Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

S. J. Harrison (ed.), Living Classics: Greece and Rome in Contemporary Poetry in English. Classical Presences. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xiv, 346. ISBN 9780199233731. $99.00.

Reviewed by Roger Rees, St Andrews University

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

OUP's already massively rangy Classical Presences series pushes its frontiers further afield still with this unusual collection of perspectives on aspects of Greek and Roman Classics as represented in some English language poetry since c.1960. It is unusual because the various volumes in the series are generally written by and for academics: Living Classics has ten such 'scholarly' articles in its Part Three; Part One, meanwhile, consists of five essays by contemporary poets about their use of Classics in their poetry (two of the five, Robert Crawford and Anna Jackson, are practising academics, but they contribute here as poets); and Part Two reprints Tony Harrison's preface to his Euripides: Hecuba (Faber and Faber 2005) and Seamus Heaney's Jayne Lecture (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 148 (2004)). The analytical stance that dominates Part Three offsets the often confessional and sometimes journalistic modes of Parts One and Two to curious effect, but the book's 'eclectic' nature which Stephen Harrison immediately announces in his useful introduction (p.1) should win the volume a wide readership.

Harrison's Introduction efficiently sets out an expansive context for Classics in modern English poetry, including trends in education and linguistic competences, translation, the book trade and the theatre, as well as critical political episodes, such as the Second Gulf war, and wider social issues, such as class and gender. A great deal is squeezed into sixteen pages, and inevitably there is an occasional tendency to present information without analysis; a more generous word-count could also have allowed for instructive reference to trends, equivalent or otherwise, in modern poetry in languages other than English. That said, what there is here is knowledgeable and assured.

Part One begins with Maureen Almond's presentation of eleven poems, each followed by a brief commentary, from her The Works (2004), a narrative collection setting themes and incidents from Horace's Epodes in the context of the social backdrop to industrial Teesside in the 1950s. In discursive prose, the commentaries offer a mixture of insights into Almond's own biography and her understanding of Horace, largely indebted to West's translation (1997) and Hills' literary biography (2005). More after the fashion of a modern poet's introductory words before reading at a recitation than in the manner of academic literary criticism, these commentaries increase the accessibility of Almond's wistful and zestful work.

Josephine Balmer uses her own experiences of creating English versions of poems by Sappho, Corinna, Catullus and Ovid to illustrate the 'unique challenges – and rewards' of translation (p.44). Professional classicists will immediately recognise the intellectual and methodological challenges Balmer discusses, such as stylistic registers, authorial contexts, comic effects and jokes, and incomplete texts – without necessarily having tried to render Greek or Latin into publishable English, academics regularly wrestle with such issues. Balmer's discussion of the uplifting emotional dimension of translating and translation, which underlies much of the chapter and is brought out explicitly and powerfully on two occasions, is welcome for being less widely familiar.

Robert Crawford's is a grand tour of an essay, starting at Maes Howe on Orkney, moving to Sappho's 'Hespere' fragment (104a L/P), Michael Longley's and Anne Carson's engagements with it, in addition to his own version, George Buchanan and Arthur Johnston, and on the way some details of his own autobiography and bibliography. There are some contrived links articulating this, and also some over-reaching claims which not all poets or poetry readers will accept, such as 'the deep and continuing human need for attunement with the wider patterns of creation' (p.70), but the lasting impression is of the precision and sensitivity of Crawford's criticism of translation practice and translations (or, in some cases, versions), including his own.

Anna Jackson uses translation theory's regular 'domesticating/ foreignising' polarity as the sounding board for her reflective presentation of seven poems from her 2003 collection Catullus for Children, although the poems are not, in fact, 'translations' according to any conventional understanding of that practice; in effect, Jackson argues for a new or, at least, extended sense of the term 'domesticating' to allow it to encapsulate the 'domestic' world of her relationship with her young children in New Zealand, as expressed in her poems. The argument seems to me unnecessary and ultimately rather manufactured, but it has the signal virtue of setting a context for some interesting poems.

