Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

Just so you know, I wrote this for my Introduction to Literature students, as our semester ends, as a kind of “goodbye and good luck,” so it’s probably more pedagogical and/or sappy than what I might otherwise have written.

Here is “Ithaka” read by Sean Connery, with score by Vangelis. (Thanks, Patrick Blanchfield, for alerting me to this craziness):

The poem begins “As you set out for Ithaka,” and when it ends, when you have (possibly) reached your destination, “you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.” Two things seem to have happened along the way: a single Ithaka has become multiple “Ithakas,” and you have, or will have, come to understand what it means, or what they mean. Undoubtedly, these two things are linked. Probably, coming to understand what “Ithaka” means involves understanding that it is actually “Ithakas.” Possibly, when you understand “what these Ithakas mean,” you will understand that arriving at them is of the lowest order of importance, even if it has been your goal all along.

But to understand what “Ithaka” comes to mean by the end of the poem, or the end of the journey, we must know what “Ithaka” means at the beginning, or even before the beginning. Before this poem about Ithaka.

Ithaka – or Ithaca – is an island, an island we know about, first and most, from a poem. The first poem about Ithaka is, of course, the Odyssey. In its time, we think, the Odyssey was one of a number of long poems which we call the “epic cycle.” Several of these poems were known as nostoi. Nostos is the Greek word for return, or homecoming; the nostoi, then, were the poems about the homecomings of the Greek warriors, returning from the Trojan war. The Odyssey, the story of Odysseus’ homecoming, is the only one of these nostoi that survived. Odysseus’ home, which he spends nearly the entire poem trying to reach, is the island of Ithaka. It is not a large island, or a rich island. Rather, it is rocky, with a lot of goats. Still, whatever else it is, Ithaka is home. From nostos (homecoming) and algia (pain) we get the word “nostalgia” – the pain of longing for return, or homecoming. When we define nostalgia now, it is as a longing for some place or time in the past – the way things were – to which we cannot return. But Odysseus did come home, and that was the end of his story.

So, in the beginning, “Ithaka” meant “home” – home to Odysseus, where he could be, again (after twenty years) with his wife, his son, his father, sleep in his own bed. To get there, he had to make it past Laestrygonians (man-eating giants), the Cyclops (a one-eyed man-eating giant, son of Poseidon), the Sirens, Scylla (many-headed man-eating goddess), Charydis (giant man-eating whirlpool), and escape the clutches of two goddesses determined to marry him. On the way he lost all of his ships and shipmates. More than once he came close to Ithaka, only to be turned away by Poseidon, angry at Odysseus for blinding his son the Cyclops. So, yay for finally getting there, but not without a price.

Many people have wondered, since then, what it would actually have been like for Odysseus to be home after all that time. A lot changes in twenty years – people and places. After so long and so much, is it really possible to go home? It was a foregone conclusion that he would get to Ithaka – it was the will of Zeus that he should – but not at all guaranteed that it would feel like a homecoming. What does Ithaka mean to Odysseus, then? Home, family – maybe. The end of his story (according to Homer) – certainly.

But of all the people who’ve wondered how Odysseus, the wanderer, would deal with staying in one place for the rest of his life, some have asked: what would he have done if he didn’t go back to Ithaka? One of these wonderers was Dante Alighieri, who wrote a new ending to Odysseus’ story in the Inferno. When Dante meets Ulysses/Odysseus in hell, and desires to know what has brought him there, Ulysses answers (from out of the flame eternally consuming him) with a different tale than the one told in the Odyssey. This Odysseus never went back to Ithaka. Instead, he decided that his “longing…to gain experience of the world” was greater than his desire to return home. So he and his companions traveled, explored, and finally, when they were old and slow, came to the “gates of Hercules” – the end of the known world. As this point Odysseus addressed his fellow travelers:

‘O brothers,’ I said, ‘who through a hundred thousand dangers have reached the west, to this so brief vigil of our senses that remains to us, choose not to deny experience, following the sun, of the world that has no people. Consider your origin: you were not made to live as brutes, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.’

