In a prose piece, C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933) describes the process of creating art as a voyage on a ship with containers of highly precious cargo: “even with all the care in the world many shatter when transported, and many others shatter upon unloading.”1 The outpouring of praise for Cavafy in the English-speaking world has been so overwhelming—the list of first-rate writers and artists who have testified to his influence, the number of translations that have appeared and stayed in print—that it threatens to jostle and abrade what remains a very strange and delicate oeuvre.
Certainly a reader who encounters him for the first time may wonder what the fuss is all about. In isolated poems, Cavafy’s style, devoid of many of the resources of language, like metaphor and image and specificity, can seem flat and dull; Charles Simic goes so far as to say that Cavafy, while a great poet, was often clichéd, especially in his psychological notations.2 But Cavafy becomes more complex as one reads him and as one makes connections among his historical poems—the ones that probe various wounds in the Greek amour propre, especially the doings of failed imperial personages in Byzantium—and his erotic memory poems, which offer the paradox of being both honest about his homosexuality and intensely private and unyielding. More so than with most great poets, there is a cumulative effect in Cavafy, buttressing the emotional architecture of any given poem.
The adjectives—someone is “beautiful” or “handsome,” youth is “exquisite,” a body is “lovely,” an emotion is “sensual”—can be alienating in their flatness, somewhat like ancient Egyptian wall painting. In this example, note the non-specificity of the body and of the “emotion” and “feeling”: