Last summer, I was invited to attend a weeklong seminar on ancient Greek lyric poetry at the Center for Hellenic Studies, in Washington, D.C., taught by Professor Gregory Nagy (“Naj”), head of the classics department at Harvard University. Why I was one of 18 professors selected from a wide pool of applicants, I do not know (I don’t even have a Ph.D.), though I imagine it might have had something to do with my being a poet; that might have been a kind of diversity that Professor Nagy desired. Most of us were generalists, not classicists, with a few theater people tossed in as well. In any case, I was excited by the prospect of being a student again, if only for a week.
My books arrived in early July – Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho; Anthony Verity’s translations of Pindar; Robert Fagles’ translations of Bacchylides; and an anthology of these and more translated by Richmond Lattimore. I spent that month reading those ancient poets at Lakeside, where my wife, Olga-Maria, and I are members. It is an old limestone quarry that has been subtly transformed over the years into a first-rate swim club; appropriate to my assigned reading list, its copious stonework and flowerbeds lent an air of Mediterranean elegance. And so I passed a very pleasant mid-summer betwixt ages – the ancients in my hands, the lake before me and small airplanes puttering to and fro overhead.
My greatest pleasure that month was reading Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho. Carson is both a professor at Princeton University and a poet, and the author of Eros the Bittersweet, selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time. She brings to Sappho’s lines an intelligence and a creative intuition. Remarkably, only one poem of Sappho’s survives whole, and none in her own hand. The rest are fragments. Carson honors those gaps with lacunae in the text where the missing words would have been, and I found the many silences within and around the lines to be tantalizing – “an imaginal adventure,” in Carson’s words.
We know so little about Sappho. (In the Dictionary of Lesbian Biography, the page for Sappho is left blank, so as to allow the reader to project his or her version.) Carson’s book of translations is titled If Not, Winter, which is a line from Sappho’s fragment 22. I break her title down thusly: If, because what little that remains of Sappho’s poems is so iffy (sometimes only quoted by others); Not, because it is a negation, beginning perhaps with the physical degradation of the papyri on which her poems were discovered; and Winter, because of the whiteness of so many of the pages. Taken together, If Not, Winter is a title, a statement, a fragment of syntax – but not, I think, a fragment of meaning.
The renowned classics scholar Gregory Nagy, our guru, was a true eminence grise. Tall, rumpled, encyclopedic, he held court in the glass meeting house. The Center for Hellenic Studies’ campus consists of two-story white-washed cottages lining a narrow road that leads to the headquarters, an elegant neoclassical building with meeting rooms, a library, and a central courtyard studded with amphorae. Nagy stayed in a compact mansion behind the center. The campus sits just off Embassy Row, Massachusetts Avenue, across the street from Hilary Clinton’s house. (The Secret Service even had a code name for us: the “white cult.”) A path through the woods of the Naval Observatory, where the vice president lives, leads to the restaurants on Wisconsin Avenue. One student asked if the path was safe, and we were assured that we were probably in the safest spot in North America. The Center is funded by Harvard, the Greek government, and Nagy himself.
It was in the glass meeting house that we did most of our cogitating. We began with Sappho, and, in some ways, Sappho remained our touchstone. To me, she is the most engaging of the ancients, for the beauty and the elegance of her lines– even the single lines that survive from some of her poems. Fragment 162 reads in its entirety, “with what eyes?” Fragment 153 reads, “girl sweetvoiced.” Greek is a modular language, like German – words can be stacked like building blocks – and so we get these odd yet beautiful compound adjectives. Fragment 138 reads, “stand to face me beloved / and open out the grace of your eyes.” Sappho, the poet of love, wrote in Fragment 130:
Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me –
Sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in
On looking at a handsome man, she wrote, “a thin fire is running under my skin.” Of the power of love, she wrote, “Eros shook my / mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees.” Of what matters most in this world, she wrote:
Some men say an army on horse and some men say an army on foot
and some men say an army of ships
is the most beautiful thing on the black earth.
But I say it is
what you love
Professor Nagy, who insisted on being addressed simply as “Greg,” was a sweet man, unfailingly complimentary toward his students. His mind ranged far and wide. A typical sentence of his might reference Homer, the artist Davíd, the Disney character Steamboat Willie and Persian ululation. How to praise a man whose intellect is unique, sine qua non? He is undoubtedly the preeminent classics scholar in America, and to spend time in his presence was a gift from the gods. He and his protégé, Kenny Morrell, a professor at Rhodes University in Memphis, who facilitated the seminar, professed a deep love of language and an essential kindness to everyone in the room. Observing them, I felt as though I learned as much about teaching as about ancient poetry. They commented, they annotated, they nudged. And when someone got something a little wrong, they offered what they called a “friendly amendment.” Very generous. I am going to borrow that for my own students.
Classicists pay close attention to language, and yet they work with a very compromised set of data. The field is transformative, multi-disciplinary, and connective to cultural origins. Nagy quoted Nietzsche: close reading means “to take time, to become slow, to read slowly, deeply, with the doors left wide open. To read with delicate eyes and with the fingers of a goldsmith.” I like the idea of reading with one’s fingers – a delicacy, like Braille.
Nagy reminded us that Sappho was a musician, and that all of her music is lost to us. Only the words remain. Some words. Thus, the original experience of Sappho cannot be recovered. We have entirely lost the performative aspect of ancient poetry, and, as one who has had the pleasure of hearing a few of my own poems set to music (by my colleague Richard Burchard), and performed by a chorus, I can tell you that it is a vastly different experience from merely reading lines on a page.
And yet, reading Sappho, even what little has survived, is, for this poet, what hearing the original big bang must be like for the physicist – reaching back and touching the origins of the universe. Along with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, it is the Ur-text of our humanity. I look forward to reintroducing some of these ancient poets to my freshmen and sophomores.
Each evening, after a long day of seminars, I took the path through the woods to Wisconsin Avenue and the Bistro Lepic, a fine little French restaurant. I needed some time to clear my head, to soak up the day. A glass of wine and a plate of escargot helped immensely.
Frederick Smock is associate professor of English at Bellarmine University. His new book of poems is The Bounteous World, from Broadstone Books.