A longer treatment of the poetry of the Greek Anthology and a generous selection of Leonidas of Tarentum's epigrams will be posted in a coming month. (Unfortunately the notes, italics, Greek characters, and who knows what else do not survive being pasted into this format. And sometimes the footnotes are the best part. A reader who wants the original -- sometimes longer than the blog version as well as including all the trimmings, may write me.)
I am not alone in thinking that some of the greatest works of twentieth century American poetry have been translations: Pound’s Cathay, Rexroth’s Chinese and Japanese and Greek, Bly’s Scandinavian and Spanish, Blackburn’s Proensa come to mind immediately. Translations refresh poetry, though the professor and the poet are alike sometimes slow to recognize the translator’s work as it is neither quite scholarship nor “original”. Language’s renewal may be hastened not by the importation of fresh vision alone, but even by the compromises that accompany the haulage of words from one language to another, even, indeed, by plain misprision.1 The greater the gap in time, space, or culture, the more potentially fruitful the result.
I offer here some versions of Greek Anthology poems2 and a few words to suggest my own appropriations of these millenia-old words. The Anthology has passed through periods of vogue3 and of neglect. Its highly conventionalized texts would have found less reception in recent years than they have were it not that most translations during the last fifty years have been very loose and conversational. Those old home truths about sex and death, mysteries the ancients directly confronted, can seem quite powerful with a sort of blunt grace.
The fact is that the language of the poems is very distant from spoken language. Some of the poems are almost school exercises; at times one poem echoes the previous one’s images and meter, striving only for a slightly greater polish. All is intertextual and artificial -- even the love lyrics and the epitaphs. It’s Hellenistic, as we say, (or, even worse, Byzantine) but in this thicket of language, surprises are frequent.
The first book in the current standard arrangement is Christian epigrams which have found little audience among either poets or Christians. Since the work of Jane Harrison and others of the Cambridge school, ritual and cult components of ancient religious myth have been disentangled from the more literary or sociopolitical ones. And the myths contended vigorously in those days. Not only the Olympians, but also gods of the mysteries, along with a succession of Near Eastern and Egyptian deities (among them Jesus and Jehovah), Gnosticism (not to mention rumors of gymnosophists) -- all clamored for the soul’s allegiance. Christianity was then decentralized and alive with the ferment of heresy and inspiration. The Christian book of the Anthology reflects a time before the church became a bureaucracy and a princely power, when men still set themselves up as free lance hermits in deserts of Egypt and Anatolia. The same “sudden enlightenment” Christianity that brought the likes of Meister Eckhart to trial a millennium later found free expression in some of these lyrics. They are seminal for the vast religious literature of Byzantium more generously bathed in abstract light and even fire than the Platonic Percy Shelley.
This vision of cosmic dance recalls the Gospel of Thomas4 :
One dance, one tune
for men and for angels --
for man and god
have become one!
A description of an icon, this describes art, language, the attempt to use the mind to overmaster earth:
audacious to give shape to the bodiless! but that’s what
leads to recollection, to solid thoughts that vault the sky!
Dualities explode in the image of Gideon’s fleece:
One fleece has dew,
it gave dew to the bowl;
the same fleece is dry:
hide mysteries in your mind.
Egyptian woman, hidden newborn, close water:
when you think about it, they all represent the Word.
And if you think about it hard enough, surely everything represents the Word.
Then there is that practice I have elsewhere called sacred space as sideshow, at which India excels, but Christianity had its Simeon Stylites5 as well as the holy Daniel, here described:
A man suspended between earth and sky,
ignoring the winds from every side . . .
both feet planted tight to the pole.
He dines on ambrosial hunger
and painless thirst, always talking
about the flawless mother's son.
An entire volume of the Anthology contain poems of an obsolete genre: dedications of offerings to deities. Generally the poems contain loving lists of significant objects: often the tools of a trade6 (carpenter, warrior, cook); sometimes objects associated with a stage of life (the toys of childhood); at times the lists approach a tone of incantatory magic7, at times they seem more like objectivism or minimalism. In some the dedicatory form seems incidental. The poems of this book often privilege craft – many are almost identical, with each author seeking to lend the list a slightly more graceful melody. In theme the form is often the setting for very familiar sentiments.
I’m Lais. Ego-puffed I laughed through Greece,
a flock of buff young men outside my door.
Aphrodite, here’s my mirror. I don’t care to see my present self,
you cannot show me as I was then. (Plato)
In the next the dedication itself is absent.
Here’s the little place where Kleito lived, the plot
where he grew food. A few grapevines are round the back
and here’s some brush where he would gather wood. It’s here
that Kleito kept on going, right through eighty years.
(Leonidas of Tarentum)
Notice the similarities of the following two loving lists.
A split berry, a tree’s first borne fruit,
a wrinkled fig with a navel,
a heavy hanging purple bunch of grapes, dripping wine,
nuts just dropping their green coat.
I who tend the fruit have made this offering from the trees
for country Priapos carved from a single block.
Yellow-jacket pomegranate! Old wrinkled figs!
A rosy bunch of grapes picked just a bit unripe,
one sweet-breath quince woolied with fine down,
a walnut peeking out through grass-green rind,
first bloom cucumber from its groundbed in green,
and a gold-coat olive, already dark and ripe.
Lamon Groundgrubber gives these things
and prays his trees and his own limbs may thrive.
(Phillipos of Thessalonica)
Any accurate idea of poetry must take account of the whole history of the art. Most poetry in human history has been highly conventionalized8. Our Romantic assumptions blind us most when we are unaware of them. Study of out of the way texts like these from the Greek Anthology can point in the direction of a view of poetry at once broader and more precise. The assignment for the poet is to compose an imitation of the text with the greatest appeal (or would the least engaging prove more fruitful?).