With an Ancient Song in My Heart

Mark Buchan |

A Review of The Penguin Book of Greek and Latin Lyric Verse.

This Sunday, April 14th at 12:00 PM EDT, author and translator Chris Childers will introduce The Penguin Book of Greek and Latin Lyric Verse in conversation with Jason Pedicone, read generously from it, and answer questions from the audience. To attend, please RSVP for the online event here.

Christopher Childers’ ambitious, often exhilarating, and highly useful translation of ‘lyric verse’ from Greco-Roman antiquity is remarkable: he offers up, in a variety of English meters and rhyme-schemes, almost all of what we would call ‘poetry’. If classicists in love with Sappho, or Mimnermus, or Catullus or Ovid, want to give some sense of their love to others, they could do worse than buying bulk copies for early Christmas gifts. For many of us–well, for me at least–these poems got me through the teen years. They include not just what the ancients considered ‘lyric’–poems accompanied by the lyre–but what ‘lyric’ or ‘song lyrics’ mean today: first person reflections on love, life, war, identity, indeed anything that takes part in a broader song culture. If you want to read the ancient precursors of a W.B. Yeats love poem, or a Cole Porter ballad crooned by Sinatra, or you feel like doing some light poetic reading before Taylor Swift releases her ‘poetry’ album, this book is for you.

To get some sense of the scope of the project, I decided to skim through it all in a weekend. What would reading a mass of ‘ancient song’ feel like? I could return to specific passages later. One answer came immediately. On the Monday after, I went to a local Brooklyn jazz bar. I met a friend who had just celebrated her 28th birthday. Childers' translation of a Solon poem, which divides up a man’s life into slots of seven years, and parcels out appropriate behavior for each, came to mind. Here is the ‘28’ section, the fifth age of life:

In the fifth, a man is at the marrying age;
he fathers sons to form his lineage.
In the sixth age, he disciplines his mind;
his youthful foolishness is left behind. (Solon 27.9-12)

Her next seven years, I told her, were the ‘marrying’ years. A bit of adjustment had to be made–she wasn’t, after all, an ancient Greek male. But feminism has done part of its job, and opened up her control over her life. She smiled and told me she was indeed planning to marry in the next 7 years, but after a last hurrah of a few more years of foolishness! But then the band, in a bizarre coincidence started playing a bebop version of the song ‘It Was a Very Good Year’, written by Ervin Drake in 1961, and made famous by Frank Sinatra. Here was another song about dividing one’s life into years. Not quite periods of 7; instead the writer starts at 17, moves to 21, then 35, and then a swift fast-forward to the end–of song and life.

The Solon song seemed very different; a normative categorization of what good ‘life timing’ might look like for a citizen male, while the aging Sinatra reminisces about the stages of his sexual life-resume: at 17, he innocently hides with a crush on The Village Green, at 21, he’s graduated to college girls whose ‘hair’ has somehow become ‘undone’ (those imagining the undoing of sexual veils in all sorts of ancient erotic poetry, well done!), and by 35 things have progressed to blue-blooded girls in the backs of limousines, which, the lyricist tells us, in a delicious, salacious detail, their chauffeurs would drive. I did briefly wonder if the cluster of 7s and multiples of 7s mean the modern lyricist might know the ancient poem (surely just a coincidence!), and then my song-infested (by Childers!) mind started up again, thinking of the ancient poets that obsess over the loss of desire in old age (Mimnermus, Anacreon, Ibycus).

But here is the point. These ‘coincidences’ between ancient and modern are not just symptoms of my paranoid literary brain that sees allusion everywhere. They are driven by Childers’ choice, in his translation, to use relatively modern sets of meters and rhyme-schemes to replace the complex rhythms of ancient verse. His translations encourage us to connect literary themes, vocabularies, tropes across centuries of antiquity, and then to restart the process through the development of English meter, the American songbook, to whatever is left of lyrical sophistication in our current pop moment. For example, the use of driving rhyme schemes to translate the ‘martial’ poetry of Tyrtaeus or the hectoring advice from Theognis, made me think of the energetic hip-hop used by Lin-Manuel Miranda in the musical Hamilton. I imagined a classroom where students would not only translate, say, a Catullus poem, but would reflect on the strangeness of the ancient meter, and then try to find a current song mode for them that would fit. They could use Childers’ translation as one take on what that might look like. Can we ever have enough versions of odi et amo? Or, as Childers puts it:

I hate and I love. How can that be? you scoff.
Don’t know – I feel it. It’s breaking me in half.

This leads me to the most useful part of the book. There is an excellent discussion of the range of ancient meters, the modern metrical schemes he replaces them with, and the reasons for his choices. It’s a ‘how-to’ kit for not just translation, but for how ‘song culture’ works, the tricks of the trade laid out in front of us. I thought of Stephen Fry’s wonderful guide to English meter, The Ode Less Traveled, a delightful amalgam of appreciation for the creative potential of the ‘tennis net’ of metrical poetry with an exhortation to write it. He wants to make poetry less pretentious, and create a song culture that blurs the boundaries between writer and reader, producer and consumer. Unlike Fry, Childers’ book has no poetic exercises for us to try out. But that should be the role of anyone lucky enough to teach these poems.

I’m happy to spare you a compendium of my own favorite–and, yes, least favorite!–moments. In a project as ambitious as this, not everything will work, and it’s inevitable that joys will be partnered with tiny moments of betrayal. I found it difficult to resist rushing to the poems I genuinely love, and at times I felt the emotional core of a poem had been passed by. But that is a small price to pay for the thrill of it all. There are, out there in the real world, books that offer guides to the necessary literary background required to make sense of Taylor Swift’s upcoming album, The Tortured Poets Department. File this under ‘things that give me hope.’ Childers’ translations offer a glimpse into those who started it all. He will be speaking about his translation on Sunday, April 14th. Taylor Swift’s album is released on April 19th. Coincidence?

This Sunday, April 14th at 12:00 PM EDT, author and translator Chris Childers will introduce The Penguin Book of Greek and Latin Lyric Verse in conversation with Jason Pedicone, read generously from it, and answer questions from the audience. To attend, please RSVP for the online event here.


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Mark Buchan

Mark Buchan is the Editor of In Medias Res. He currently teaches in the Writing Program at Rutgers University.


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