- Why Is Cavafy so Popular?
If asked to identity a modern Greek poet, most readers around the world would probably name Constantine P. Cavafy. In their minds, he represents Greece and Greek literature. While this choice may be self-evident, it is nevertheless remarkable that a diasporic, modernist, homosexual poet should become Greece’s poetic ambassador in place of national bards like Dionysios Solomos, Andreas Kalvos, Kostis Palamas, or Giorgos Seferis. Why is this so? Why is Cavafy so popular in world literature? Why are there so many translations of his work, at least in English? Why is his appeal so global?1
There is no way I could consider all these questions satisfactorily. The position of a writer in world literature is a complex outcome of international and national literary tastes, the prestige of various national languages, the availability of translations, and implicit standards about writing and reading poetry. And while authors themselves may be aware of these standards and try to write according to them or against them, they have no way of controlling the fate of their work, especially after their deaths.
We can see this with great clarity in Cavafy’s case. He seemed very conscious of himself as an unrecognized genius, a person capable of writing about topics that others could not, someone who could foresee the future. But public recognition of his originality was gradual. Indeed, at the outset there was much hostility or misunderstanding of his work, especially outside of Alexandria.
Although Cavafy’s friend E. M. Forster was very optimistic about Cavafy’s eventual place in world literature, saying that one day he would achieve a reputation in Europe; no one living in Alexandria at the time could have predicted his global fame today. To be sure, many critics were also claiming that he was a flash in the pan. Astute Greek critics, like Yiorgos Katsimbalis, the “colossus” in Henry’s Miller’s The Colossus of Marousi, could never imagine that Cavafy would overtake the then-reigning national poet, Palamas, to become an international literary icon (see Katsimbalis). [End Page 111]
Cavafy wrote against the literary tastes of his time and seemed to be composing verses for the future.2 The Greek poet Myrtiotissa said so when she visited him in the early 1920s, describing his eyes as coming “from a far distant time and revealing a mystery unknown to us” (84). She depicted Cavafy as an exotic being who lived in another epoch but who understood our time and placed his stamp upon it.
But many contemporaneous critics and writers, especially in Greece, could neither understand nor accept this imprint. The form and content of his verses seemed completely unpoetic, strange, and out of place to them. First of all, he lived in Alexandria rather than Athens, which was then becoming the center of Hellenic culture. Moreover, instead of composing in demotic, he chose a mixture between the vernacular and the archaistic language known as Katharevousa. While contemporary audiences favored flowery, lyric poetry, he published spare, prosaic poems that seemed to walk rather than dance to readers. Instead of flattering national tastes by writing about modern Greek history or even about fifth-century Athens, he turned to the arguably more peripheral periods of the Hellenistic Empires, of Late Antiquity, and of Byzantium. Finally, he wrote frankly about homoerotic desire and that shocked contemporary readers.
In the face of this critical censure and marginalization, Cavafy persevered. Despite acute feelings of insecurity (combined with self-assurance about the pioneering nature of his work), he believed that people would eventually recognize his genius and that tastes and reading styles would change in his favor. He was right. We are now living in Cavafy’s time, a period described and foreseen by him. He was indeed writing for the future. And the reasons people love Cavafy now are exactly those that his contemporary Greek readers cited in their rejection of the poet.
I would say that Cavafy’s global appeal can be explained in part by the following factors: 1) the western interest in classical civilization and its successors; 2) the corresponding obsession with decline and decadence; 3) the fascination with ethnic...