Tag Archives: Poetry

Sappho Fragment 16

Sappho Fragment 16 (translation is my own):

Some men say that the best thing on this black earth is
a column of horses, others say it is an army of foot
soldiers, and still others say it is a fleet of ships.
But I say that the Best thing on this black
earth is to love someone. It is wholly easy to make this
idea understandable to everyone. For Helen, surpassing
all others in beauty, chose for herself the best man—
he who destroyed all the Majesty of Troy—and she made that
choice without consideration of her child or her beloved parents,
but she was swayed by Love and carried this love far away.
It always seems like a female trait to turn away or to
be light in one’s thoughts. And so now you do not
remember Anaktoria, or so it seems; she whose lovely steps and
whose bright radiance in her face you would like to behold
more than the armies or the hoplites of Lydia. We know that it
is not possible for men on this earth to be completely happy;
We must, however, pray to hold onto our shared memories rather
than to completely forget those experiences.

I have immersed myself in this beautiful and, at times, maddening Ancient Greek fragment for the last two days. I used the longer version of the Ancient Greek text with the last few lines, in particular, reconstructed. I realize this isn’t the standard version with which most are familiar. I see in this poem a stark contrast between male and female, which begins in the first three lines with a primael. Men choose war—cavalries, armies and ships, but women choose love. The best example of this is Helen—she chooses Love in the form of Paris, because, to her,  he is the best (aristov).

As the poem concludes, Sappho turns to Anaktoria who left her (some speculate to marry). Sappho, unlike Helen, doesn’t have a choice. But as memory fades the one option for her is to remember their shared experiences. Her beloved, no longer present, can quickly become a case of “out of sight, out of mind”; the poet must make a conscience choice to remember their time together. But as her memories fade and her lover is no longer present, she can just as easily choose to let her go.

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Go, litel bok: Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt

With Lives of the Poets, Michael Schmidt takes up the daunting task of tracing the history of English poetry from the Middle Ages to the present. His engaging style of writing has immediately drawn me into this wonderful book. He writes:

Poems swim free of their age, but it’s hard to think of a single poem that swims entirely free of its medium, not just language but language used in the particular ways that are poetry. Even the most parthenogenetic-seeming poem has a pedigree. The poet may not know precisely a line’s or a stanza’s parents; indeed may not be interested in finding out. Yet as readers of poetry we can come to know more about a poem than the poet does and know it more fully.

Schmidt’s point about pedigree and influence was proven for me almost immediately in his book with the chapter on Chaucer. The early English poets of the fourteenth century were struggling to break free from the literary supremacy of both Latin and French but, by including the introduction to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Schmidt shows that although he chooses to write in English, Chaucer’s Latin ancestors are never far from his mind:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye,
Ther God thi makere yet, or that he dye,
So sende might to make it som comedye!
But litel book, so making thow n’envie,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, where as thow seest pace
Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

The references to Ancient Epic authors is quite obvious, but there is also a hidden allusion in these lines to Catullus that Schmidt doesn’t mention. Catullus was not widely read in this period, but the discovery of his manuscript in 1300 does make it slightly possible that Chaucer know about Catullus’s own libellum (little book) and his introductory poem which is also self-deprecating. In Carmen 1, Catullus begins his collection of poetry(translation is my own):

To whom should I dedicate my new, charming, little book
that I just polished with my dry pumice stone? To you,
Cornelius, you who used to think that my petty scribblings
were actually worth something.

I’ve always suspected that Catullus knows the worth of his talent and that this modesty in the dedication is feigned. Schmidt’s discussion of Chaucer has me wondering the same thing about the English author and his “litel bok.”

I took a British Literature course which was required when I was in high school and I credit this course with making me the reader I have become as far as classic literature is concerned. The first work we read in the class was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which captivated my 16-year-old attention. I haven’t read Chaucer, unfortunately, since I was a teenager, and a pleasant side effect of Schmidt’s book is the rediscovery of old favorites. My plan is to read Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as well as Gower’s Confessio Amantis from the same time period.

