World Poetry Day
March 21, 2017 12:35 PM   Subscribe

In honor of UNESCO World Poetry Day, I offer up a poem that has been a part of my life for decades: Ithaka, by C.P. Cavafy [translation from Greek, with additional translations linked on the page].
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.
posted by hippybear (20 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. Thank you for this amazing poem. I can completely understand why it would resonate with one for decades.
posted by Gaz Errant at 12:45 PM on March 21, 2017

If you'd prefer to hear it read aloud, Vangelis had Sean Connery do a reading and composed some music for it.
posted by Copronymus at 12:46 PM on March 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

Waiting for the Barbarians (Cavafy)

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
posted by librosegretti at 12:47 PM on March 21, 2017 [11 favorites]

Cavafy is a master of the imperative poem! One I have often read to myself lately:

The God Abandons Antony

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 1:03 PM on March 21, 2017 [4 favorites]

Source of this organization's name.
posted by doctornemo at 1:19 PM on March 21, 2017

My favourite poem, thanks for reminding me.
posted by smoke at 1:23 PM on March 21, 2017

My favorite poem too! It hangs on my bookshelf so I can read it every day. Happy world poetry day <3
posted by mumimor at 1:51 PM on March 21, 2017

A friend recently shared this Espada poem with me, after reading The Republic of Poetry. Very resonant inded these days:

The Soldiers in the Garden
Isla Negra, Chile, September 1973

After the coup,
the soldiers appeared
in Neruda’s garden one night,
raising lanterns to interrogate the trees,
cursing at the rocks that tripped them.
From the bedroom window
they could have been
the conquistadores of drowned galleons,
back from the sea to finish
plundering the coast.

The poet was dying;
cancer flashed through his body
and left him rolling in the bed to kill the flames.
Still, when the lieutenant stormed upstairs,
Neruda faced him and said:
There is only one danger for you here: poetry.
The lieutenant brought his helmet to his chest,
apologized to señor Neruda
and squeezed himself back down the stairs.
The lanterns dissolved one by one from the trees.

For thirty years
we have been searching
for another incantation
to make the solders
vanish from the garden.

— Martín Espada
posted by tavella at 1:57 PM on March 21, 2017 [5 favorites]

Ithaka is integral to Peter Nichols' amusingly deceptive beach book The Rocks serving up the epigraph as well as winding its way through the narrative.

As for world poetry day, since Carlyle was namechecked here recently I'll give you his "Today":

So here hath been dawning
Another blue Day:
Think wilt thou let it
Slip useless away.

Out of Eternity
This new Day is born;
Into Eternity,
At night, will return.

Behold it aforetime
No eye ever did:
So soon it forever
From all eyes is hid.

Here hath been dawning
Another blue Day:
Think wilt thou let it
Slip useless away.

posted by chavenet at 2:09 PM on March 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd post The Bronze Horseman because of reasons, but it's, uh, pretty long.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:10 PM on March 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

It was linked in one of the politics threads, but this is from the most recent poem to stick with me, Patricia Lockwood's The Pinch:

The speaker of the house came on, I thought I want to forcibly remove every piece of beard from your body.

The counselor to the president came on, I thought I am going to unbend you like a Barbie knee, until you make that creak.

These were new thoughts. Before, it had always been myself that I imagined: slashed to ribbons, pressed to the griddle, spinning on the tip of a sword. Peeled like a grape for a haunted house.

But now the feeling had been let out. A pure pinch between two fingers, and shocking how soft it was.

A brazen desire to deflate the turtle, to surprise him to the point of squealing, to pop the lenses out so he couldn’t find his way to school.

To rip the suit off stitch by stitch and burn it in one of those cans that homeless people and gang members are always warming their hands over. In the movies.

Where do you buy baseball bats, I asked.

Is there a store that sells only the red spray paint.

The secretary of education came on, I saw her clinging to an oversized novelty pencil as she went over Niagara Falls. I had somehow engineered this, through my cleverness.

The attorney general came on and I thought I will aim the ray and shrink you down and put you in a model train scenario. In a hat with blue stripes, which will be your hell.

The former governor of Arkansas came on, I thought I will sit on you like a fart cushion until you have bllbbted your last bbblpptdt.

