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I find unfinished poems fascinating and I have probably spent as much time reading Shelley’s fragments as I have with his completed works. They’re instructive–often you can see why they were abandoned: the meter was too regular or the end-rhymes too heavy or predictable or how the subject matter doesn’t meet the demands of the form. Some appear to have been abandoned shortly after the invocation of Milton appeared in the poem (“I dreamed that Milton’s spirit rose…” and “…as that which bound Milton’s immortal hair”), as if Milton’s considerable shadow obscured the page (or maybe it was the immortal hair). Some work and rework the same terrain and images that sometimes manifest in poems he eventually completed. Some he may have intended to finish–particularly the fragments from 1821 and 1822–if not for his drowning in the Bay of Spezia.

You would never mistake one of Shelley’s fragments as a finished poem but the C.P. Cavafy poem that appears in the January 26, 2009, issue of the New Yorker appears to be showered and shaved and ready for the world. I took the repetition as a nifty concussive effect. But then realized that if I disappeared tomorrow (and somebody actually took an interest) that somebody would find dozens of works-in-progress that look very much like the Cavafy poem: series of false starts, repeated lines staggering down the page, line fragments (though this Cavafy poem is fragment free), etc. In short, works very different from what was intended of them.

On closer look, Cavafy’s poem appears to me the same poem started twice. There’s certainty in the first two lines which are later repeated as the third stanza):

It must have been the spirits that I drank last night,
it must have been that I was drowsing, I’d been tired all day long.

And then the eight-line second stanza is reworked; the physical description of the room “that gave way to the street in Marseilles is excised; the tenor and action of the other details are recast: the freed soul goes from moving about freely to the poor thing released, “constrained by the weight of years” and shows the persona the “sympathetic street in Marseilles”; the “form of a sensitive pleasure-bent youth” becomes “the form of the happy, dissolute youth”. Is one attempt better than the other? Probably not (or ask the mole, he knows) because we don’t know what Cavafy intended with this poem. Instinctively I think the excision of the living room furniture is a good move but we have no idea if this were to take on a larger significance later in the poem.

Some smarty (or a bunch a different smarties) once said that all publishing is a political act and I’ve always interpreted that to mean that the author/poet chooses what is worthy of publication. Of course that’s crazy. Publishing is not synonymous with author intent. Literary executors frequently allow juvenelia, unfinished works, fragments, letters etc. to be included in a house’s comprehensive edition.  Publishing, at least in this country, is not a political act, it’s an act of capitalism.

Let me preface the following statement with this: I have nothing against Cavafy and Daniel Mendelsohn, the critic, classics scholar, translator of this poem who is publishing a new translation of Cavafy’s poems along with the 30 previously untranslated (English at least) poems with an extensive literary commentary in March or April by Knopf (a subsidiary of Random House).  I don’t know enough about the publishing industry to know if there is a viral back-scratching going on between Conde Nast (the corporate umbrella under which the New Yorker is housed) and Random House and the other major publishing houses but it seems to be me that a) popular poets/authors are often published a couple months before their latest book hits the shelves, b) those poets/authors are usually not publishing with the small, independent houses and c) those poets/authors are often called out in the Contributors section (not always a given). What am I saying about all of this? That the New Yorker is a bottom-line entity in a bottom-line industry. That’s all and I never really put it together until now (at least in terms of when things are published).

Do the readers of the New Yorker need to know about Cavafy and the new translation? Yes, perhaps, I don’t know. He’s a fine poet, was a friend of E.M. Forster’s and an influence on Auden and Heaney. (Most everything you could possibly want to know about Cavafy can be found by browsing the wonderful Cavafy Archive, including translations of all 154 of his official Canon, a repudiated poem, a handful of prose poems, hidden poems and the titles of 30 unfinished poems, and an extensive, detailed biography so I’m not going to get into it here.)

And the quality of the translation? I don’t know Greek. It reads nicely. The Cavafy Archive has a handful of translations by Mendelsohn and others (including three poems by James Merrill) and one of the most-translated poems on the site is “Ithaca”. Without knowledge/understanding of the original text, the best you can do is compare translations and there aren’t any great departures from other, previous translations of that poem (John Cavafy’s translation is unique).

But of course the kicker for these new translations by Mendelsohn is not the re-translation/interpretation of the existing Cavafy poems but the first-time translation of the existing fragments and unfinished poems and his lit crit commentary and damn it if they didn’t get me to want to buy it, because I will.

Post script bullets of observation:

  • Cafavy’s brother John-Constatine was known throughout Alexandria as “the poet Cafavy ” and he ended up translating many of C.P.’s poems. Another brother, Paul, was known as “the homosexual Cafavy.” It’s unclear what modifying noun Alexandria reserved for C.P.
  • The Cavafy Archive translated the title  “It Must Have Been the Spirits” as “Blame it on Alcohol.”
  • All translation is political.

Further Reading

The Cafavy Archives

The  five books Mendelsohn thinks every critic should have.

Slate on Mendelsohn’s Lost.

Cavafy and the modern Greeks.


The Author

D.S. Loney is a poet and writer living in Washington, D.C.


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