Last week when I translated Catullus Carmen 1 with my Latin students, I also read to them Chaucer’s lines from Troilus and Criseyde. Not a single student knew who Chaucer was; British Literature is not a required course. So sad…

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An Insatiable Craving for Books

“One unquenchable longing has the mastery of me, which hitherto I neither would nor could repress; ’tis an insatiable craving for books, although, perhaps I have more than I ought.” —Francesco Petrarch

I had the chance today to visit one of my favorite bookstores in New England.  Located in a small, shoreline community, it actually has five different locations spread throughout the town.  I only managed to visit two of the five locations today and even that took me a few hours.  The main store is a large, old farmhouse with a series of barns on the property, all filled from floor to ceiling with books.  None of the barns are heated so it was a bit rough going on this cold, wet day.  But, in the end, (even though I was cold and drenched and looked like a wet poodle) it was totally worth the trip.  Here is my haul:

Poetry:

I’ve become quite fond of collecting the Library of America editions—they look rather handsome on one’s shelves. I have been making a concerted effort to read more American authors, so this LOA edition of 17th and 18th century poetry was a great find. I was also pleased to add more Michael Hamburger, Marianne Moore and C.P. Cavafy to my poetry collection. The “Diaries of Exile,” translated from the Modern Greek and published by Archipelago Books, was also a pleasant find.

Essays:

I was so thrilled to find another George Steiner collection of essays that I don’t own, as well as another volume of Joseph Epstein essays.  The J.M. Coetzee essays look intriguing—topics include Cees Nooteboom, Translating Kafka, Robert Musil’s Diaries, Dostoevsky and the essays of Joseph Brodsky, just to name a few.  I already owned the paperback version of Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets, and I was excited to upgrade to this hard copy edition that is in perfect condition.  Lord’s The Singer of Tales is a nice addition to my classics library as it deals with the orality of Homeric poetry.  And finally, the Hamburger and Colin Wilson essays will be a nice additions (or editions)  to my shelves.

Autobiography and Letters:

I am especially excited about this stack.  I’ve already started reading John Cowper Powys’s novels and I upgraded to this hard copy edition of his Autobiography.  My Powys reading project will take me into 2019.  I am also planning an Anthony Powell reading project for the new year and was exited to find this first volume of his autobiography.  I own a copy of the first volume of Flaubert Letters which is in tatters, so not only did I get a copy in perfect condition but I also found a copy of the second volume.  Finally, I found a wonderful early, hard copy edition (Yale Press, 1933, collected by Thomas J. Wise) of Robert Browning’s Letters.

Fiction:

Finally, I did manage to buy some fiction as well.  I want to read Anita Brookner in the new year.  I already have one of her books sitting on my shelves so these two will be nice additions.

Bonus: Today’s Book Mail

I’ve also become captivated by Andre Gide’s writing and these two gems arrived today in the mail.  (I thought my family was going to have a fit when I arrived home with all of these books and there were also more books waiting for me in the post!)  I am planning to explore Gide in the new year and I am also awaiting a copy of his Journals which I have already sampled and am eager to dive into.

As Petrarch says, perhaps I have more than I ought?

It doesn’t matter, I will still collect books and read them anyway.

(For what it’s worth I did cull three large bags of books from my shelves today so, overall, I broke even.)

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Filed under American Literature, Autobiography, British Literature, Classics, Essay, Letters, Literary Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry

Let us Live: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

On a recent trip to New York City I found a pristine copy of the Library of America edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, prose and letters.  I have been absorbed in reading her poetry and essays ever since I discovered this little gem.  I have been sharing some of her poems on Twitter during the past week and I thought I would share a few more of my favorites ones here.

One of the best sections of poetry in the collection, I think,  is that of the uncollected and unpublished poems.  Some of the poems are complete but were never published, some of them are drafts that she intended to return to and some of them are verses jotted down on a pieces of paper that were never developed any further.  The first is a short one simply entitled “Dream”:

Dream—

I see a postman everywhere
Vanishing in thin blue air,
A mammoth letter in his hand,
Postmarked from a foreign land.

The postman’s uniform is blue.
The letter is of course from you
And I’d be able to read, I hope,
My own name on the envelope

But he has trouble with this letter
Which constantly grows bigger & bigger
And over and over with a stare,
He vanished in blue, blue air.

—late 1930’s-early 1940’s

The next poem is an example of one that was found among her notes and doesn’t have a title.  The natural imagery of which she is very fond seemed especially striking and sensual to me:

It is marvellous to wake up together
At the same minute, marvellous to hear
The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,
To feel the air suddenly clear
As if electricity had passed through it
From a bloack mesh of wires in the sky.
All over the roof the rain hisses,
And below the light falling of kisses.

An electrical storm is coming or moving away;
It is the prickling air that wakes us up.
If lightening struck the house now, it would run
From the four blue china balls on top
Down the roof and down the rods all around us,
And we imagine dreamily
How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning
Would be quite delightful rather than frightening;

And from the same simplified point of view
Of night and lying on one’s back
All things might change equally easily
Since always to warn us there must be these black
Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise
The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.

—late 1930’s-early 1940’s

And the final poem I wish to share must have been influenced by one of the most famous lines from the Roman poet, Catullus.  In Carmen 5 he begins, “Vivemus, mea Lesia, atque amemus” (Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love).  Bishop employs the gentleness of that hortatory subjunctive for her own carpe diem inspired poem:

For C.W.B.

I.

Let us live in a lull of the long winter winds

Where the shy, silver-antlered reindeer go

On dainty hoofs with their white rabbit friends

Amidst the delicate flowering snow.

All of our thoughts will be fairer than doves.

We will live upon wedding-cake frosted with sleet.

We will build us a house from two red tablecloths,

And wear scarlet mittens on both hands and feet.

II.

Let us live in the land of the whispering trees,

Alder and aspen and poplar and birch,

Singing our prayers in a pale, sea-green breeze,

With star-flower rosaries and moss banks for church.

All of our dreams will be clearer than glass,

Clad in the water or sun, as you wish,

We will watch the white feet of the young morning pass

And dine upon honey and small shiny fish.

III.

Let us live where the twilight lives after the dark,

In the deep, drowsy blue, let us make us a home,

Let us meet in the cool evening grass, with a stork

And a whistle of willow, played by a gnome.

Half asleep, half awake, we shall hear, we shall know

The soft “Miserere” the wood-swallow tolls.

We will wander away where wild raspberries grow

And eat them for tea from two lily-white bowls.

—1929

 

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When A Man Tells You He’s a Monster: The Ariadne Myth in Analicia Sotelo’s Virgin

Titian. Bacchus and Ariadne. Oil on Canvas. 1520-3.

In Greek myth, Ariadne is the daughter of Minos, King of Crete, and Pasiphae, whose horrifying union with the Cretan bull produces the legendary monster, the Minotaur. We don’t hear very much about Ariadne’s life in the ancient narratives until her encounter with Theseus; she immediately falls in love with this Athenian hero who is sent to defeat the Minotaur and release Athens from its obligation of sending seven men and seven women every nine years to Crete where they are locked in the labyrinth and devoured by the Minotaur. In her eagerness to capture his attention and secure his affections she stealthily offers him the tools to defeat the labyrinth and the Minotaur: a ball of thread and a sword. But through the act of helping this hero she also betrays her home and her family. Theseus professes his love and appreciation for Ariadne and takes her with him when he sails home to Athens. After a brief stop, however, on the island of Naxos, Theseus “forgets” Ariadne on the shores of the island and sets sail to Athens without her.

The Roman poet Catullus writes an epyllion, his longest poem, Carmen 64, in which Ariadne is given her own voice and tells her own side of the story. When she is abandoned on Naxos, she immediately realizes her mistake in trusting this man who was supposed to be a hero. In Carmen 64.132-148 Ariadne speaks to a now absent Theseus and gives full vent to her anger, her heartache and her grief (translation is my own):

You treacherous and dishonest man, Theseus! Have you really carried me away from my father’s home and abandoned me on this deserted shore? Are you really being so forgetful and leaving me behind, completely neglecting the divine will of the gods, and carrying the curse of such false oaths back to your own home? Is there nothing that could change this decision of your cruel mind? Do you truly possess no mercy that would have allowed your ruthless heart to take pity on me? You certainly didn’t act this way when you were lavishing promises on me with your flattering voice. And you certainly didn’t act like this when you were giving me hope of a happy marriage and wedded bliss, all of which futile promises are now dispersed by the light winds. From now on may no woman ever put her trust in any man who makes promises; from now on may no women believe that the words of any man can be trusted. While a man’s mind is set on getting something and his mind eagerly longs to gain that thing, then he will swear to anything, he will promise anything. But as soon as the desire of his greedy mind is sated, he remembers none of his previous words, he cares nothing about his false promises.