With this “little speech,” he convinces them to journey on, and they finally come within sight of the mountain of Purgatory (Dante’s geography was sketchy), but a whirlwind sinks their ship and they are sent to hell. Odysseus is, essentially, punished by Dante for wanting to know to much, burned forever by the fires of his curiosity.

Cavafy’s poem is a response to Homer and to Dante. In many ways, he has returned to the Homeric story, turning away from Dante’s vision (which is also, by the way, more or less Alfred Tennyson’s view in his poem, “Ulysses”). For Cavafy, Ithaka is, again, the place Odysseus, or Ulysses, or you, or we, are all trying to get to. Ithaka stands at the end of the journey – not Purgatory (which Dante’s Ulysses was trying to get to), not the Inferno (where he ended up), and not Paradise (where Dante spends his whole poem trying to get to). Still, much has been retained from the Dantean/Ulyssean voyage. “You” are advised to “gather stores of knowledge,” to become “wise” and “full of experience.” It will be better, you are told, if you prolong your voyage as much as possible, “so you are old by the time you reach the island.” With so much of the journey of Dante’s Ulysses clinging to Cavafy’s language, it is impossible not to identify, at least a little, Ulysses’ actual endpoint with the place you are “destined” to arrive at. In other words, something of Heaven clings to Ithaka – and also something of Hell. Ithaka/Heaven is the promised destination you hold out in front of yourself, to “keep your thoughts raised high,” to “stir your spirit and your body.” The obstacles you meet – man-eaters and angry gods – they will only get in your way if “you bring them along inside your soul,” if “your soul sets them up in front of you.” When you are old, when you’ve seen many things and had many pleasures, you may, finally, arrive at Ithaka. Will it be Paradise?

No, probably not. You may, in fact, find it poor. You may find that it has little to give you. Is it, then, Hell? Maybe – but only if you were expecting Heaven. Wherever you arrive, if it is not what you were expecting, can seem like Hell. College. After college. Having a job. Having a house. Marriage. Parenthood. Having a better job. Having a nicer house. And so on. We hold many destinations out in front of ourselves in order to keep moving forward, saying, “when I get there, I’ll be happy. When I get there, I’ll rest.” When we get there, often it’s not what we thought. But there’s always another destination further into the distance. All of them Ithakas. All of them, we tell ourselves, the last place. Ithaka is always the last place. The place where the story ends. The place of rest.

So what do all these Ithakas mean? I don’t know. I’m not there yet. I can only hope that my voyage will be a long one. And I wish the same for all of you.



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That’s what this poem makes me think of: the episode of The West Wing when there’s only a year left in President Bartlett’s last term, and so everybody is basically like, “what can we do now? might as well just start moving out!” And then Leo comes back to work after his heart attack and just sits in an empty room with a whiteboard with the number of days left in the year written on it. At first it’s really awkward, but then people start coming up with things that they want to make happen in their last year in the White House. But before that it was just, “The barbarians are coming, the barbarians are coming!”

I admit, this poem isn’t really my jam. It seems inescapably political to me, and while I have a respect for political poetry, I can’t love it. I’m not sure what Cavafy had in mind particularly, but to me it works pretty well as a commentary on our two-party system. Each party thinks the other party is “the barbarians,” and nothing ever gets done, because everyone is always just waiting around anticipating what the barbarians will do or say or think. But if the barbarians don’t show up, in whatever way they were expected (actually, it’s all just people), then that’s a problem too, because “They were, those people, a kind of solution.”


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This is, also, a stunning poem. Possibly the shortest poem that has ever made me cry. Here it is:

“Body, Remember”

I just copied it out to send to a friend, with whom I have an ongoing poetry exchange. She always sends me the best things. This, I’m sending to her because the last time we were in the same place, she took me to a Korean bath, and paid for me to have my body scrubbed. I was hesitant about it – I don’t really ever get massages, or facials, or manicures, or in general pay anyone to do anything to my body. Which will probably not change, but still I ended up being very grateful for it. As I lay on a table and let a middle-aged Korean woman in black cotton lingerie take several layers of my skin off, I felt an extreme joy in the fact of having a body. That’s all, I was just glad of it. If I’d already read this poem, I might have said to myself, to my body, “Body, remember…”

Cavafy is writing from the perspective of the end of life – embodied life, any way. “Now that it’s all finally in the past,” he says. I can’t tell when the poem was written, if he was in fact at the end of his life. It doesn’t matter – but it’s a poem people should read to themselves at the end of life. “Body, remember not only how much you were loved,/ not only the beds you lay on,/ but also those desires that glowed openly/ in eyes that looked at you.”