Michael Longley's opening sentence – 'I have been Homer-haunted for fifty years' (p.97) – includes a catchily alliterative reinvention of Homer's compound adjective, and the essay, which is largely autobi(bli)ography, is very elegantly phrased throughout. Classicist literary critics are unable to interrogate their authors viva voce, so Part One of this volume will take much of its standard scholarly readership into unfamiliar and even experimental critical territory. But I was struck by some continuities too: Longley's rather vatic 'I was only his [sc.Homer's] mouthpiece' (p.105; cf 'Arachne starts with Ovid and finishes with me' the opening line of his poem 'Spiderwoman', given in full on p.175), recalls broadly similar moves made by some poets in antiquity.

The kernel of this collection was a conference in Oxford in 2005, but it is not clear from the preface (pp.vii-viii) if Tony Harrison and/or Seamus Heaney were in attendance. Republication of their discussions of recent versions of Greek tragedies (Harrison's Hecuba, 2005 and Heaney's The Burial at Thebes, 2004) makes Part Two a crisp and coherent section within the book, and of course lends it a degree of celebrity lustre. Fans of their work will probably know these discussions already, and it is perhaps a shame the opportunity was not taken to add afterthoughts, particularly as Harrison and Heaney take care to situate their versions in the very specific political contexts of their own time of writing; but both poet-playwrights offer interesting insights into their own literary modus operandi and aspirations, and the juxtaposition of their discussions is an editorial triumph.

Poets and academics are involved in related but different projects, (and at times in reality this necessarily gives rise to discord and fractiousness) but Living Classics generally presents an impression of a tension-free alliance, as if the creative and critical discourses were involved in a well-natured and collaborative enterprise of vitalising Greek and Latin literary culture. For example, the attitude towards Michael Longley taken in each of the first three chapters of Part Three is of commendatory endorsement. Maureen Alden's brief contribution opens with a discussion of a passage from Herodotus which serves to explain Longley's poem 'Aschy'; this itself is enlightening and helpful, much more so than Alden's trenchant exposition of some bitter details of the collapse in the relationship between the Longleys (Michael and his wife Edna) and the John Hewitt Summer School in the mid 1990s. Similarly partisan, though blander in expression, are Brian Arkins and Oliver Taplin, who both open in laudatory voice: 'Michael Longley is not only one of Ireland's leading contemporary poets, but in the words of John Burnside, 'one of the finest lyric poets of our century' (Arkins, p.152) and 'Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley are, I do not hesitate to assert, two of the finest poets of our times in the English language' (Taplin, p.163). Although Alden, Arkins and Taplin make some keen-eyed observations, it seems for them criticism of living poets is a more complicated challenge than classicists are used to.

Lorna Hardwick attempts a more ambitious essay than most, using Longley and Brian Friel as examples to illustrate the inadequacy of the ideas of 'accuracy' and 'faithfulness' that have often been associated with 'translation' practice. Word-count restrictions perhaps dictated that Hardwick's conclusions had to be briefly expressed – a pity, as some consideration of whether or not Longley and Friel are typical of 'Living Classics' would have been interesting. As both authors are from Northern Ireland, there lurks the possibility that something culturally very specific is afoot.

Perhaps more than most 20th century poets, Sylvia Plath has been subject to closely biographical readings, and unsurprisingly, such is the approach taken in Anastasia Bakogianni's heavily annotated essay on two Plath poems about Otto Plath, her father. There have been moves to reject this biographical determinism, as Bakogianni acknowledges in the final paragraph, but the close reading of the two poems which figure the first-person in Electra-like terms justifies the approach; what is not clear, despite the detailed reference to Plath's medical, literary and emotional histories, is where and how she encountered the Electra myth herself.