The White House chief strategist came on the screen, I said I will feed you pieces of nazi memorabilia one by one until you start to gurgle. I want them to find you wearing Eva Braun’s bra.
posted by yasaman at 2:17 PM on March 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

To follow on the Ithaca motif, a prose poem excerpt from Joyce's Ulysses:

"Mr Bloom could easily picture his advent on this scene - the homecoming to the mariner's roadside shieling after having diddled Davy Jones - a rainy night with a blind moon. Across the world for a wife. Quite a number of stories there were on that particular Alice Ben Bolt topic, Enoch Arden and Rip van Winkle and does anybody hereabouts remember Caoc O'Leary, a favourite and most trying declamation piece, by the way, of poor John Casey and a bit of perfect poetry in its own small way? Never about the runaway wife coming back, however much devoted to the absentee. The face at the window! Judge of his astonishment when he finally did breast the tape and the awful truth dawned upon him anent his better half, wrecked in his affections. You little expected me but I've come to stay and make a fresh start. There she sits, a grass widow, at the selfsame fireside. Believes me dead. Rocked in the cradle of the deep. And there sits uncle Chubb or Tomkin, as the case might be, the publican of the Crown and Anchor, in shirtsleeves, eating rumpsteak and onions. No chair for father. Boo! The wind! Her brandnew arrival is on her knee, post mortem child. With a high ro! and a randy ro! and my galloping tearing tandy O! Bow to the inevitable. Grin and bear it. I remain with much love your brokenhearted husband, W. B. Murphy."
posted by storybored at 2:17 PM on March 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Standing Stones of Callanish
Richard Hugo

See them in snow under a full moon they told me.
The shadows will take you out of yourself to when
the Stones were erected, the time it took and the reason
we try to guess today. Some claim, a way to tell time.
Others say, religion. I guess pattern itself,
the delight of pattern and, if we ride birds,
center, circle and spoke looked down on lovely.
Contrast it with uncertain currents of sea,
gales that rip up what seemed
well rooted rock and send flying like suicidal stars.
These stories wear better than sky. See
the clouds in tatters and blue faded to weak cream
at noon with no explanation. Gales clear the grounds
of brochures torn in frustration at phrases—
'the dates are unknown'—'Herodotus states Abaris
told Ptolemy'—when? I try
to remember history and can’t get past World War I.
I’ve walked around them twice, December in my bones,
knelt to get an angle on the two long rows
going north from the hub, one direction I've always believed.
And I’ve calculated the weight of the big one
and guessed the number of men it took and the work
to bring it from Wales where some say it’s from,
a special barge that wobbled and rode high without cargo,
and that special day they put it in place and it settled
the way they’d hoped and it held. That was long before
people knew how to cheer, shake hands or offer a toast.
I imagine them resting a moment, then grim with resolve
starting down to the sea to get the next stone,
and one woman thought strange but obeyed,
urging them on and muttering hard at the sky
a word we've lost. It sounded like 'shape.' It meant 'world.'
posted by J.K. Seazer at 2:20 PM on March 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

Invitation by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, published in Poetry this past January, is a recent favorite. :)
posted by Gymnopedist at 2:41 PM on March 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

This poem was published last November and I keep the page open on my phone so that I can read it again whenever I want to, though knowing it's there is comfort enough. It's by the brilliant young poet Angel Nafis.
Ghazal for Becoming Your Own Country

(After Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s “Self Stones Country” photographs)

Know what the almost-gone dandelion knows. Piece by piece
The body prayers home. Its whole head a veil, a wind-blown bride.

When all the mothers gone, frame the portraits. Wood spoon over
Boiling pot, test the milk on your own wrist. You soil, sand, and mud grown bride.

If you miss your stop. Or lose love. If even the medicine hurts too.
Even when your side-eye, your face stank, still, your heart moans bride.

Fuck the fog back off the mirror. Trust the road in your name. Ride
Your moon hide through the pitch black. Gotsta be your own bride.

Burn the honey. Write the letters. What address could hold you?
Nectar arms, nectar hands. Old tire sound against the gravel. Baritone bride.

Goodest grief is an orchard you know. But you have not been killed
Once. Angel, put that on everything. Self. Country. Stone. Bride.
posted by jokeefe at 3:01 PM on March 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

I first discovered this Wendell Berry poem just as we were about invade Iraq back in 2003. It was of great comfort to me back then. It remains a great comfort to me now.

"The Peace Of Wild Things"

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
posted by KingEdRa at 4:36 PM on March 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

posted by hortense at 5:15 PM on March 21, 2017

Shelley's Ozymandias never gets old for me. But we most of us know that one pretty well, so let me offer this poem, which helped me to become a better version of myself. (Dog lovers will perhaps especially enjoy it.)
posted by bryon at 10:03 PM on March 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

suddenly i am nobody
that vague character lurking in the background story
to feel is hard, the dream escapes me
deepness has a sound like a note that dips forever
the rose upon my name hides many whispers
here where ghosts fade
in the capacity of he who knows the light
hidden in the darkness, i believe
the heart a blue flame
i have wondered too long what it is like to awake
posted by paladin at 5:28 AM on March 22, 2017

I just realized that I mistranscribed "The Standing Stones of Callanish". The original line is "These stones wear better than sky", but I wrote it as "These stories wear better than sky". What a happy accident!
posted by J.K. Seazer at 9:44 AM on March 22, 2017

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