Every body should have such things to remember. Re-member. (The Greek for “remember” does not work like that – it’s a felicity of the translation.)

It reminds me of one of Rilke’s early letters to Tsvetaeva. Written in May of 1926, his death (at the end of the year) is clearly, already, present to him. Responding to Tsvetaeva’s insistence that their correspondence “isn’t a question of Rilke the person…but of Rilke the spirit,” Rilke, whatever he is, writes, “you say, it is not a matter of Rilke the person. I, too, am at odds with him, with his body, with which such pure communication had always been possible that I often did not know which produced poems more happily: it, I, the two of us? … And now dis-cord, doubly cored, soul clad one way, body mummed another, different. In this sanatorium ever since December, but not quite allowing the doctor in, into the only relationship between self and self that can stand no mediator, (no go-between, who would make distances irrevocable; no translator, who would break it apart into two languages).”

In the relationship and communion of soul with body, poems are written. What a remarkable thinker. It is also a frightening but suggestive idea that doctors are often imperfect mediators, translators, or go-betweens for this communion and communication – often tragically imperfect. It is a tragedy to be in discord with one’s body, to be doubly cored and different from it. And yet, if not mediators, Cavafy reminds us that others, with eyes that glow and voices that tremble with desire for the body, can give a body back to itself in remembrance – remembrance of how it gave itself “to those desires too.”


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On Saturday I got two books in the mail, the result of a gift certificate I earned by doing a very easy and enjoyable good deed. That seems like a really good deal.

The first book was Alana Chernila’s The Homemade Pantry, which I’ve been coveting for a long time – almost as long as I’ve been a devoted fan of her blog, Eating from the Ground UpMan, she’s awesome, and the book is too. My stomach is already well-acquainted her toaster pastries, aka my favorite thing to eat in the world, and today I simmered up some chai based on Alana’s recipe, minus the cardamom, because my walk-to grocery store didn’t have any. It was also delicious and soulful, though it would have been better with the cardamom. And a toaster pastry….

The second book was a much more impulsive buy, something I happened across through an interest in Ilya Kaminsky. Not only is this guy a remarkable poet, he also seems to have my exact taste in poetry! Which is to say, he clearly likes all the poets that I like, because he’s translated or edited new volumes for a number of them, and then he knows about way more poets beyond that. It’s okay, he’s older than me. Because apparently now that’s how I measure my success in the world and whether or not I need to feel like a total failure: if I find out about some person who has done amazing and inspiring things, I feel (mostly) unambiguously amazed and inspired as long as said person is older than me – if not, then I feel amazed, inspired, and like a total failure. Anyway, the point is that Kaminsky co-edited this book: The Ecco Anthology of International PoetryIt’s such a treasure-chest of poets that are completely new to me. (As well as some that are not completely new to me. I do know something.)

Having already made the chai, and mentally bookmarked a lot of other recipes, I tried to think how I could use my new poetry anthology in a equivalent way. Read a poem every day, I told myself. Quickly, I reminded myself that if I stop at reading a poem, I forget about it. I remember poems, and learn about them, by writing about them, or by talking about them – in a classroom, usually. Two of my best intro to lit class periods all semester have been the result of me walking into class having no idea what to talk about other than suspecting it would be whatever poem I had assigned my students to read. (Best classes for me, at least – the students were either captivated, or may have been asleep.) So instead, because I have a lot of papers to grade and therefore, obviously, a lot of procrastinating to do (and my iPad deleted my virtual-library edition of The Five Red Herrings, when I was just getting to the best part! how can I be expected to read a 900-page mystery in fourteen days? especially when I forget I downloaded it until there are only four days left? and it’s not like I didn’t try! I tried! Lord Peter, come back!) I decided the best thing to do would probably be to read a poem every day, and then write something about it. Every day. That’s probably the best thing to do, right?


