Like all real readers, I always have more than one book going at a time, and of course they converse. So from now on, here and there, I’m going to post a few notes, in no order, about the experience of reading one through the other.
For years I’ve owned a falling-apart copy of Kenneth Rexroth’s translation of The Greek Anthology, dipping into it here and there. Whatever ill-defined force conscripts us to re-open books made me take The Greek Anthology down from the shelf and carry with with me for the last week and a half. Like Spencer Tracy in the final moments of Inherit the Wind, I left every room with two books in my hand. I was also carrying and reading a Conduit #24, a new issue of one of my favorite poetry magazines. I’d switch of between them, depending on my mood — did I want something 2,500 years weathered or something written by the people I knew?
So what’s the difference between them? It sounds like a specious question, but it’s worth asking plainly. The Greek poems, like anything ancient, have had their allusions worn smooth by time. When Sommer Browning in Conduit makes a poem full of proper names (e.g. “When you were with Emily I was with Matt and when you were with Sarah I was with Paul”), the people she mentions may be as unknown to us as Eumelos and Smerdies in The Greek Anthology. Then again: the last line in that long list reads: “and when you were with Eliza I was with Noah.” As up until now, the poem has followed a set pattern (when you were with X I was with Y) the reader has come to imagine that it might be a poem to Sommer’s current partner. But in this case her current partner, her husband, is Noah, and so there’s the joke. She’s writing to someone else entirely, their relationship entirely unclear. But what happens when 2,000 years go by, and we don’t know anymore who Noah is? What weight does the poem still swing? I love Joshua Ware’s new poems (from his Impossible Motels, which are exactly what they sound like) but how would my experience of them fare if I didn’t know who and what had inspired them?
That was the question Cephalas had to contend with when he assembled The Greek Anthology in 10th Century Byzantium out of a whole millennium of short poems in the language. The poems had to stand regardless of who they were about, or who wrote them. And what’s surprising is how reliably they do:
Here is Klito’s little shack.
Here is his little cornpatch.
Here is his tiny vineyard.
Here is his little woodlot.
Here Klito spent eighty years.
It’s silly to pretend that if these English version were to appear today, in the pages of Conduit 24, shorn of all context, that they’d be a tenth as successful as they are now. But that’s not the point. The jokes you share with the very young or the very old may not be as funny as the third round of belly laughs with your good friends the night before, but you enjoy them more because you’re connecting across a chasm, and those connections feel wonderful. They treat our generational loneliness.
So many of the Greek poems sound like interrupted conversations (“Good God, what a night it was…”). Some feel far away and oracular (“Time’s fingers bend us slowly / With dubious craftmanship, / That at last spoils all it forms”) but some are painfully immediate. That sense of immediacy across time is what people mean when they speak of a classic. When I lived in Cambridge and I was making poor life choices I used to wake up at 4am and walk the streets of Harvard Square barefoot. The narrator of this Petronius poem says it’s lust that wakes him and that’s good enough:
First I ran, and then I lingered,
And at last I was ashamed
To be wandering in the empty streets
The voices of men,
The roar of traffic,
The songs of birds,
Even the barking of dogs,
Everything was still.
Contemporary poetry, or at least the poems in Conduit 24, aren’t like that. Generally, I’m sympathetic to lamentations about the state of new poetry: the bland jumpiness, pseudo-naivete, in-gaming. But there plenty of exceptions, and there are times when, god help me, jumpiness and in-gaming work. (And the thing you always hear about rhyming and memorization is a canard: I have plenty of these Greek poems by heart and their language couldn’t be more plain; as Clive James once rightly pointed out, the real tribute of memorization is that it’s an artifact of extended engagement). This, by the late Kevin Joe Eldridge, the second poem in the magazine, is as plain and haunting as anything in the Greek book:
An Indian gives me a ride in his Datsun.
For 200 miles we say nothing.
I can’t help feeling our silence
is like the silence between old friends.
He lets me out for no reason,
no civilization in sight.
And it goes on like that: a series of short, probably true events that, now that he’s died, read like an epigraph.
Daniel Tiffany from a poem called “Ondine” (named for the Neil Jordan flick?) does something entirely different from the Greeks, and completely worth doing:
Here’s the start of it:
At the subway entrance
a frighted woman appears.
