‘As Good as Great Poetry Gets’

Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books:

Cavafy“Outside his poems Cavafy does not exist.” Seventy-five years after the death of “the Alexandrian” (as he is known in Greece), the early verdict of his fellow poet George Seferis—which must have seemed rather harsh in 1946, when the Constantine Cavafy who had existed in flesh and blood was still a living memory for many people—seems only to gain in validity. That flesh-and-blood existence was, after all, fairly unremarkable: a middling job as a government bureaucrat, a modest, even parsimonious routine, no great fame or recognition until relatively late (and even then hardly great), a private life of homosexual encounters kept so discreet that even today its content, as much as there was content, remains largely unknown to us.

All this—the mediocrity, the obscurity (whether intentional or not)—stands in such marked contrast to the poetry, with its haunted memories of seethingly passionate encounters in the present and its astoundingly rich imagination of the remote Greek past, from Homer to Byzantium, from Alexandria and Rome to barely Hellenized provincial cities in the Punjab, that it has been hard not to agree with Seferis that the “real” life of the poet was, in fact, almost completely interior; and that outside that imagination and those memories, there was little of lasting interest.

More here.