[This is the larger part of a newspaper article commissioned by the Greek-American weekly The National Herald and published on Dec. 17, 2013, as part of a commemorative section entitled “Remembering Cavafy, 150 Years Later.”]
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, Michigan, 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. [The last sentence is, of course, a transparent reference to my friend, Pantelis Polychronidis.]