For my initial blog post–occurring during Pride Month–I thought I would highlight an author whose works we collect in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, and who has a large and devoted following in the gay community.
Greek-Alexandrian poet Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis, better known to English readers as Constantine Cavafy, or just C.P. Cavafy, was born 160 years ago on April 29, 1863, in Alexandria, Egypt, the youngest of nine children. His parents were Greek and originated from Constantinople (Istanbul today), and his father worked in the import/export business. Around the age of seven, Cavafy’s father passed away and the family relocated to Liverpool, England, but financial hardship there forced them to return to Alexandria. War broke out a few years later and the family briefly relocated again, this time to Constantinople. By 1885, Cavafy returned to Alexandria where, with the exception of brief trips to Greece, he would remain for the rest of his life. He eventually took a civil-service position with the Ministry of Public Works and settled into a life in the large and cosmopolitan city.
Cavafy was writing poetry by the time he was a teenager, and he continued to do so throughout his adult life, meticulously writing, rewriting, and perfecting his style. During his lifetime, Cavafy printed his poetry on broadsides or in booklets, or hand-copied his poems and distributed them to friends. He would also occasionally submit his poems for print in periodicals, but he never gained wide-spread popularity in the Greek-speaking world until after his death.
Today, Cavafy is recognized in Greece as one of the greatest poets since antiquity and his poetry is taught in public schools and universities. He gained a contemporaneous following in England after meeting the English novelist E. M. Forster in 1916. Forster was in Alexandria as part of the Red Cross during World War I when he met Cavafy, describing him as “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” Upon returning to England, Forster brought Cavafy to the attention of the English literary establishment, thereby gaining him an international following. After Cavafy’s death on his 70th birthday, April 29, 1933, his named heir collected his poetry and had 153 completed poems published in Alexandria by the Ekdosis Alexandrinēs Technēs. These poems, plus one more, would become known as his canon.
Subjects of Cavafy’s poetry include historical and pseudo-historical figures and events from the Hellenic world, and the erotic. “Ithaca,” written in 1911 and among his most famous poems, was inspired by Homer’s Odyssey and Odysseus’s return journey home to his island. The poem makes clear that the destination, Ithaca, is merely that, an end point; it’s the journey itself that is significant and worthy: “As you set out for Ithaka / hope your road is a long one, / full of adventure, full of discovery.” The poem urges the traveler to take their time, to see harbors, to buy from Phoenecian trading stations, and to visit Egypt to learn from that country’s scholars. By the time you reach Ithaca, Cavafy writes, “if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you. / Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, / you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.”
Gay male readers have had a particular interest in Cavafy’s erotic poetry, which constitutes a considerable fraction of his canon. Living in a large and cosmopolitan city like Alexandria, “cruising” and “hooking-up” take place frequently in his poems and are often precipitated by a chance encounter at a café, over a store sales counter, or even at the tobacconist. In “The Next Table,” the author, seeing a young man, remembers a past encounter: “He must be barely twenty-two years old— / yet I’m certain that almost that many years ago / I enjoyed the very same body.” The author proclaims that he hasn’t been at the casino long, so he’s not drunk, but now that the young man is seated at the next table, “I recognize every motion he makes—and under his clothes / I see again the limbs I loved, naked.” It’s a beautiful poem of memory and wistfulness.
Cavafy’s poetry and influence can be found throughout our collections. The Rare Book Collection holds the beautifully produced 1935 first printing of Cavafy’s 153 poems, and the Gene Berry and Jeffrey Campbell Collection contains a number of modern translations of Cavafy’s poetry, including his complete and unfinished poems. Cavafy’s writing has inspired many authors and artists to create tributes, which can be found sprinkled among our many special collections. The Sylvester & Orphanos Collection contains Stathis Orphanos’s My Cavafy: Chance Encounters, which combines selections of Cavafy’s poems with Orphanos’s photography. Our Artists’ Books Collection includes a copy of J’ai tant contemplé la beauté, a French translation of Cavafy’s poems and illustrated with lithographs by modern Greek artist Alekos Fassianos. Even our juvenile literature collection contains a series of Cavafy drawings by children’s book writer and illustrator James Marshall, presumably for an uncompleted work. These and many more works by or about Cavafy may be viewed in our public displays but are also available for use in our reading room.