Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933), a Greek poet living in Alexandria, described himself as a ‘poietes historikos’, a poet-historian. When remarking on his practice later in life, the poet said that “I have two capacities: to write Poetry or to write History. I haven’t written History, and it’s too late now. Now, you’ll say, how do I know that I could write History? I feel it.”
Yet this border between history and poetry is one that the poet is a master at blurring. Cavafy’s poems often take on the role not only of retelling periods of history that are forgotten in Western historiography, but through renderings of homoerotic encounters placed in the ancient past, Cavafy creates his own, queer history. Whilst popular histories seek to establish heroes, pioneers and martyrs, Cavafy’s poems are told from the perspectives of equivocal, unstable identities, and through many of these perspectives we also hear Cavafy’s own voice as a homosexual raised as an Orthodox Christian.
For it revealed something at that age that I didn’t really know: people like me have always existed.
I was 14 when I read my first poem by Cavafy – it was by chance that I had found a small pamphlet comprised of his erotic poems for just 80p in a Sheffield charity shop. Those pages burned with homoerotic fantasies, detailing brief encounters under the guise of darkness, in city streets and glances shot across tavern tables. I found poetry that both wounded and awakened me, for it revealed something at that age that I didn’t really know: people like me have always existed. For those that grow up feeling like their queerness is constantly being hammered out of them, finding no trace of their love in museum cabinets, or in history books, knowing this can save you. I grew up believing that survival was somehow conditional on remaining hidden, but after, I felt it was the opposite. I can only survive through living my truth, and through writing poetry that fights for it. This is what I took from Cavafy – that History may have hidden us, but it doesn’t mean we were not there, imagining worlds where we could be free.
Cavafy disseminated much of his work privately: in 1904 he collected his poems into pamphlets, a method he later abandoned in favour of bigger booklets. Towards the end of the 1920s, Cavafy begun feeling a pain in his throat, and was later diagnosed with throat cancer. On April 29th, 1933, on his 70th birthday, Cavafy’s life came full circle, where he passed away in the Greek hospital of Alexandria.
Whereas one poem may reflect Cavafy’s optimism for a future in which queer communities and identities may emerge (‘Hidden Things’), in the other we are met with an effaced tombstone (‘In the Month of Hathor’) or an assaulted body laid out in moonlight (‘In a Town of Osroini’). This traversal through history shows the objects of the poet’s longings turn from marble, coin, and stone into flesh and sexual encounters, and reveals lost Hellenic kingdoms on the edge of the Roman Empire, historical battles ending in defeat, and fleeting romances with boys and men, held, and glanced once then never seen again.
Below are some writing prompts inspired by Cavafy’s poetry, that I feel are not only exciting projects to continue, but important ones.
‘Caesarion’ is perhaps one of Cavafy’s best-known poems. Written in 1914, the poem is from the perspective of a historian that has picked up a book on the Ptolemaic dynasty. The Ptolemies ruled Ancient Egypt from 305 to 30 BC. Their reign ended with the brutal murder of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar’s son, Caesarion. Very little remains of Caesarion on the historical record, but the scarce traces that do attach a certain effeminacy to the young King. He had never married, and previous Victorian literature speculates that he spent too much time with his mother, and the other women in the court. The voice of the poem notes that “since history has devoted only a few lines to you [Caesarion], I had more freedom to fashion you in my mind’s eye…”
This poem performs a type of archival rescue, that writes over the ‘few lines’ history has left of Caesarion and preserves him, in poetry, for future readers.
There are many other figures in the past that history has swept over. In the same spirit, write a poem that involves this type of rescue, before history permanently seals around them and they are lost to us.
As Cavafy’s poetry shows, poems can be used to retell historical events. Using a website that can randomly select a date (see https://www.onthisday.com/events-by-year.php), allow yourself to time-travel around until you find a historical event that you find interesting, or important to you. This is of course not restricted to events in the ancient past, and it could even retell a moment in your family history, that you would like to preserve.
We see through Cavafy’s poetry a concern with which forces write and control history, and who is purposefully excluded from that process. Not only is history written by the victors, but it is written by the living. I believe this is a premise that guided Cavafy to write his tomb poems, that often perform as epitaphs for queer people in the past that, if it wasn’t for the poem, were not given a burial or deemed worthy of memorialisation. Cavafy’s tomb poems often give a voice to the dead, see ‘Tomb of Iases’ for inspiration: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=28627
In this vein, write a poem that acts as a tombstone. This can be from the perspective of the dead that calls out to the reader, or as the text that appears on the gravestone. You just have to decide who the poem entombs, which really, could be anyone.
It wouldn’t be right to have Cavafy inspired prompts without one on Cavafy’s sensuous and exhilarating erotic poems. The Nobel laureate Giorgos Seferis said in 1946 that “Cavafy stands at the boundary where poetry strips herself in order to become prose…he is the most anti-poetic (or a-poetic) poet I know.” Indeed, his poems barely use metaphors or similes, which, to me, can add to the erotic charge of his poems – the words seem to stand naked on the page. See ‘The Next Table’ as an example: https://poets.org/poem/next-table
This prompt asks you to write an erotic poem stripped of metaphors and similes, even keeping adjectives to a bare minimum. As poets I know we tend to try out new, unfamiliar words. But on this one, don’t. No one has to read it, so allow this writing exercise to be truly freeing. Let fantasy or memory take over, and as Cavafy would advocate, always be guided by pleasure.