Many of the poems in Analicia Sotelo’s new collection of poems, entitled Virgin, drawn on the plot, theme and point of view of the Ariadne and Theseus myth as it is described by Catullus. As I was reading Sotelo’s poems throughout the course of the last few days I was captivated by her interpretation of this myth for a 21st century audience. Ariadne’s rejection, self-doubt, and heartbreak are placed into contexts that make her story meaningful for a modern reader. In “Ariadne Discusses Theseus in Relation to the Minotaur,” Sotelo’s Ariadne, similar to the character we hear from in Catullus, also has a dire warning for other women:

When a man tells you he’s a monster,
believe him.

When a man says you will get hurt

leave…

Sotelo’s Ariadne also has trust issues after being abandoned by a lover. But, if she could do things over again, would she really be able to resist this man? Once again reminiscent of the laments expressed by Catullus’s Ariadne, Sotelo’s poem “Ariadne’s Guide to Getting a Man” incisively describes the tension that one suffers in a lost love, the alternating feelings of remorse and a longing to continue that human connection. Catullus’s Ariadne dreams of wedded bliss, Sotelo’s Ariadne remembers the feel of her lover’s body under her hands. The last line of this stanza is like a punch in the face when Ariadne is brought back to the reality of her situation when she remembers what love did to her mother:

Do you trust him? No, but everyone has left you
to take in the country air.
Three nights later you see him again—
his tall, crepuscular body separates itself from the lilies.
And you realize the body is not grotesque—that it is, in fact,
like a bolt of fine batiste gathered in your hand,
but first you must give up
a willingness to be right about the world.
Your brother is howling.
Your brother is howling
because your mother chose love and look where it left her.

And in one of my favorite poems in the collection Ariadne is viewed through the eyes of her brother, the Minotaur. Catullus’s Ariadne also expresses deep remorse for what she does to him even though he is a monster. Similar to Georgi Gospodinov”s novel The Physics of Sorrow and Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The House of Asterion,” Sotelo’s poetry shows pity for the Minotaur and she gives him his own story. After all, he, too, is a victim of fate. In “The Minotaur’s Letter to Ariadne,” Sotelo’s monster tugs at the heart strings:

Like a buttercup was your heart in my hand
in the field when we were children
Crown myrtle in your hair,
a gurgling song
Then you grew
delicate as an ox,
obstinate as a—It was you
who taught me metaphor,
said, Mother is a door
I said, What does that mean?
All those years I misheard the men
say, Your mother is a whore,
thinking it was
something that swung open
so almost anything could enter
Oh sister, do not go
Like a buttercup was your heart in my hand.

But through the raw emotions, self-doubt, grief and heartache, Sotelo does offer small glimpses of hope for the abandoned. In Catullus’s version, Ariadne is saved by the god Bacchus who finds her wandering the shores of Naxos and whisks her away to heaven where she also becomes divine. In Sotelo’s version, “Ariadne plays the Physician”, she attempts to heal her own wounds:

We must set this story straight
We must say there is another angle

to this foreign particle

lodged in my ribs like a small ivory
tiger or a Chinese lamp, the oil

coating my bones. Theseus,
you know you didn’t break me.

Sotelo’s collection includes additional, brilliant reworkings of myth. Another of my favorites is “South Texas Persephone” which is a rather sad commentary on marriage that uses inspiration from the Demeter, Persephone and Hades myth. I am glad to have encountered such a raw, emotional, and passionate collection like Sotelo’s that makes Greek and Roman myth accessible to and relevant for a current audience.

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