NEW YORK – Prior to last week’s commemoration of the 150th birthday of Constantine P. Cavafy that packed Manhattan’s Town Hall, TNH had a conversation about the poet with two of the participants, Olympia Dukakis and Daniel Mendelsohn.
They were very excited about presenting Cavafy to New York with dance and film and especially through the recitation of his poems by actors. Dukakis was joined by Kathleen Turner and together they blew the audience away.
“There is a tradition,” Mendelsohn said, of actors reading Cavafy, “and as soon as my book was coming to an end I thought of Olympia because Cavafy is a particularly dramatic poet.”
He would not say the same about, for example, Odysseas Elytis. “He is better on the page,” he said. He likes to look at Elytis’ text and study it.
“And whatever language you are listening to Cavafy in, it comes alive unusually well when it is performed,” explaining that the core idea of the Town Hall event was that “this is poetry that should be performed.”
Mendelsohn said “there are funny stories about his co-workers sometimes seeing him… walking back and forth talking to himself until they realized he was reciting his poems.
It has to be out loud, and clearly he thought so, too…he is a poet on the tongue, not just on the page.”
And apparently on the stage as well. Who would have bet that 1500 people would fill a Manhattan theater to hear a dead Greek poet?
The academy award winning actress began the conversation by saying “I think Cavafy is important in our lives.” She mused that, “When I read him I become very aware of time and the passing of my own life. Disappointments, highlights…it makes me deeply aware of my own lapses and my own humanity.”
Mendelsohn said “most of his historic poems are about countries that are about to disintegrate.” He noted both his historical and his personal poems tend to be about the end of things, and that someone once said “Cavafy is not the poet of the love affairs; he is the poet of the indentation in the mattress when the lover has left.”
But Mendelsohn said even given that, he does not find his poetry negative: “There is equanimity about it.” “And real,” Dukakis said. “I don’t feel that I am being suckered into anything. That’s why I read him and reread him.”
“And he always seems to be pertinent,” Mendelsohn said, “Cavafy seems to be right on top of the political crisis.”
He just published a small piece for the New Yorker about “Waiting for the Barbarians” and the government shutdown.
And he said “I couldn’t agree more” when they two were asked if Cavafy’s poems don’t also speak to the angst of Hellenes in the diaspora about Greece and Cyprus being in deep crisis.
Cavafy’s poems are illuminating today, “Not just for Greece, but particularly for Greece,”
he said. Cavafy’s had an acute interest in history, “and because he is Alexandrian – he is a person interested in the past, and living in a very old city that has seen everything come and go, Cavafy is a wonderful poet to read particularly in times of crisis.”
“On hand he has deep feeling for the way that cultures and empires rise and fall, and yet he is very attached to his sense of being Greek, so the one thing that is continuous for him is his Greekness.”
What unifies all of history for Cavafy “is a sort of through-line of Greek civilization.”
There is always a sense of impending doom in Cavafy, but in response to a comment that despite all that, there is life in his poems, Dukakis agreed strongly, and added “especially in the middle of the night.”
To describe the powerful effect Cavafy has on her and his readers, she borrowed imagery from one of Federico García Lorca, who wrote “The poem, the song, the picture, is only water drawn from the well of the people, and it should be given back to them in a cup of beauty so that they may drink – and in drinking understand themselves” and their society, she added.
Mendelsohn again emphasized that “the well that he is always dipping into is the Greek well.” But although he agrees that what he give is back is a cup of beauty, it can also be wrenching.
Mendelsohn then mentioned that Cavafy also wrote small number of very religious poems, about churches and Orthodoxy. “I do think he looked to the church for comfort – not in a lazy way – I think he did find comfort.”
To the question whether that in addition to death and falls there are also resurrections and recoveries in Cavafy’s poems Mendelsohn said “it not so much about specific beginning but that there will always be beginnings.”
There is light even in Waiting for the Barbarians. “You think it’s a poem about decline, and then at the end there’s a joke, which is that they were hoping the barbarians would come.”
The Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard translation concludes: “And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? They were those people, a kind of solution.”
Mendelsohn said “that’s such a typically Cavafian sort of curve ball, and he himself in his diary wrote that it was an optimistic poem.” He quoted novelist E. M. Forster’s observation that Cavafy stands “at a slight angle to the Universe.” But it’s always a funny angle, it’s unexpected,” Mendelsohn said.