Title: Greek To Me
Description: Ancient Greek lyric, anyone?
Publication Date: 25 February 2004
An enduring and esoteric interest. I would like to take up an earnest analysis of the tongue in cheek one word poem I end with sometime. But apparently I'm not writing original stuff these days.
Ancient Greek lyric anyone?
Ancient Greek and Roman literature (and philosophy and history) was, as we all know, once the stuff of education. Now, not so much, though a lot of schools still route freshmen through a classics-based foundation of humanities curriculum. I love the classics, but one of my particular interests, the earliest lyric poetry, is overlooked these days and quite frankly never carried the weight of epic or drama or philosophical dialogues. Most of Sappho, Archilochos, Anakreon, and Alkman are lost: devoured by moths or flame. What we have is mostly so fragmentary it takes a great deal of conjecture to even find a poem among the fragments. A significant portion of it is phrases or even single words quoted by approving grammarians or discovered on unwrapped mummy cloths. (The so-called Greek Anthology, by later Alexandrians, fared much better.) What we have is so evocative, so suggestive even in its gaps, that it's well-worth reading. I recommend Guy Davenport's Seven Greeks or Anne Carson's Sappho (If Not, Winter) as works that balance due scholarship (both trained in classics, Carson currently a professor of same) with a poet's ear.
As always, I'm rushed, so I'm just going to compare a few versions of Sappho's most famous poem, which actually is thought to be misattributed. Though I don't know Greek, I feel that we can get a sense of this poem by comparing translations. Kenneth Rexroth's book Poems from the Greek Anthology is mistitled; it pulls from other Greek and even Latin verse as well. Rexroth knew Greek, but is lax in his scholarship, admitting that some of the poems are translated from memory. His version of the poem in question
The moon has set,
And the Pleiades. It is
Midnight. Time passes.
I sleep alone.
is nice, but not really distinguishable in style from his translations from the Chinese or even his own work. The structure and logic of the poem are significantly different from other translations. For example, Sam Hamill, in his fine Infinite Moment: Poems from Ancient Greek, renders the poem
The Pleiades disappear,
the pale moon goes down.
After midnight, time blurs:
sleepless, I lie alone.
The reversal of the stars and moon doesn't trouble me, but the difference between sleeping alone and lying awake alone is huge. Hamill also outdoes his mentor with the sonic interweaving of his version, the /p/ of the first two lines morphs to a /b/, then returns with that crucial "sleepless." The plosive is accompanied by the liquid /l/ all the way through; the blend suggests the troubled tension between the self and the cosmos that this poetry invented.
Mary Barnard is a well-known translator of Sappho, but her book has completed poems where others show fragmented ones, so I don't trust her. Her translation is stretched out longer than others
Tonight I've watched
The moon and then
The night is now
goes; I am
in bed alone
The stretching is in part due to lineation, which I cannot comment on because I don't know what sorts of authoritative texts we have (wait, I do, and I'll go look it up when I'm done), but to what seems to be interpretive comments: putting the lyric "I" at the beginning, the rumination on youth. I find this version troubling. And those stanza breaks are annoying.
Of the books I've looked at, I like Davenport's Seven Greeks the best, if only because he's included three voices I've never heard before: the mercenary/poet Archilochos, the philosopher Diogenes, and the what, comedian?, Herondas. (The rest of the seven are Alkman, Anakreon, Sappho, and Herakleitos.) He notes the gaps in text, incorporating it into the poetry at times, such as parenthetically commenting "Here teething moths/have passed." His version of Saphho's poem is the most compact:
The moon has set, and the Pleiades.
It is the middle of the night,
Hour follows hour. I lie alone.
As in every translation but Barnard's, the final sentence acts as a quick punch, introducing personality and conflict. I also recommend Davenport's introduction that describes the context of the poetry: "The seventh century's perilous interchange of chaos for order, order for chaos, reminds us of our own... Statues were unfreezing from their Egyptiac stiffness; drawing became graceful, calligraphic, paced like the geometric patterns of weaving and ceramics."
Finally, Anne Carson, who is both a classics professor and an accomplished poet. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho is richly annotated and celebrates fragmentation. (In fact, the book has inspired me to undertake an unwriting of John Keats, deleting and reconstructing his poems in a way similar to Ronald Johnson's deformation of Paradise Lost, RADI OS.) Her version reads
Moon has set
and Pleiades: middle
night, the hour goes by,
alone I lie.
The absence of articles at the beginning reminds us of the blurring between gods and the things of the world. The enjambment between the second and third lines surprises me, but Carson's volume supplies the original Greek. As I said I can't read it, but you can recognize the word Pleiades and see that the next unit is indeed broken. Carson's note explains what I alluded to earlier: the poem was included without attribution in an ancient metrical handbook, then judged to be Sappho in the 15th century. Modern editors don't include it with Sappho, though obviously modern translators follow tradition and do.
Well, my allotted time is up and I don't think I got at what appeals to me about ancient Greek lyric. I'll save that for later, and end with an example of how reading it has shaped my own poetic practice. As I said, some of the poems are actually fragments of only a single word. Here and know I begin a series of my own word poems, inspired by Sappho's "Soda": Coke
Let the analysis begin.
- ▼ June (9)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 License.