Guest poem sent in by Vikram Doctor
(Poem #217) Ithaka
As you set out for Ithaka hope the journey 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 harbours 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 marvellous 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.
(translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) Some years back when I was despairing about the cost of New Year Cards, though still wanting to send them out as a slightly shame faced, but still useful once-in-a-year way of keeping in touch with people, I decided to print a poem I liked on good hand made paper and send it out instead. I was a bit apprehensive, since it seemed rather a precious idea, but I found that people really liked it, and now say they look forward to it. It confirms my feeling that most people have a latent ability to love poetry, which is suppressed and scared into hiding by our appalling educational system. I think I sent out Ithaka the third or fourth year I did it and after that I noticed something. This was one poem people seemed to keep. I've come across my New Year card pinned onto several people's softboards, and people have asked me for copies. Ithaka automatically strikes a chord with people, which is hardly surprising since its such a simple poem, and what it says is something most of us know instinctively to be true. I like the images as well - the shop sailing into a harbour on a summer morning, and the fabulous bazaars and souks. And the last line leaves you with just enough balance between clarity and ambiguity to stop the poem falling flat. This is one of the great ones. about Cavafy. Cavafy is one of the greats too. I don't have much biographical matter with me at the moment, but then in terms of major events there really isn't much. He was born into the Greek community in Alexandria in 1863, when Alexandria was still quite a Greek city. He lived there all his life, in moderate obscurity. I think he was reasonably well off, so didn't have to do much work. Alexandria in his time was in its last gasp of greatness, a cosmopolitan, lively, with a large expat community, Westernised, yet mysteriously 'Eastern' as well - if one is to take Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, which I'm sure we all read as impressionable teenagers, as a guide. Cavafy must have fit very well into this hothouse atmosphere. His poems talk both about the city's glorious past in the time of Alexander and the Ptolemies. And they talk about its sensuous present in perhaps the most homoerotic poetry of this century (which has, of course, lead to him being labeled as the great gay poet of this century. But luckily, I think he transcends the annoying limitations of such a label - Cavafy is great on any terms, gay or otherwise. There is a deliberately antique feel, I think, to the poems - possibly because he wrote in a rather archaic and formal version of Greek. This comes through in translation - there is a sort of formal, faintly mannered quality to them, which adds, rather than detracts from their quality. He died in 1933. I'd just like to add that I visited Alexandria last year, obviously in homage to Cavafy, but sadly the Alexandria he writes about has mostly vanished. There are few Greeks left in Alexandria today - one cafe where you get Egyptian food with Greek names, the sea front cafes, and Cavafy's house, which is maintained by the Greek government. I dragged my boyfriend through the back roads to find it, though unfortunately just got there after it closed. Alexandria is a nice place today - a pleasant provincial town, with a lovely location spread across a bay and a strong sea breeze blowing and nice laid back people. But of Cavafy's sensual city, and the world of the Alexandria Quartet there is nothing left beyond what's written. Vikram Doctor