woodblocks by Takis Kalmouchos, ordered the poems more or less chronologically.
Since then, the “standard” edition has become George Savidis’ two-volume 1963 edition, which sought to maintain some degree of fidelity to the odd folders and booklets the poet himself had been making during the latter part of his life. Savidis is also the person who undertook to edit and publish many of the poems that were still not in circulation in 1933 when Cavafy died. In fact, he’s the one who divided the poems into the categories mentioned above.
Other scholars have since taken issue with that division; for instance, it’s not clear that some of the “unpublished” poems are really all that much more finished than some of the “unfinished” poems, which were first brought into the world in 1995, in a Greek-language scholarly edition put together by Renata Lavagnini. Many also take issue with Savidis’ characterization of the unpublished poems as “hidden,” since it implies that Cavafy thought there was something in them that needed hiding.
What all this means is, reading Cavafy is always a matter of reading him in modified, mediated forms. This is true not just for translations of Cavafy but even for what we think of as the Greek “originals.” Cavafy’s work is, in fact, one of those cases that makes us question what that term, “original,” even means.
Not because his poems aren’t innovative or unique – but, on the contrary, because there are simply so many unique copies of these utterly unique poems, that the “original” of any given poem, and even more so of a given collection, perhaps can’t really be said to exist at all. Hence all those confusing titles listed above: collected, selected, complete, complete plus. And since any edition of Cavafy’s poetry is likely to give us a slightly different selection or ordering of poems, the very fact of this multiplicity is a good reminder of just how hard it is ever to pin Cavafy down.
C.P. Cavafy: Living for Art
By Peter Jeffreys
If by some strange, fantastic turn of events, time travel were possible and Cavafy could be with us this year when the world is celebrating his poetic achievement, one might imagine that his amazement would be akin to that he wrote about in his unfinished poem “The Seven Children of Ephesus” who wake up two centuries after their mystical slumber in the 3rd century A.D. to a converted world in the 5th. Doubtless like them he “would be pleased” to see so many changes in the cultural landscape that have allowed for a fuller appreciation of his poetry; and likewise, he would be somewhat mystified at how, in 21st century, “everything is so different” from the 19th in which he was born, and from the early 20th during which he found his mature poetic voice.
While we are increasingly familiar with Cavafy’s poetry owing to his status as a world poet, what we know of his life still remains rather limited. This was a deliberately calculated strategy on the poet’s part, as what survives in the archives comprises a minimal corpus of biographical material, much of which was selectively edited by Cavafy himself with a view to his posthumous fame.
The details of Cavafy’s life are rather unremarkable and typical of a Levantine Greek. He was born on 29 April 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt, the last of seven male offspring. His parents, Peter-John and Haricleia (née Photiades), were both born and bred in Constantinople– the Cavafys were distinguished merchants and well-connected Phanariots, as were the members of the Photiades family. In his carefully documented genealogy, Cavafy preserves his family’s pre-eminent status among the Greek mercantile families of Constantinople, Alexandria, and London.
The family business, “Cavafy & Co.,” was an import-export firm with offices in Alexandria, Constantinople, London, Liverpool and Manchester that dealt primarily in Egyptian cotton, wheat and corn. Cavafy grew up in the lap of luxury until the untimely death of his father in 1870, which left the family in reduced financial circumstances.
The family relocated to England between 1872 and 1877 in an unsuccessful attempt to revive the business, which collapsed in 1877, bringing Cavafy back to Alexandria. Political turbulence in Egypt led to the British Bombardment of Alexandria in 1882 which forced the family to seek refuge in Constantinople, where Haricleia and Constantine stayed with relatives until 1885 when they returned to Alexandria in rather dire financial straits, their poverty alleviated slightly by the indemnity they received from the British government for losses incurred during the bombardment.
Cavafy, although acutely aware of his fall from wealth and social status, had nevertheless been enriched from his years spent in London, Liverpool, and Constantinople. There is no surviving evidence of his having received any formal education outside of some irregular schooling in England and, later, a limited course of study with Dr. Constantine Papazis in Alexandria. Cavafy was largely self-taught and managed to immerse himself in the literary movements of his day – namely French Parnassianism, British Aestheticism, and the literary decadence of the 1890s.
He was admittedly an historian manqué who always felt he could have written history had he not written poetry. What he produced was, in essence, a literary hybridization that combined both of his passions. He saw himself above all else as a poet – the official occupation he listed on his final passport. In terms of professions, he chose undemanding jobs that allowed him time to devote to his poetic calling.
As a young man he worked for a brief spell as a broker on the cotton exchange and dabbled in journalism, publishing a number of articles before giving up prose writing for a civic job as a clerk with the British-operated municipal water works in 1892, officially titled The Third Circle of Irrigation. Here he would remain employed for 30 years until his early retirement in 1922 after which he devoted himself exclusively to his poetry.
