Because I don’t want to hurt you or perhaps myself

Presenting the poetry of C.P. Cavafy

| Forum Editor

Chief among the joys of literature is a savory, self-aggrandizing contempt for the thumb-sucking twits with whom you are unfairly forced to share the planet. The more illiterate the average American gets, the smarter you get to feel by simply keeping up your literary habit. This Average American now manages a book a year, a book statistically quite likely to feature teenage vampires, teenage wizards or the global conspiracy behind the Catholic Church; against such themes, even the works of Sinclair Lewis attain a certain begrudged luster.

But along with that preening sense of superiority, there all too often simmers an impotent rage at having to remain at the margins of culture. Wholly committed as the taste of the Average American famously is to global all-pervasiveness and depravity, you may sometimes find yourself grasping for a means, short of violence, to bring yourself back into communion with a people whose inner life you no longer understand. I, for one, turn to literary boosterism. I find that by shamelessly plugging new or interesting books, I can both give something back to the community and, in deluding myself into thinking you people actually care, imagine a community I don’t have to hate so much all the time. So everybody wins.

This week, I’m going recommend you some poetry: specifically, a new two-volume translation of the Alexandrian poet-historian Constantine Petrou Cavafy, by the eminent classicist Daniel Mendelsohn, currently being feted as the literary event of the season. I’m going to argue that this poetry, beyond being merely some of the most beautiful you’re ever likely to read, is actually relevant to your life.

In one sense, Cavafy’s poetry is getting more relevant every day, being that he was one of the only poets of his time to be homosexual in his poems. As Mendelsohn (himself an impassioned and inspired writer on and champion of homosexuality) relates, where other gay poets might hide the object of their desire behind a “you” or a “one,” Cavafy reaches, unfalteringly, for a “he.” But the results speak to anyone. This is from his poem “In Despair”:

He’s lost him utterly.

And from now on he seeks

in the lips of every new

lover he takes

the lips of that one: his.

See? Simple, powerful, unflinchingly homosexual, and that’s not even a whole stanza. And look what he did with the “his”—ambiguously both the lips of the protagonist’s former love and something he believes he owns. Isn’t that fascinating?

This gives him, in our continuing national panic over homosexuality, instant topicality and something more urgent as well. One does not, of course, have to be gay to appreciate the man’s keen examinations of longing and desire, but one must accept that unlike, say, Walt Whitman, it was as a homosexual, unabashed and unashamed, that Cavafy felt and expressed them. In waging the culture war with those who might doubt what such a “deviant” social group could ever contribute to the greater cultural discussion, feel free to literally throw the book at them. Boys, at the very least it should teach you to stop calling the things you think you have no use for “gay,” poetry included.

Cavafy’s relevance also comes in another, less fraught place. He happened to be an obsessive scholar of the failed empires of antiquity, from Hellenistic Greece to ancient Rome and Byzantium. He is a wonderful chronicler of empires at their waning, of frustrated royal ambitions and vexed national destinies and of those more quotidian pains born of a life of which too much is often expected. In these days of socioeconomic cataclysm and soiled hegemony, he is a great companion. If, amid all this contraction of national expectations, you have ever felt that your very ambitions have betrayed you, that the gods care not a crumpet for the plans you’ve made, don’t worry, Cavafy’s got a poem for that. Several hundred, actually.

One of my favorites so far is “Alexandrian Kings”—a poem about, among other things, the virtue of practical expectations. In it, Cleopatra and Marc Antony have just ceremonially crowned their children kings of all the former holdings of Alexander the Great. History will see them destroyed by such grand delusions. It is the shrewd populace of Alexandria who, though they love a party, are wise enough not to be taken in by the pomp and circumstance:

and the Alexandrians rushed to the festival,

filled with excitement, and shouted acclaim

in Greek, and in Egyptian, and some in Hebrew,

enchanted by the lovely spectacle—

though of course they knew what they were worth,

what empty words these kingdoms were.

Would that we all were blessed with such perspicacity, but the poetry itself is surely the next best thing. Both volumes will run you about $60. Buy them, and I’ll throw in my continued sanity, free of charge. Given the rather lax gun laws of this state, I’d call that a real bargain.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.

Subscribe