funeral poems

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Funeral for a Poem

Sometimes you meet poems in the strangest ways. I learned of C. P. Cavafy’s poem, “Ithaka” while reading about Jaqueline Kennedy-Onasiss’s funeral. The poem was read at the service by her longtime companion, Maurice Tempelsman.

Some don’t know that Mrs. Kennedy was a great champion of poetry and even wrote her own (read “Sea Joy” in the photo above). Her daughter, Caroline, would grow up to be an admirer of the genre as well, helping to put together a collection that is now out of print but garners high marks on book review sites.

I’ve since explored a lot of Cavafy’s work, but nothing seems to strike me the way this poem does. Using Homer’s Odyssey, the extended metaphor works perfectly. We are all headed toward our own separate Ithakas, and none of us is terribly intent on arriving at our home port. This poem captures the essence of that thought. “If not the journey, what?” it seems to say.

Below is the translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard as seen in C. P. Cavafy/Collected Poems, (Princeton University Press, 1992):


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.



Mercenary Poets Take Note!

Art for art’s sake? What about money, for god’s sakes? If you have some semblance of poetic talent or are adept at fooling some of the people some of the time (in politics, it’s “some of the people all of the time”), you might try these three strategies:

  1. Be an INSTAGRAM POET.  I have never been on Instagram and wouldn’t know how to navigate it if landed there after a 3-hour tour (terribly dated Gilligan’s Island reference). That said, I do know of some poets who have raked in fans like autumn leaves by breaking the rules (The Third Commandment: Though shalt not ruin your poems for submissions by offering them for public viewing). It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that Rupi Kaur is the best example of this. And you can laugh or sneer all you want at her “poetry.” She’s laughing or sneering all the way to the bank. Score: Rupi 1, Purists 0.
  2. Be a WEDDING POET. If you write poetry, you know that 99.47% of the reading public (which is 23.85% of the public) do not read poetry or, worse still, listen to it… unless they’re at a wedding. Ask any bride-to-be. On the extensive checklist for becoming a bride (beyond spending the equivalent of Costa Rica’s GNP) is finding so-called love poetry–something modern to go along with anything read from the Bible. As for the Bible, it is somewhat ironic that you seldom hear anything read from that hot-and-heavy entry from the Old Testament, The Song of Solomon. In parts, it’s too racy for even a wedding! My recommendation is that grooms read it on their honeymoon, maybe. Their brides will be suitably impressed!
  3. Be a FUNERAL POET. Right behind weddings is funerals. Like fertilizer for poetry, they are. And we all know that funerals, like weddings, eliminate any need for family reunions. This is the Ben Franklin approach to writing poetry, and it sells. Yes, your poem could go VIRAL (killer stuff!) if it’s perfect for sending off the dead. Think of that song, “Wind Beneath My Wings” (Bette Midler, poet) or “In the Arms of an Angel” (Sarah McLaughlin, poet). Oh, man. If I hear them one more time…. But, people love ’em! And groove to them. And especially love to cry to them. Poetry not as neglected sideliner, but as Roman conqueror.

Veni, vidi, vici, people! Get writing. About love! About death! Preferably on Instagram!