October 8, 2011

A Poem for the Day: Fragments from Antiquity

I thought I'd share some of the bits of this and that that I've encountered in the course of my reading recently.  I maintain a writer's journal, of sorts, where I jot down nifty things that I encounter in the books that I'm reading, and looking at it this morning I thought that posting some of these might be of interest, and even inspiring, to some of you.  All of the 'fragments' included here come from the various plays of the ancient Greek classicists that I've been studying of late.

First, I want to share some lines from Aeschylus' Agamemnon (first performed in 458 B.C.), the first play in the the great trilogy we know as The Oresteia.  The following lines have stuck with me for much of my life, and I always search them out in each new translation of The Oresteia that I encounter.  These were the words spoken by Robert F. Kennedy upon hearing of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968--
"For it was Zeus who set
men on the path to wisdom
when he decreed the fixed
law that suffering
alone shall be their teacher.
Even in sleep pain drips
down through the heart as fear,
all night, as memory.
We learn unwillingly.
From the high bench of the gods
by violence, it seems, grace comes."

[Agamemnon, Lines 200-210, translation by Burian and Shapiro, 2003]
And here are the same lines translated and interpreted by the late-British Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, from his brilliant The Oresteia: A New Translation (1999)--
"I call God Zeus
And Zeus, or the greater one
Who wears Zeus like a mask for man to imagine,
Has given man this law:
The truth
Has to be melted out of our stubborn lives
By suffering
Nothing speaks the truth,
Nothing tells us how things really are,
Nothing forces us to know
What we do not want to know
Except pain.
And this is how the gods declare their love.
Truth comes with pain."

[Agamemnon, Ted Hughes, 1999]
No pun intended, but I do believe that there's a lot of truth in these words, unfortunately. I love the classical elegance of the Burian/Shapiro translation, but marvel at the power and visceral directness of the Hughes translation. They both speak to me on a very emotional level. Which do you prefer?

Now, staying with the theme of The Oresteia and the House of Atreus, I would like to share a few lines from Anne Carson's amazing translation of Sophocles' powerful play, Elektra (written between 440-420 B.C.?).  These nine lines are the response of the Chorus to Elektra's palpable and heartfelt grief and anger over the murder of her father, Agamemnon, by her mother, Clytemnestra--
"Not from Hades' black and universal lake
can you lift him.
Not by groaning, not by prayers.
Yet you run yourself out
in a grief with no cure,
no time limit, no measure.
It is a knot no one can untie.
Why are you so in love with
things unbearable?"

[Elektra, Lines 186-193, translated by Anne Carson, 2009]
While it may seem almost unfathomable to others (like the Chorus here), I think we all have either felt grief that is so all-encompassing and consuming, or know of those close to us who've experienced it, and the only cure is simply the passage of time and compassion from our fellow humans.  Carson's words caution us against being completely and utterly consumed by grief.

Okay, it is time to pick up the tone, and move out of the 'shade' over to the 'sunny side of the street.'  I want to share some beautiful lines of poetry from Euripides' moving play, Ion (probably written between 412-410 B.C.).  Ion, simply put, is the story about a mother and her son (and so much more, but that's for another posting...Note to Self).  This first bit is timeless, and something we can all relate to--
"Let the oracle be straight and clear
We've waited so long
For the great gift--Children

Lush endless happiness
Belongs to those who see
Shining in their children
Golden generations yet to come"

[Ion, Lines 456-462, translated by Di Piero and Burian, 1996]
Or this next simple, but ever so effective, little 'ode to joy' from Kreousa as she is reunited with her long-lost son, Ion--
"To heaven's bright unfolding,
my joy sings,
shouts high and far.
Joy I never imagined--
Where does it come from?"

[Ion, Lines 1398-1402, translated by Di Piero and Burian, 1996]
Isn't that just beautiful?  It is spare, minimalist, and almost reminds me of something done in Haiku--but we all know, from reading those few words, that Kreousa is full of joy!

And I want to close with the last lines from Euripides' Ion, because I think it circles around and addresses what Aeschylus was talking about in our first fragments above, but with a more upbeat take-home message--
"Goodbye, Apollo, Son of Leto and Zeus.
Now we have learned to give the gods their due
and to take heart when we're driven by disaster.
In the end, the good get what's good.
The bad, by nature, get what's bad."

[Ion, Lines 1588-1592, translated by Di Piero and Burian, 1996]
I think what I love the most about reading these plays is the joy of discovering all of this amazing poetry!  Sometimes I wish that I could read these lines in the original Greek, but for now I must rely upon the expertise and talents of the translators to do their best in preserving and interpreting the author's original intent as well as the aesthetics of the work as a whole.  For these reasons, perhaps the job of translator is even more difficult than that of author, I don't know.  I do know though that, for me, a new translation is much like a box of chocolates--you never quite know what you have until you've opened it and read it.  Some you just like better than others, and others just miss the mark entirely.  I now spend a lot of time researching various translations of works that I am interested in acquiring.  Using all of the book reviews of my fellow book-bloggers, and the reviews and discussions I access via my on-line book groups (i.e., Goodreads and Shelfari) has really allowed me to hone in on the right editions to purchase and read.  In fact, I think it is fair to say that most of what I'm reading these days (and for the past few years) is a direct result of my daily interactions with all of you, and for that I'll always be eternally grateful!

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