A Rant In Favor Of
C.P. Cavafy
Selected Poems
Princeton, 1972

It's simply another aspect of American gargantuanism, I suppose, that leads our publishers to issue relentlessly -- and our readers to buy -- these huge "collected" editions of poems and stories which warp our bookshelves and render the work of lyric poets, specialists in the 22-line marvel, into overblown compendia in which every utterance is equalized, the great poem next to the awful, the "previously uncollected" as worthy as the poem the poet himself intended to collect. Sometimes, to be sure, the poets themselves are as guilty as the publishers in deeming that every scribble deserves a reader's time. I say, Down with these portable tombstones! Long live the pocket collection, the printed equivalent of the greatest hits CD! Does any reader really imagine herself -- or Cavafy, for that matter -- more justly treated by either the Complete Poems, translated by Rae Dalven, or the Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, (or even the rapidly remaindered Before Time Could Change Them: the Complete Poems, translated by Theoharis C. Theoharis) than by this long out-of-print Selected Poems which Keeley and Sherrard produced in 1972?* Slim, elegant, including some 6 dozen poems ranging from "Waiting for the Barbarians," to "Philhellene," "The God Abandons Anthony" and "Julian and the Antiochians", this lovely Selected puts Cavafy eminently within the reach of any interested reader. In an hour she can read these selections from something like 4 decades of verse rather than picking up one of the collecteds and wondering, "Where should I begin?"
And what about poor Philip Larkin, a poet so fastidious that the entire oeuvre he himself chose to collect consists of 4 volumes, none longer than 48 pages? His work has until now been represented by an enormous collection, tripling the number of poems, and totally dispensing with the ordering of the books as originally presented. Finally Faber & Faber in the U.K. (2003) and Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the U.S. (2004) have restored the character of his 4 books with Collected Poems. But even here the original 140 pages or so are supplemented by uncollected poems increasing the total by more than 25%. Wouldn't Larkin be better, and more characteristically, served by a careful selection of 50 pages, an hour's read, an invitation to the best of a fine -- and paring -- poet who, even so, published more poems than he should have?

*Keeley and Sherrard's mid-'90s selection The Essential Cavafy is likewise out of print.