Behind the guide,
tinted by the Earth’s
a starlet appears.
People crowd into the automat on the corner.
The flanking and flirting is that of many flags
at the gate of a monastery in flames.
Protected by a nebulous god
she crosses the street.
Here we have a lot that’s great about new poetry. First: old poetry is there. The heroes crowed each other at the gate. There’s Trojan mayhem in a Hopper painting and Helen walks away free. But then there’s the beautiful indeterminacy of new poetry. Do the two stanzas at the start of the poem refer to the same woman or to different women? This kind of indeterminacy is valuable and it is unknown in The Greek Anthology.
On further reading, correspondences between the two books multiply. Paulos Silentiarios’ lament could be the masculine call to Paige Taggart’s response, both in a kind of passionate extremis (his mind is on her, her mind is elsewhere). Let’s skip 1,500 years in a few lines. Paulos first:
Eros has changed his quiver
For the fangs of Kerberos,
And I am hydrophobic.
The sea smell of her body.
Her skirts rustle in the stream.
I go blind staggering drunk
With the very taste of wine
That calls back her sleep drugged lips.
Now Paige Taggart (beginning midpoem in “And beyond thought and idea”)
… you are young thoughts
there are bills to pay and fire-escapes
to climb without reason into the
brass night, whatever, when you ring
my neck with anger it’s also just
the weather being cancelled from
continuing, I know as much as you
know that there’s no void to turn against
and with free will, it will keep turning.
But whatever their harmonies, death is the discord between the little books. Maybe death was closer to the Greeks — they routinely came into contact with it an we really don’t. Still, they often lived into their 90s, and we see more death on TV in a month than the average Athenian saw in a year. So why is death seemingly everywhere with the Greeks and seemingly nowhere with us? It’s the dark background between all the soft skin and the rustling money and the red wine, but it isn’t here in Conduit (neither, oddly, is there much love or money, illustrations of dollar bills between the poems to one side). So many of the poems in Conduit seem to be about negotiating the haunting but decidedly minor vicissitudes of modern life: arrangements of light, the touch of trees, pop songs, déjà vu. Passion is muted, made pocket-sized, as if in deference to the insignificance of a single person’s emotion in such a loud and crowded world. (From Elisa Gabbert & Kathleen Rooney’s “The One About Spit Takes”: “A little misdirected fury walks into a bar. It’s a little furry. The misdirected furry rolls a peanut across the bar with its nose”). It’s genuinely funny, but the Greeks could be funny too (the Emperor Julian’s poem “On Beer” reads, in its entity, “You call that wine? / I call it mush.”) And they didn’t mind getting personal There are insults in these poems I cannot repeat without incurring misdirected wrath (they were not politically correct, those Greeks). And they knew dark humor long before a bunch of late-1960s novelists discovered it:
Dead, they’ll burn you up with electricity,
An interesting experience,
But quite briefly illuminating–
So pour the whiskey and kiss my wife or yours,
And I’ll reciprocate. Stop fretting your brains.
In Hell the learned sit in long rows saying,
“Some A-s are not B-s, there exists not a B.”
You’ll have time to grow wise in their company.
Of course the Greeks had no pop songs as we know them or nature poetry as we know it post-Petrarch and of course poems of pure longing or pure passion or pure dread are often laughed away by contemporary editors (and would have been laughed away by me, when I was a poetry editor for a couple of years) but the Greek poems lose none of their power for all that, indeed they gain from it.
Childhood is also present in the new poems as it wasn’t for the Greeks, perhaps because we have a different conception of it now: childhood is more relevant, perhaps because of our endless adolescence. The Greeks wrote about children, but never as children. Conduit 24 like a child’s bedroom, comes with winsome clocks and the tiniest earthquake. “My parents have never told me / one dream they’ve had,” writes Joe Colburn, in an absurdest poem about a dog in the shape of a dog (this is one of the more aimless and drifting poems in the mag). Perhaps we simply have more neurosis (a holdover from Christianity, that) and knick-knacks and ego-states. So do the Conduit poets put themselves in danger of missing the forest for the trees? Most certainly. But the trees are worth seeing on their own.