- The Poetry and Poetics of Constantine P. Cavafy: Aesthetic Visions of Sensual Reality
There is little doubt that Cavafian criticism is one of the most fertile areas in Greek letters. Professor John P. Anton is not a newcomer to the study of modern Greek literature; his book is the latest addition to what is an already accomplished career and a productive field. His involvement with Greek literature includes the work of Solomos, Palamas, Kazantzakis, and Sikelianos. This monograph inaugurates the Greek Poetry Archive series, edited by Professor Anton himself, which aims to feature monographs on key modern Greek poets from the nineteenth century to the present, as well as a bilingual collection of their poetry translated into English.
Inaugurating a new series with a book entitled The Poetry and Poetics of Constantine P. Cavafy may give the impression that this monograph aspires to be an exhaustive study. Such an attempt would have risked repeating the valuable work of previous scholars and have rendered much of Anton’s analysis redundant. Instead, the book focuses on the problems that attended Cavafy’s development as a poet and, in particular, on his work up to 1911.
The central organizing principle behind Anton’s study is the concept of an evolutionary model of poetic development that moves away from the notion of a natural genius and toward the notion of talent. The word “genius,” reinforced by its original sense as “spirit,” assumed its modern connotation of transcendental power during the Romantic movement, which Cavafy rejected early in his career. Anton contrasts genius (a poet’s inborn ability) with talent, [End Page 368] which attributes poetic creativity to the development of a skill that may be acquired. Drawing evidence from Cavafy’s own notes on poetic practice and from a variety of secondary sources, Anton delineates a model for Cavafy’s “maturation” from experimental symbolism to the uniquely personal style we now recognize as Cavafy’s own. Central to this argument is the assertion that Cavafy was not born a poet, but became one.
The book’s organization, as well as much of its style, is heavily indebted to spatial metaphors of (1) escape from concentric circles of imprisonment and (2) a journey of liberation. Chapter 1 takes us on a tour of Alexandria through the various periods of its history—from its founding by Alexander the Great to its flourishing under the Ptolemies, its conquest by the Romans, its medieval obscurity, and its modern revival. Chapters 2 and 3 focus more specifically on the poet’s personal life and the forces that shaped his personality. His declining social status and his homosexuality are central to these two chapters although the latter is not explicitly named as such but is rather questionably and variously referred to as “his sensuality,” “his erotic reorientation,” “his maladjustment,” “his condition,” and “his erotic hunger.” Though much of this historical and biographical information is available in other sources (e.g., Robert Liddell’s Cavafy: A Critical Biography [London: Duckworth, 1974], Timos Malanos’s [Athens: Difros, 1957], and Stratis Tsirkas’s [Athens: Kedros, 1958]), nevertheless the first three chapters provide, in a concise and convenient manner, rather valuable basic information about Alexandria and Cavafy himself. To the extent that one of the stated purposes of this book is “to introduce the reader to the poetry and poetics of Constantine P. Cavafy,” these chapters have a legitimate place.
The subsequent seven chapters sketch the painstaking process whereby Cavafy struggled with the burden of symbolism and overcame the creative crisis precipitated by his feelings of poetic inadequacy as well as of alienation and isolation—the crisis that Anton, vacillating between two explanations, attributes at times to the poet’s closeted homosexuality and at times to the modern predicament of the megalopolis. Grounding his analysis primarily on “The City,” “Walls,” and “The Windows,” Anton examines the years from 1894 to 1910 as the formative period in Cavafy’s career. His analysis of Cavafy’s creative process is based on a meticulous and comprehensive study of the...