What is the use of poetry when the world shifts underfoot? The question arises in the face of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, with the news dominating every discussion. I shuttle between newspaper and television reports, Al Jazeera's live streaming video, messages on Twitter and Facebook, and blogs, trying to reconcile each development in this fast-changing story with Ezra Pound's definition of literature as "news that stays news." The flight of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia with an iron fist for twenty-three years; the clashes in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, between demonstrators against the regime of Hosni Mubarak and supporters of the Egyptian strongman; the protests in Yemen, Jordan, and Syria -- a bewildering set of changes is upon the region, and the world: hardly the moment to turn to poetry for instruction.
And yet, and yet. One poet understood the dynamics of power better than most analysts, not to mention politicians, and since he spent most of his life in Alexandria it may be useful to reacquaint ourselves with the work of Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), the Greek poet who turned his search for an enduring image of the city that for him represented the highest in human civilization into news that stays news. His external life was uneventful -- he worked as a minor civil servant in the Ministry of Public Works, he dabbled on the Egyptian stock exchange, he frequented brothels that catered to a gay clientele. But what a rich interior life he led, exploring ancient Greek and Byzantine history for sources of inspiration. An exacting craftsman, Cavafy completed 154 poems in his lifetime, which he refused to publish, preferring to print them for a small coterie of readers, thus preserving his imaginative independence.
His reasoning is spelled out in a letter dating from 1907, quoted in Cavafy's Alexandria, Edmund Keeley's invaluable study of the poet's relationship to his native city:
When the writer knows pretty well that only very few volumes of his edition will be bought... he obtains a great freedom in his creative work. The writer who has in view the certainty, or at least the possibility of selling all his edition, is sometimes influenced by their future sale... almost without meaning to, almost without realizing -- there will be moments when, knowing how the public thinks and what it likes and what it will buy, he will make some little sacrifices -- he will phrase this bit differently, and leave that out.
Cavafy never shaded anything; hence the clarity of his poetic vision, which is on display in a dramatic monologue addressed to Mark Antony, on the eve of his fall from power. Here it is in the translation of Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:
The God Abandons Antony
At midnight, when suddenly you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don't mourn your luck that's failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive--don't mourn them uselessly
as one long prepared, and full of courage,
say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.
Above all, don't fool yourself, don't say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you;
don't degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared and full of courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion,
but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen--your final pleasure--to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
As in his famous poem, "Ithaka," written a month before "The God Abandons Antony," Cavafy employs the second person in order to instruct a historical figure on the proper way to act in complicated circumstances. And what could be more difficult than for any leader to face his imminent downfall? Alexandria was for Cavafy the symbol of all that was good and noble in the ancient world -- a cultivated society in possession of a great library and a history of achievement. He lived in its shabby aftermath, under British colonial rule; and in the last days of another political order it is well to remember what he had to say about the virtues of relinquishing power in a dignified fashion. It is not hard to imagine the aging Egyptian leader in his palace watching on his television the invisible procession of his people into Tahrir or Liberation Square. What an exquisite music they make for those who have ears to hear.
"The God Abandons Antony" appears in C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (Princeton University Press, 2009), and is reprinted by permission of Edmund Keeley.