Conversation: Daniel Mendelsohn Discusses Two New Collections of Poet C.P. Cavafy

BY Arts Desk  April 9, 2009 at 2:16 PM EDT

From top: C.P. Cavafy, 'Collected Poems' and Daniel MendelsohnConstantine Cavafy, the greatest Greek poet since antiquity, never published a complete book of his poems during his lifetime. Instead, he would print them himself as pamphlets or broadsheets and distribute them to a small group of friends. This method was central to Cavafy’s idea that poems remained works in progress and could be altered over time.

Time itself was the central character in much of Cavafy’s work. He thought of himself not simply as a poet, rather he took on the mantel of “poet-historian.” He mined ancient texts with a scholar’s rigor for stories of the Hellenistic monarchs, tales of Late Antiquity and the fall of Byzantium. His interest was not in retelling the days that marked “the glory that was Greece.“As a product of the Greek diaspora, Cavafy found inspiration in the long arc of history that united the ancient past with the present, drawn to the more obscure characters left out of the historical highlight reel.

He lived a rather obscure life himself. Born in 1863 in Alexandria, the youngest of seven sons, Cavafy’s father was a prominent importer-exporter of corn and cotton, expanding his company to include offices in London and Liverpool, where the family moved for a few years following his father’s death. Cavafy would return to Alexandria as a teenager and remained there for most of the rest of his life.

Cavafy worked for 33 years as a government clerk at the Irrigation Office of the Ministry of Public Works in the “Third Circle of Irrigation.” He lived alone in a small apartment above a brothel, where he would do his research and write in the evenings before he set out for nights with young male lovers.

This week, we get a new look at his work in two volumes. For more than 10 years, the writer, critic and translator, Daniel Mendelsohn, has immersed himself in Cavafy’s work. The result: “C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems” and “C.P. Cavafy: The Unfinished Poems.” It is the first time Cavafy’s unfinished poems have been translated or seen in English.

Mendelsohn’s work frequently appears in many national publications. His book, “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million,” won numerous awards in 2006, including the National Book Critic Circle Award. Last year, he published the book of essays, “How Beautiful It is And How Easily It Can Be Broken.” He is also a professor of humanities at Bard College.

I spoke to Mendelsohn by phone about Cavafy’s work: