Thursday, June 28, 2007

Poet of the Week: C.P. Cavafy

Here is a great page dedicated to C.P. Cavafy and his work (and the Wikipedia page).

Cavafy was a Greek poet active (or most productive) around the turn of the century. I know very little of his life other than what I've read on various websites (like the two above). He is, however, a real discovery—both for me and for many others, it seems—while there is both a "complete poems" volume and a "collected poems," I imagine Daniel Mendelsohn's forthcoming translations of Cavafy will bring the poet to a broader audience.

One of my friends here at camp—I'm at a book camp right now—is using the following Cavafy poem with his group. It's titled "Ithaka" :
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
If you know me at all, you know my relationship with my home state of Indiana is a fraught one—I both feel very connected to it and yet also feel the need to separate myself from it as a matter of course whenever I am required to bring it into conversation. Some of my friends still laugh at how I tried to pass myself off as being "from" Massachusetts (I was born in Concord) freshman year. I was sincerely apprehensive then about the assumptions people would make about me and my abilities if one of the first things they found out about me was my Hoosier heritage. Next to an army of CT scions and a navy of native New Yorkers, placing my origins amid the rolling cornfields of the great Middle West seemed frightening—for no very good reason.

My feelings about home, and returning to it/from it, have oscillated irregularly since, ranging from fierce pride to self-deprecating "aw shucks" mockery to, once again, genuine embarrassment. I said the word "everybody" as if it were "e'rybody" the other day, and someone told me I pronounced "washcloth" as if it were "warshcloth," a total southern Indiana-ism—even worse than central Indiana-ism!

The path of the hickish aspirant toward intellectual things is well-trod, I know, but it makes me feel no more comfortable. The fact that I have no real desire to live in New York—that, in fact, I'm even a little scared of New York—limits (to a distressing extent) the options I have for cultural exposure and personal/professional advancement. The wonders of the internet can bring me all the films Netflix carries, all the books I can find on Amazon, and thousands of other voices and ideas; but New York is bigger than the internet, it seems—no one can cobble together the cultural configurations which the city so economically and neatly contains.

The last two stanzas of Cavafy's poem, therefore, stand out to me, signaling both the obvious ("Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. / Without her you would not have set out. / She has nothing left to give you now.") and the inspirational ("Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, / you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.") and, finally, the somewhat cryptic ("And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you").

I don't have much more to say about the poem—for reasons of time constraint and the fact that I'm a little blocked—the poem speaks to me loudly, but not in sharp syllables. I hope you can get at where my connection to it may lie, and find it enjoyable yourselves.


Sarah said...

I really like that poem. We should converse about hick roots sometime. Also, have you read Goodbye to All That?

Pam said...

I think I'm going to turn "NEW YORK: BIGGER THAN THE INTERNET" into a t-shirt.