Sending Students Out into the World

Arnold Böcklin, “Odysseus and Polyphemus”


Each year at our commencement, a faculty member reads a poem, and this year I was chosen for the honor. Here’s the intro I delivered on Saturday, along with the poem. I follow it up with some additional thoughts.

I choose today a poem about a sea journey, an appropriate metaphor for a college commencement held on the shore of an historic river. I’m pretty sure that “Ithaka,” by the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, inspired the Lucille Clifton poem you see every day when you climb the stairs to the Great Room [“blessing the boats [at St. Mary’s]”), which is also about setting forth into unknown waters and which you are about to do.

In “Ithaka,” Odysseus thinks that he wants to get to his island home, just as you may think that you want a future in which everything is wrapped up neatly, perhaps in the form of a steady job or an ironclad relationship. I suspect most of you have heard, over and over, the question, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” Maybe you are proud that you can trot out an acceptable answer or vaguely disturbed that you can’t.

But Cavafy tells us that life is not about achieving a concrete goal. Goals are just the prods we use to set the journey in motion. The real goal is to discover the hidden wonders of the world and the hidden wonders inside ourselves. In other words, life is a continuation of the process you have been undergoing during your years at St. Mary’s. In the poem, the Laistrygonians and the Cyclops are savage cannibals that Odysseus encounters. Think of them as the dark moments of self-doubt that threaten to swallow you up. Cavafy assures us that, as long as we focus on the “rare excitement” of all that we encounter, those inner monsters will not get the best of us.

One personal note: I am retiring after 36 fulfilling years at St. Mary’s and feel that I am graduating along with you and embarking on my own next journey. To borrow images from the poem, during my time here I have received many rich treasures, smelled many sensuous perfumes, and had many profound scholarly conversations. So this poem resonates with me as well as it will, I hope, with you.

The poem has been translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, 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, 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 your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing 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 learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t 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’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Further thoughts – The Lucille Clifton poem I refer to is printed on the wall in our Campus Center and has been read at previous commencements. I became convinced, as I examined the Cavafy poem, that it (along with the Irish blessing, “May the wind be always at your back”) inspired Clifton’s poem:

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back          may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

Cavafy’s poem has another personal association for our community. Cavafy talks about the pleasure and joy of entering harbors “you’re seeing for the first time.” As I read the poem, the students could see behind me the bay where Lord Calvert’s ship harbored for the first time in 1634. (This is the ship that Lucille had in mind when she wrote her poem.) Additionally, the first sight that many of our students had of the college was rounding the bend on Route 5 and seeing the water shining before them. For many, that sight alone was enough to bring them to the college.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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