Cavafy was very attached to his family and lived a fairly uneventful life in Alexandria that involved socializing in the San Stefano Casino, playing tennis, light gambling, and speculating at the Bourse stock exchange. He lived with his mother until her death in 1899 , then with his brothers John and Paul until Paul’s permanent relocation to France in 1907, and then alone in his flat in the Rue Lepsius in the déclassé old Greek quarter until his death in 1933 from throat cancer.
From 1912 he became less socially oriented, devoting most of his energy to writing and circulating his poems. He would occasionally receive visitors who were interested in his work, setting the room’s ambience with candles strategically placed to conceal his own aging face while illuminating the features of his visitor. For choice guests, he would take out his more expensive whiskey to replace the cheaper spirits that he dubbed the “Palamas whiskey,” an apocryphal detail that confirms the legendary poetic rivalry between himself and the Athens-based poet Kostis Palamas.
Cavafy spent much of his later years sowing the seeds for the reception of his poetry. In this sense, he lived for his poetic art, as he writes in his poem “I Brought to Art”: “I sit in reverie. I brought to Art/desires and sentiments– some half-seen/faces or contours; some shaky memories/of fumbled love affairs. Let me submit to it./ It knows how to shape the Form of Beauty;/almost imperceptibly completing life,/fusing impressions, fusing the days” (Translated by George Economou). Cavafy’s earliest poetry was published in newspapers and journals in the last decades of the 19th century.
He would later repudiate most of his early published verse by not including it in the collections he distributed privately, although he never destroyed these early poems or others that remained unpublished and unfinished. Cavafy’s publishing method was both idiosyncratic and calculatedly clever: partly aesthetic in his aristocratic disdain for the vulgarity of mass publishing, but equally guarded in his choice of whom to entrust with his daring homoerotic verses, Cavafy never brought out an official volume of poetry during his lifetime, despite offers from various publishers urging him to do so.
He would print out poems in single broadsheets that he would then distribute in pamphlets and clipped folders, often later re-gathering those he had distributed in order to replace and supplement the collection with new or revised poems. Later, sewn booklets were created containing some 69 poems. The first canonical edition of his poems was published posthumously in Alexandria in 1935 by his heir and literary executor Alekos Singopoulos.
Cavafy traveled abroad only seldom in his adult life – four trips to Greece and one to England and France– preferring to stay in Alexandria, the city to which he was passionately devoted and where he could comport himself as its self-appointed flâneur. Although exceedingly private, Cavafy cultivated a circle of friends who were avid admirers of his poems, including notable writers and prominent literary critics in Greece, England, France, Italy and Alexandria.
He also sought out the company of local painters and sculptors, and was fond of observing and interacting with the young working class Greeks of the city. He’s on record as saying “I don’t understand affection and hatred except as affection and hatred for my work.” The great balm for his old age was the approbation of younger poets for his work, as the lines from his poem “Very Seldom” make plain:
He’s an old man. Used up and bent,
crippled by time and indulgence,
he slowly walks along the narrow street.
But when he goes inside his house to hide
the shambles of his old age, his mind turns
to the share in youth that still belongs to him.
His verse is now recited by young men.
His visions come before their lively eyes.
Their healthy sensual minds,
their shapely taut bodies
stir to his perception of the beautiful.
(translated by Edmund Keeley)
The poem’s concluding sentiment – new generations of readers stirred by his perception of the beautiful – is perhaps an appropriate note on which to conclude this brief biographical overview: we are left with an image of a poet anticipating his own posterity as we celebrate the extraordinary legacy that Cavafy has bequeathed to the world of art 150 years after his birth.
Ten Reasons Why You Should Drop Everything and Read Cavafy Right Now
By Vassilis Lambropoulos
In 1999 I was hired by the University of Michigan to hold the newly-endowed Modern Greek Chair, a position that has been shared by the Departments of Classical Studies and Comparative Literature. When I was asked about a possible name for the Chair, without a moment’s hesitation I suggested the name of the author Constantine P. Cavafy.
I did it because I felt that Cavafy was the most representative Greek person (and not just writer) for the 21st century, and I do not think I was wrong. His worldwide reputation has become apparent this year as we celebrate 150 years since his birth and 80 years since his death. From Tokyo to New York and from Melbourne to Oxford, this double anniversary has been honored with lectures, screenings, conferences, concerts, discussions, and many more events. Astonishingly, almost every day during 2013 there has been an event somewhere around the world recognizing this great writer.
