I checked out a new library book The Greek Poets Homer to the Present. It is new this year 2010 from Norton Press. It is edited by Peter Constantine, Rachel Hadas, Edmund Keely, and Karen Van Dyke. As the cover flap says it contains over 1000 poems by 185 poets with 120 different translators. It starts with Homer and ends with contemporary living poets. It is really a massive and wonderful collection.
Reading it, started me thinking about what is it that I like so much in especially ancient Greek poetry. I have been attracted to it since high school. (Part of what first attracted me to the Cantos was Pound's use of classical myths and texts). I took Greek in college and continued it in graduate school. I still dabble at translating today.
It is important when talking about Greek poetry--even just ancient Greek poetry--to realize one is talking about hundreds of poets over a couple thousand years. And that, in itself, may be part of it. The vastness of it, the distance in time, the fragility. So much was lost, so much survives only in tantalizing fragments, scattered coins that suggest a larger treasure. Modern poetry has been in love with the fragment every since it rediscovered the Greek. And Greek is, essentially, a modern discovery--the middle ages the Renaissance, the 18th century were almost entirely devoted to Latin poetry. Much of what we know of Greek Literature only came to light in the 19th and 20th century.)
That still begs the question of why it attracts me so. I hazard one thought: I like it because of its directness and essential naiveté. By naiveté I am not suggesting that the art was unsophisticated. Greek poetry sports many complex metrics and sophisticated structures. Nor do I mean to suggest that Greek poets were simple or somehow socially or humanly innocent. Rather, I mean that they dealt with the basic human condition directly: War, death, love, hatred, anger, competition, sex, old age, they dealt with these thing without embarrassment, without subterfuge. Yes, they often used myth when writing of these things, but myth for them was not a symbol or a metaphor to decorate a thought; myth itself was the way they thought. It was how they experienced the world. The Greeks never second guessed their poetry. They had no need to justify it to the world. Poetry was a natural and sacred act. Finally, their poetry often has a simply transcendent beauty. Here is the beginning of the Theogany (my Translation)
Of the Helicon Muses, let us begin to sing
who possess the great & sacred mount Helicon
who dance around the violet fountain on soft feet
& around the altar of Kronos’ mighty son
who, afterwards, bathe their flawless skin in Permissos
or in the horse’s fountain or in sacred Olemios--
so beautiful, their feet flowing like water.
There is so much to say about this topic, it cannot possibly fit in a single blog entry. Though in the future I might focus on individual poets. Anyway check out the book The Greek Poets, not just for the ancient poets. The Greeks have been writing great poetry for almost 3000 years.