A Greek Poet is Celebrated at Columbia and Across New York

“Days of 2023” will bring the work of C.P. Cavafy to campus on May 1.

Eve Glasberg
April 24, 2023

On the 160th anniversary of the birth of C.P. Cavafy, the Greek poet (1863-1933), the Onassis Foundation is presenting “Archive of Desire,” a week-long festival in New York that runs from April 28 to May 6. Featuring an array of artists performing in events throughout the city, the festival aims to showcase the global breadth of Cavafy’s work. On May 1, “Days of 2023,” which consists of two events, will be held at Columbia. During the day, from 9:30 am to 3 pm, the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities will host a symposium on the poet’s work, followed by a concert at 7 pm at Miller Theatre, which will include music and readings celebrating Cavafy’s poetry.

Stathis Gourgouris, a professor of Classics and of English and Comparative Literature, discusses Cavafy and the Columbia events with Columbia News.

How did this project come about, and how did Columbia get involved?

I am on the Board of Supervisors of the Cavafy Archive, and a long-term collaborator with the Onassis Foundation, which bought the archive and has made it public on a digital platform. So I could not say no to the invitation to take part in this ambitious project of staging a performative arts festival inspired by the poet, to take place all over New York City for several days.

As Columbia is essential to New York City life, and an innovative global hub of ideas and practices, I thought it imperative that the university be one of the festival sites. The result is Days of 2023, which honors a series of Cavafy poems entitled “Days of…”. On May 1, there will be both the daytime conference and a musical evening at Miller Theatre with the National Sawdust Ensemble.

I’d like to thank President Lee Bollinger personally for his generous support of the project, in light also of Columbia’s investment in the new Global Center in Athens.

What is it about Cavafy that makes him and his poetry still relevant?

It’s a question that is constantly asked and can never be answered fully. Cavafy is uniquely relevant to our time via a set of paradoxical characteristics. He is world famous despite never having published a book in his lifetime, refusing the literary marketplace by self-publishing a series of pamphlets, each one being a singular work of art.

Cavafy is also one of the most translated poets in history, even though he writes in Greek—like no other Greek—an idiomatic erotic poetry, which is instantly mutable and transferable. Even when he speaks of the past, he is speaking of now. And even when he speaks in particular detail, he sketches an instantly recognizable world.

Cavafy thus belongs to the world on a global scale, even though he inhabited a specific time and space in the colonial world of empires. His understanding of Alexandria as a node of historical time across the ages lends his poetry a kind of suspension. The Egyptian city is always there, no matter the time period, the people who inhabit it, or the language they speak. I’m not suggesting Cavafy is universal; rather, the opposite. He is so individual and unique that he is disconnected from the specific regimes of time and space. For this reason, he is endlessly rediscoverable and re-performable—now, as a New York City poet in the 21st century.

Why should people attend these events at Columbia, and what do you hope they leave with?

All the invited artists—some of whom are world famous, others, pioneering young artists—have been commissioned to create new works inspired by Cavafy’s continuing importance. There’s an incredible range of creativity—poetry, music, film, visual arts—that also celebrates New York’s global diversity, which is similar to what Alexandria was in its ancient glory: both passage and safe harbor for people arriving from a vast range of cultural traditions and viewpoints.

I hope that the people attending the Columbia events will enjoy the work of Cavafy, a poet who lived, much like them, in a crossroads of East and West.