Because I can’t live with student papers being the only things I am reading habitually. Because there has to be something beautiful. Because I miss writing. Because I’m tired of writing about bad things, and trying to do that in a way that makes them seem beautiful.

So I’ll just get to it.

Day 1: Rabindranath Tagore, “On My Birthday”

I read it twice, then looking back at the beginning, I wondered why it’s called “On My Birthday.” Did he really write it on his birthday? And does that affect the meaning? Do I need to be thinking about birthdays while reading it? I wasn’t, before. Now I’d better read it again.

Okay, yeah, it’s kind of about birthdays. Word birthdays more than people birthdays. It’s also kind of an ars poetica. He imagines “suddenly fetterless” words saying, “‘We who were born of the gusty tuning/ Of the earth’s first outbreathing/ Came into our own as soon as the blood’s beat/ Impelled man’s mindless vitality to break into dance in his throat’.” First of all, this translator (William Radice) is so good. The translation rhymes just enough, but not so much that it seems suspect, and otherwise the lines go every which way, and seem like that’s what they’re supposed to be doing. Against images of words incarcerated “in the fortress of grammar,” “captured,” “bridled and reined,” and “curbed…like a breakneck stallion,” forced into “word-armies/ Drawn into battle-lines,” Tagore assures us that, “…sometimes they slip like robbers into realms of fantasy,/ Float on ebbing waters/ Of sleep, free of barriers,/ Lashing any sort of flotsam and jetsam into metre.” Also sometimes words are “Like a dozen puppies brawling.”

So, not about birthdays that much, really. About poetry more. Poetry is the flotsam and jetsam, and the puppies. All the other stuff – the armies and sadly curbed stallions and fortresses – that is associated with “grammar,” “the constraints of sentence,” “intelligence,” “sense,” “literary decorum,” “complex webs of order,” “reason,” all in order “To enable him [man] to pass on his messages to the distant lands of the future.”

Oh. Hm. I’m not sure I like what’s going on here. To be honest, while I think puppies are adorable and flotsam and jetsam… are eels in The Little Mermaid… I like all the other stuff better. I think it’s important to “pass on…messages to the distant lands of the future.” And I’m actually a big fan of “complex webs of order.” And I think that’s a pretty good definition for what many poems are. Tagore must know that. This very poem is a “complex web of order.” Some disorder, too. And, like the puppies, whose “bites and yelps carry no true import of enmity,” whose “violence is bombast, empty fury,” I don’t think he’s really trying to be polemical. He’s playing around. He’s not, on the other hand, using “words thus shot of their meaning” – except kind of at the end – but even though he has kind of drawn up some battle lines within his own poem, he’s probably not trying to fight with “word-armies.”

But some poets are. Some poets are trying to create “complex webs of order,” and some poems do carry a “true import of enmity.” As they should. I’m not advocating the weaponizing of poetry, but on the whole I would vastly prefer a world where we fight with “word-armies” to the existing world of people-armies. But then he ends with the phrase “into the fray,” presented as part of some “nonsense nursery syllables” – which it is not! It’s a battle cry!

What’s going on here? It’s either really subtle, or not. I’m confused. And that’s the perfect time to stop writing.

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I figured out how to get into the hospital courtyard, which has actual living greenery, and is very deserted. A good place for thinking, although my brain capacity is limited.

I keep revisiting different philosophers, to see which ones actually have anything useful to say in this instance. Maybe Nietzsche – maybe later. No one is feeling the joy of convalescence yet. I feel close to Pascal, but I think he would look down on me for my dependence on technological devices of distraction. Freud helps me understand things – more and more convinced that he’s right about almost everything – but does not offer comfort.

In general, poetry is more consoling than philosophy. Akhmatova is my friend. The stony word that falls on the still-living chest. “I will deal with this somehow.” Grateful to Elena that I can still remember at least two poems from Requiem word for word. Baudelaire never fails. “Sois sage, o ma douleur, et tiens-toi plus tranquille.” I hear that in the voice of the irreplaceable Douglas Allanbrook, my senior language tutor. “Sois sage,” he repeats, with his white cat, Pearl, prowling around his feet, “is what you say to a little child.” image

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