As Good as Great Poetry Gets’

Outside his poems Cavafy does not exist.” Seventy-five years after the death of “the Alexandrian” (as he is known in Greece), the early verdict of his fellow poet George Seferis—which must have seemed rather harsh in 1946, when the Constantine Cavafy who had existed in flesh and blood was still a living memory for many people—seems only to gain in validity. That flesh-and-blood existence was, after all, fairly unremarkable: a middling job as a government bureaucrat, a modest, even parsimonious routine, no great fame or recognition until relatively late (and even then hardly great), a private life of homosexual encounters kept so discreet that even today its content, as much as there was content, remains largely unknown to us.

All this—the mediocrity, the obscurity (whether intentional or not)—stands in such marked contrast to the poetry, with its haunted memories of seethingly passionate encounters in the present and its astoundingly rich imagination of the remote Greek past, from Homer to Byzantium, from Alexandria and Rome to barely Hellenized provincial cities in the Punjab, that it has been hard not to agree with Se-feris that the “real” life of the poet was, in fact, almost completely interior; and that outside that imagination and those memories, there was little of lasting interest.

As the man and everyone who knew him have passed into history, the contrast between the life and the art has made it easy to think of Cavafy in the abstract, as an artist whose work exists untethered to a specific moment in time. This trend has been given impetus by the two elements of his poetry for which he is most famous: his startlingly contemporary subject (one of his subjects, at any rate) and his appealingly straightforward style. Certainly there have always been many readers who appreciate the so-called historical poems, set in marginal Mediterranean locales and long-dead eras and tart with mondain irony and a certain weary stoicism. (“Ithaca gave you the beautiful journey; / without her you wouldn’t have set upon the road. / But now she has nothing left to give you,” he writes in what is perhaps his most famous evocation of ancient Greek culture, which tells us that the journey is always more important than the inevitably disappointing destination.)

But it is probably fair to say that Cavafy’s popular reputation currently rests almost entirely on the remarkably prescient way in which those other, “sensual” poems, as often as not set in the poet’s present, treat the ever-fascinating and pertinent themes of erotic longing, fulfillment, and loss; the way, too, in which memory preserves what desire so often cannot sustain. That the desire and longing were for other men only makes him seem more contemporary, more at home in our own times.

As for the style, it is by now a commonplace that Cavafy’s language, because it was so bare of common po-etic devices—image, simile, metaphor, specialized diction—is tantamount to prose. One of the first to make this …

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