But why is Cavafy so widely admired? Why do we continue to be fascinated by his work? Why do we read him much more than we read other eminent Greek writers like Kostis Palamas, Nikos Kazantzakis, George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis, or Yiannis Ritsos? Here are ten reasons why you should drop whatever you may be doing right now, and read Cavafy.
1. Cavafy is canonical. You are not an educated person if you do not know some of his poems. It’s that simple. Lines from Cavafy’s “The City,” “Ithaca,” “Waiting for the Barbarians,” “The Windows,” “Thermopylae,” and “The God Abandons Antony” are known all over the world. They have entered the English language and have become standard references, just like Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be.” If I meet somebody in Ann Arbor MI, where I live, and I tell them “Pray for a road that will be long” or “Those people were a kind of solution, “ I expect them to know what I’m talking about and usually they do.
2. Cavafy is symbolic. His poems create an irresistible array of symbols, like the city that will always haunt you, the journey back to Ithaca, the barbarians who do not exist, defending Thermopylae, and the walls that others build around us. These are poems that people live with, poems that help people make sense of their daily lives. These symbols are instantly meaningful.
3. Cavafy is sensual. He writes about beautiful bodies. He sees something very special in the beauty of the human body, and praises it with tremendous physicality. These bodies happen to be male but their praise is so rapturous that any reader can admire them. The Greek etymology of hedonism captures his contemplation of beauty. And there is something else in his verses that is utterly Greek: bodies are naked.
4. Cavafy is epigrammatic. His poems, which are often very short, condense in a line or two a viewpoint, a position, or a critique. As a result, they are easily readable and endlessly quotable. Cavafy is the most quoted Modern Greek poet. He has been cited in headlines, speeches, campaigns, slogans, book titles, obituaries, you name it. He has been both recycled and branded. You feel he has been text messaging us since Homeric times.
5. Cavafy is ironic. He always looks at people and situations with a unique combination of affection and skepticism. Whether he is writing about love, death, power, identity, or art, he takes a certain critical distance and ponders various possibilities and their consequences. He does not tell us how things are but how they may look from different perspectives. That is why he remains open to numerous interpretations.
6. Cavafy is dramatic. A highly-effective way in which he encourages a critical perspective is by creating a theatrical situation where different characters express different viewpoints. He creates dramatic scenes where people converse, and we get to hear their voices, directly or indirectly. This dialogical technique leaves it up to us to decide which side of the argument we want to take, if any. It represents yet another way to invite readers to contribute their own interpretations.
7. Cavafy is Greek. More specifically, he wrote in Greek. Even if your Greek is inadequate, you’ve got to read him in the original. You’ll be surprised that you won’t have many problems. (You can also find editions with an English translation facing the original.) Cavafy wrote several verses and poems in inimitable Greek. You read a line and you stop and you wonder – Did somebody really write this? How did he come up with this stunning vocabulary, syntax, rhythm? No Greek writer since the ancient poet Theocritus, who died in 260 BC, has written poetry with such virtuosity. It’s that simple.
8. Cavafy is diasporic. He was a diasporic Greek who never lived in Greece. His family came from Constantinople, he was born in Alexandria, Egypt, he grew up in England, and spent the rest of his life in his native city. He was also a cosmopolitan person and a post-colonial intellectual. Due to his inexhaustible reflection on his diasporic position, he portrays a Hellenism that is not pure but hybrid, not unified but discontinuous, not centralized but sprawling. His Greeks are citizens of the world who feel at home anywhere.
9. Cavafy is historical. If you want to explore the incomparable poet, try to move beyond the symbols we all know and cherish – Ithacas, walls, candles, voices, windows, barbarians, and the like. He did write these poems, and they are all good, but they do not represent his greatest achievement. Try to explore his more challenging pieces. Some have names in their title – Herodus Atticus, Caesarion, Demaratus, Darius, Myres, Temethus: Who are these people? Even more puzzlingly, other poems have dates in their title – 610, 50 AD, 162-150 BC, 400 AD, 595 AD, 31, BC, 200 BC: What do they refer to? The best translations have excellent footnotes that can enlighten you and put you in the company of greatness. Furthermore, in the age of the internet it is easy to look up most references.
10. Cavafy is a poet for friends. Even though he does not write much about friendship, he is the poet you quote to your (male or female, Greek or non-Greek) friends expecting them to understand. He is the poet of the dialogue, creativity, exchange, reflection that come with friendship. Like a great friend, he is the poet of ethical integrity who never moralizes. Instead of telling you what is right and what is wrong, he helps you become a friend’s ’s “other self” (what Aristotle called heteros eautos). To those of us who think of friendship in ethical terms, Cavafy will remain an incandescent point of reference. I know from experience.
Why on earth are you still reading me instead of reading Cavafy?