Friday, August 6, 2010

in search of Ithaka

At Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' funeral her long time friend and companion, Maurice Templesman, gave a reading of the poem Ithaka by C.P. Cavafy. I thought it was one of the most marvelous poems I'd heard and I scrambled to jot down what I could remember of it in order to find it at the library.  It was May no internet to Google the poem's title or remembered key words and in an instant to have at your fingertips a wealth of information about the poem and the poet. This seems amazing to me now, but at that time the poem was not available anywhere in the Salem Oregon library (and it really is a quite good library). But I was on a mission. I had to find the poem and to have a copy of it, and a few months later my mother joined me in a day in downtown Portland, where we headed first to the library.

I never did like the smelly old card catalog files for finding library materials that were standard fixtures in libraries. (Our library still maintains the card catalogs but no one uses them.) Lined up along a wall or placed in a separate section, they always had nearby trays or tables that held little boxes full of tiny golden pencils and scrap paper for readers to write down the Dewey Decimal number or section where the desired book was shelved. If there was no card for what you were looking for you knew the next step was to consult one of the research librarians, those brilliant wizards of the library who were usually situated apart from the rest of the room....sometimes in their own room on their own floor....

Thus was the story of my search for Ithaka that day at the Multnomah County Library in downtown Portland. Finding nothing in the card catalogs having to do with C.P. Cavafy's work or collections of modern Greek poets that would have included his work, I sought help from a wizard sitting at a research desk. He scurried among the shelves in his special area, flipped through materials kept from the general public, bent down to plow through lower shelves, raised on his tip-toes for an encyclopedia on a top shelf, bit his lip, chewed his pencil, and, shaking his head, later returned to where I stood and said there was nothing. But. He suggested I go upstairs to the desk of another research librarian who was known among the staff for having special talents for finding and keeping historical memories. She was my last best hope. Her desk was in a large room that she shared with perhaps three other librarians, each dotted around corners of the room with desks nearby tall windows. There was so much light! She listened to my request as I told my tale of woe while walking the length of the room to where she sat. And I saw yet more light shining from the expression of recognition and pleasure in her eyes. Yes! She had heard the reading by Mr. Templesman also and had also thought the poem to be so special. So in the days that followed she had searched all the major city newspapers subscribed to by the Multnomah County Library; she searched specifically for a printed version of Ithaka shared by any journalist who might have reported about Jackie's funeral on a deeper level than others. This wondrous librarian then started going through her drawers there at her desk, drawers that were themselves her own unofficial extensions of the library system. And in one envelope that she peeked into there was a long newsprint article trimmed and placed there for safe-keeping.
Here it is! she said, adding, I'll run and make a copy for you.

I've kept the poem taped to my mirror in my closet for years now and it has become a part of me. But I hadn't thought to share it at Writerquake until a few days ago when I was at Border's bookstore and saw Caroline Kennedy's book The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.  Ithaka is, of course, one of the poems.

Ithaka by C. P. Cavafy

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.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard -- official Cavafy archive website


A blogger posted Theme and Symbolism on Cavafy's Ithaka, a theme he wrote in school that, understandably, scored an 'A'.


U.S. Government Printing Office file titled First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis--Memorial Tributes in the One Hundred Third Congress of the United States here.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis obituary in New York Times here

People article about her funeral here.


Frosty Duncan said...

thank you for sharing

English Rider said...

Ah, the secret special file for interesting quotes, articles and poems. A treasure trove shared.

Kim said...

What an interesting story! I loved hearing about the librarians. It's so rare these days that we engage librarians because we can do it all thanks to the internet. But they are truly heroes.

manuela said...

i always found this poem very inspiring - it was the second post on my blog, too, with a beautiful reading by Sir Sean Connery:

thank you for this post!

Friko said...

I learned about Cavafy relatively recently and have since derived mu pleasure from his poetry.

Rhiannon said...

I can see why you love this poem Lydia...and I do too! It says so much in our life journeys and also beyond our life journeys...for our "riches" are in the soul..



Lydia said...

Frosty~ My pleasure, and thank you for visiting. :)

English Rider~ Yes...wasn't she something special...

manuela~ Thank you for letting us know about your post with the poem. I am anxious to come over to read/hear it!

Friko~ With awareness of Cavafy's work pleasure definitely follows. :)

Rhi~ So glad you appreciate it too, and I loved your commentary.

La Belette Rouge said...

Ithica made me cry. A poem that makes you cry is a good poem. Thank you for sharing it.
I LOVE this line: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.

YogaforCynics said...

I remember when I first heard of Cavafy...I thought people were saying Khaddafi...who, needless to say, is a very different person.

Anyway, great story and poem...

the watercats said...

This poem has almost childlike sentiment to it, but that's what makes it extremely comforting.. cheers!

Lydia said...

La Belette Rouge~ Good poem, good cry. (Why am I suddenly humming Bob Marley? :)
I love those lines too.

YogaforCynics~ Sounds like.....
Great to have a visit from you. :)

the watercats~ Your take on the poem is so interesting; I like the idea of it having a childlike and comforting sentiment.

Roxana said...

it's a wonderful poem, i know, i first came to read it through a blog (another one of blogging blessings) - but your touching story is even more wonderful, i wish i could have seen your face when she got the article out of the drawer... and the smile on her face when you asked about the poem...

Lydia said...

Roxana~ Aw, thanks for getting into the story, R. I definitely remember the smile on her face and mine must have registered first shock, then, relief, then sheer appreciation!



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