Saturday, December 09, 2006


Back in the Sixties SF State’s Poetry Center put on weekly poetry readings in the “Gallery Lounge,” a large open one story building, long since torn down. Having walls on which student art could be hung was the “gallery” part. The carpeting, which was more comfortable to lie or sit on than the bare concrete below it, qualified the venue as a “lounge.”

Very funky, very minimalist, I heard many of the best living poets read from the banged-up lectern.

One week the scheduled poet was a guy from Ireland who was brought to SF State for a semester to teach a graduate writing seminar. I think in the late 1960s it didn’t cost much to get an Irish poet to come to San Francisco. I imagine him sleeping on a cot in Mark Linenthal’s basement.

In his opening remarks the Irish poet mentioned the first meeting of his graduate level poetry-writing seminar. He said he began by asking the students, “Who is the greatest poet?

“And,” he said, “they all replied ‘Cavafy’.”

I can’t remember the Irish poet’s name. I certainly can’t remember any of his poetry. But, he was probably correct. Constantine Cavafy is the greatest twentieth century lyric poet in an Indo-European language.

Cavafy’s language and themes are a mixture of, or interaction between, the classic and demotic. A gay guy, sort of on the make in turn of the century Alexandria, Egypt, you can’t tell if his exploits are happening in 1910 AD or 510 BC.

I happened to be home with the TV on during Jackie’s funeral. When it came her long-time boyfriend’s turn to speak, he read a poem by Cavafy, Ithaca.

I think this qualifies as a “really good poem.”

I’m grateful to George Barbanis for putting this poem on his site.


When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1911)

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