The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present ed. by Peter Constantine, Rachel Hadas, Edmund Keeley and Karen Van Dyck
From The Sunday Telegraph, April 25 2010
Paul Cartledge reviews
Poetry – in ancient Greek poiesis, a process of making – can still cause a flutter in the birdcage of the muses. Nothing new under the sun there, so far as poets writing in Greek go. In his amusing introduction to this polymorphous collection of more than 1,000 poems by 185 poets, the former United States Poet Laureate Robert Hass mentions the 'small gap in my acquaintance with Greek poetry’ between Callimachus and Cavafy – a gap of, well, more than 21 centuries.
Greece can boast the longest continuous poetic tradition in European literature, by a very long chalk: from Homer (c700BC ?) to, in this case, Pavlina Pampoudi (born 1948). And it is a tradition of rare distinction, too, as Prof Hass could quite conveniently have gathered from perusing Constantine Trypanis’s still marvellous Penguin Book of Greek Verse (1971). Though of course outdated, that gathering of flowers does have the great advantage of containing both texts of the Greek originals and accurate English prose translations.
In mitigation Hass might plead that he is the author of the Berkeley Poetry Walk (128 cast-iron poem-panels, inaugurated in October 2003). This honours at least one of the entrants in The Greek Poets – Sappho, the 10th muse, as Plato called her. As for the company of translators – all 121 of them – this comprises both the very well-known (apart from the four editors, there are here versions by Carson, Connolly, Fagles, Fitzgerald, Lattimore, Raphael, Sherrard, Holst Warhaft), the less well-known and (to me) the hitherto quite unknown.
A comparison with the, admittedly, handier Trypanis collection reveals few surprises of either omission or inclusion (down to Nobel laureate Odysseus Elytis, with whom Trypanis concluded, on a high note).
The new collection does start the section labelled 'Byzantium’ rather early, perhaps, with Clement of Alexandria, who died more than a century before the old Bosporan city of Byzantion became Constantinople and so gave its name to the Byzantine era; but then Trypanis didn’t begin his 'Byzantium’ until the seventh century. Other times, other tastes. No doubt, too, the omission of martial, masculine Tyrtaeus of Sparta and the inclusion of Corinna, Praxilla, Erinna and Nossis are both trying to tell us something.
Of those who come after Elytis here, selection is particularly invidious. I pick out just one stanza from the classically allusive 'On the Sublime’ by the prize-garlanded Nasos Vayenas, now a professor at Athens University: 'I find those heights take the breath away, /where nothing seems impossible; /as if some hand has quietly wiped away /that gray rock, and where ennui /takes on the bouquet of a ripening apple.’
Poetry makes nothing happen? I don’t think so. Poets, especially Greek ones, are the acknowledged legislators of the word. We are, in that sense, all Greeks.
The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present
Ed by Peter Constantine, Rachel Hadas, Edmund Keeley and Karen Van Dyck
WW NORTON, £30, 692pp