Archive for May, 2011

Tuesday poem – Ithaka

Monday, May 16th, 2011

by C.P. Cavafy

When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a summer dawn to enter
- with what gratitude, what joy -
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.

Ithaka gave you the splendid journey,
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise have you become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.

This probably sounds rather childish, but ‘Ithaka’ is my favourite poem in the whole world. I loved it when I first read it almost thirty years ago, and I love it more every time I read it, finding new subtleties and sadness, and further layers of truth and irony and resonance. It has become absolutely My Poem, over the years. I’d like to have it read at my funeral, please.
C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) was the ninth child of rich Constantinople merchants. He was educated in England and Alexandria, but moved back to stay with his grandfather and two brothers in Constantinople when the family business collapsed, and then returned to Alexandria where he lived and worked (as a government clerk) until his death.
Cavafy wrote in modern Greek, which I do not know at all, and so I am forever in debt to his poetic translators. This particular translation has remained my favourite version through the years, and there are several others, the most favoured of which these days being Daniel Mendelsohn’s masterwork, the new translation of all Cavafy’s poems published by Knopf in 2009. I admire Mendelsohn’s work enormously but I don’t love his version of ‘Ithaka’ in the way that I love this one – and Mendelsohn spells it ‘Ithaca’ which is probably more accurate but to me removes a layer of the magic associated with the ‘Ithaka’ spelling. I’ve long since lost track of where this translation originates, but I reproduce it here with awe and gratitude.
Cavafy’s style is unemphatic, almost throwaway. His language has been carefully constructed from everyday speech, as though the smallnesses of human life – and also in this case the larger significances of Odysseus’ journeys – are being inspected and celebrated in a breathtaking journey through the language and mystery of the human heart. Such wisdom.

There are other lovely Cavafy poems, and you may know and love some of them – but this is the one for me.

I hope you’ll look at the Tuesday poem blog, if you’re not already there, and see what other poems people have posted today.

Reassurance at last!

Friday, May 6th, 2011

Of bluebell woods and potato beds

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

On the Sunday of Easter weekend, the first of two sequential public holiday weekends in Britain this year, we visited a bluebell wood that’s owned and managed by the Selborne Society (think of the late great Gilbert White, the 18th century pioneering English naturalist, although this bluebell wood is nowhere near his home in Hampshire). The wood we visited is open to the public only once a year, at what’s usually peak bluebell time, although this year the bluebells were slightly past their peak of wonderfulness. Still, massed English bluebells certainly know how to make you gasp and stretch your eyes.

And here’s a sight that makes us proud: our potato beds. We’ve done very well with potatoes since we started growing them two years ago, and this year we chose four different varieties of earlies, none of which we’ve grown before.  We planted them on 18th March – and baby, look at them now!

This photo shows a row of Sharpe’s Express, one in the middle of Red Duke of York, and one of Casablanca – and yes, we know we planted them too close together but they don’t seem to mind. We also planted a row of Pentland Javelins in another bit of the veggie plot which have been much slower to start, but they seem now to be catching up with their friends and neighbours.

I can’t tell you how exciting and gratifying it is to watch this happening – well I can try to explain but if you’re a gardener you won’t need to be told of the pleasure of plant growing and if you’re not, you’ll think it’s all a bit loopy. This is the season for gardeners to smile beatifically at one another and say things like, “Just look at my [insert name of thriving plant]!” and for their gardening friends to smile and nod. Be tolerant and kind: a brutal cold snap and gusts of rain are just around the corner waiting to destroy our happiness.

I’m even sufficiently crazed by springtime to track down a poem I slightly remembered about potatoes, to see if it was celebratory enough to post. It’s not, really, though it has some great lines: here are the first two verses of Peter Viereck’s “To A Sinister Potato”.

“Oh vast earth apple, waiting to be fried,

Of all the starers the most many-eyed,

What furtive purpose hatched you long ago

In Indiana or in Idaho?

In Indiana and in Idaho

Snug underground the great potatoes grow,

Puffed up with secret paranoias unguessed

By all the duped and starch-fed Middle West.”

I can see why I liked that poem so much as a teenager – it’s rather cynical and mean-spirited. I don’t admire cynicism any more, and especially not in springtime.