An Evening with the Poet C. P. Cavafy

On November 18, 2013 at The Town Hall in New York City, the PEN American Center presented an evening tribute to the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy in celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth. The readers and speakers included the actor Sir Sean Connery (recorded), the actresses Olympia Dukakis and Kathleen Turner, the Nobel Laureate in literature Orhan Pamuk, the American poet Mark Doty, the writers André Aciman, Michael Cunningham, and Daniel Mendelsohn (who published a translation of Cavafy in recent years), and Cavafy’s distinguished translator Professor Edmund Keeley. David Hockney’s portrait of Cavafy was projected onto a large screen on the stage. Some poems were also displayed on this backdrop during the program, as was a photographic essay of the building of the new library at Alexandria in Egypt and a short film that featured a poem imposed upon a seascape. The celebration ended in performance art: two young men, one nude and one dressed in black, commingled their body parts on the bare stage so that the audience saw the nude calf of one become part of the draped thigh of the other. Ostensibly a celebration of great poetry, the evening was less than poetic. Someone unfamiliar with Cavafy’s greater poems may not be encouraged to read them.

To those unfamiliar with Cavafy’s work, this poem entitled “The God Abandons Antony” is illustrative of his depth and cadence (quoting the translation by Keeley and Philip Sherrard):

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

I am quoting from the 1993 revised edition, even though Keeley once told me that “delectation” in the third line from the end is better translated as “pleasure,” which change he made in his later editions. Mendelsohn translates the same phrase as “a final entertainment.” All usages are evocative—to Cavafy’s credit.

Regrettably, the reading of this poem by Dukakis was forced and uneven. It seemed as if the actress knew that she was temporarily entrusted with one of the finest poems of the twentieth century but did not understand that in the greatest poetry it is the seemingly natural rhythmic invocation—the easy lyrical combination of both historical and present meaning in the words—that affects the reader’s mind or listener’s ear far more than any exaggerated emphasis.

Like so many other literary events in New York, the poetry establishment now always seems to grope for such embellishment, as if its audience were either stupidly ignorant of linguistic subtlety or could only be coaxed away from its smartphones by loud celebration. What a telling contrast to the recent celebration of Lou Reed’s music after his death, as reported by The New York Times: no remarks; only his songs.

The Cavafy evening also appeared to reinforce a recurring belief that the public cannot appreciate poetry as poetry. Thus one speaker spoke at length (complete with illustrated slides and photographs) of the building of the new public library at Alexandria. Presumably this linkage to current events, including the recent unrest in the Middle East, illustrated Cavafy’s understanding of the meaning of the past upon the present and therefore justified an evening with his poetry.

This effort at identification and justification may be no worse than scholars constantly searching for hidden biographical references in the work of the writers in whom they specialize. Perhaps one should not laugh out loud after reading in recent weeks thatimportant American libraries are now purchasing for millions of dollars the papers and letters of a Tom Wolfe or a Paul Auster, as if the daily lives of those current writers will provide meaning to anyone other than anthropologists who study the jottings of an age in order to define its culture.

PEN, generously supported this evening by the Stavros Niarchos and Onassis Foundations, is dedicated to the promotion and celebration of world literature. One might ask why the words of Cavafy in and of themselves apparently were not enough for the program. Do the words require biography, visual effects, or external linkage to make them accessible?

The vacuous wasteland of contemporary American poetry is empirical proof of this groping. And that in turn may explain the emphasis upon Cavafy’s homoerotic poems by such gay poets as Doty. Surely some in the “poetry business” and at the universities have begun to recognize that the constant emphasis upon the sexual life of the poet (over the poetry) is getting tiresome.

Contrast that vacuum with all that awaits a new reader to Cavafy’s literary universe. Like most poets, Cavafy is to be celebrated for a handful of poems. And like most great poets, only one or two phrases or lines from his poetry will enter the public lexicon. Here is another poem—“Antony’s Ending”—for you to consider (from the Keeley/Sherrard revised edition), and its literary effect does not depend on a complete knowledge of history or the poet’s life:

But when he heard the women wailing,
lamenting his sorry state—
madam with her oriental gestures
and her slaves with their barbarized Greek—
the pride in his soul rose up,
his Italian blood sickened with disgust
and all he’d worshipped blindly till then—
his wild Alexandrian life—
now seemed dull and alien.
And he told them “to stop wailing for him,
that kind of thing was all wrong.
They ought to be singing his praises
for having been a great ruler,
a rich, heroic man.
And if he’d fallen now, he hadn’t fallen humbly,
but as a Roman vanquished by a Roman.”

Cavafy is a great modern “Greek poet” who bridged and served both the Hellenic and modern worlds. Lovers of language and thought, do not fret; there will always be such authentic poetry. Though this celebratory evening may have inadvertently reinforced the paucity of the current poetic experience, even in fashionable New York, a town that claims literary distinction, PEN and its cosponsors are to be commended for their efforts.  

Eugene Schlanger, the Wall Street Poet, is the author of September 11 Wall Street Sonnets. He also practices law on Wall Street.