Although Edith Hall does not dwell on it, the subject of her chapter – a verse novel Autobiography of Red - is by an academic classicist. Anne Carson holds a PhD in Classics, has been on the Faculty at Michigan and McGill and has published translations of Sappho, Euripides and Aeschylus. Hall characterises Autobiography of Red as 'flamboyantly intellectual' (p.223) and closes that circle by interpreting the novel's examination of a postmodern understanding of western selfhood against Stesichorus, Dante and Heidegger. This disconcerting novel needs critics like Hall.

Hall's dizzying intensity yields to a survey of an essay by Rowena Fowler, on poetic 'conversations' (p.240) with the Aeneid. Fowler is a very elegant guide through a varied and engaging range of generally lyrical and reflective poems by readers of Vergil - Fleur Adcock, Eavan Boland, Medbh McGuckian, U.A. Fanthorpe, Rachel Hadas, Anne Ridler, Stevie Smith, Louise Glück, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, and in prose, Margaret Drabble. Aeneid books 2, 4 and 6 seem to dominate this landscape, a preference much in keeping with antiquity's own.

Derek Walcott's best known engagement with Classical literature is his epic Omeros, and so Emily Greenwood's essay on traces of Latin in his wider work will encourage a more balanced assessment of the poet. Underlying Greenwood's stylish prose are some research data typical of the classical philologist, such as lexical statistics, etymological threads and nomenclature. A less familiar resource for the classicist is the rich supply of a poet's self-reflexive observation, available via journalistic criticism, from which Greenwood also takes several bearings. The synergy is powerful.

Isobel Hurst relates poetry to prevailing ideology and sociology to persuasive effect in her discussion of US women's poetry across four decades from 1958. These years saw the triumphal march of feminist enlightenment in social and intellectual spheres in the US, and Hurst demonstrates how this found cohesive expression in poetic versions of Homer's Penelope. Work by Eve Merriam, Cynthia MacDonald, Louise Glück, Angela Jackson, Jorie Graham and above all Linda Pastan is covered in a historicising critique which sensibly focuses on gender politics.

In the book's final chapter, editor Stephen Harrison resets the focus to a narrow gauge in a close reading of versions of Catullus by the New Zealand poets James K. Baxter and C.K. (Karl) Stead. Harrison seems most at ease when applying his formidable philological skills to the relationship between the modern poems and the Catullan hypertexts (his feel for nuance and possibility in diction in particular is very rewarding); understandably, he appears less comfortable in his conclusion when he canvases reasons for the popularity of Catullus Down Under.

This is an interesting book, with a great sense of doors opening; in particular, I imagine several of the essays in Part Three will go on to be viewed as seminal 'opinion formers' in the scholarly literature on their topics, and those in Parts One and Two will, in the first instance, be essential reading for biography-led criticism of their authors' poetry. The book aspires to be neither consistent nor comprehensive in its coverage, so in some respects its appearance in a scholarly series, as well as its subtitle, could be thought a little misleading. But with or without its dust-jacket's amusing photograph, Living Classics will have a very busy if not very long shelf-life.

Presentation, etc. is of a high standard.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Return of Classics (Stephen Harrison)

Part One: Poets and Practice
1 Horace on Teesside (Maureen Almond)
2 Jumping their Bones: Translating, transgressing, and Creating (Josephine Balmer)
3 Reconnecting with the Classics (Robert Crawford)
4 Catullus in the Playground (Anna Jackson)
5 Lapsed Classicist (Michael Longley)

Part Two: Poets in the Theatre
6. Weeping for Hecuba (Tony Harrison)
7. Title Deeds: Translating a Classic (Seamus Heaney)

Part Three: Scholars on Poets
8. The Argippaei (Herodotus 4.23) in Belfast (Maureen Alden)
9. Michael Longley Appropriates Latin Poetry (Brian Arkins)
10. The Homeric Convergences and Divergencies of Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley (Oliver Taplin)
11. Is 'the Frail Silken line' Worth more than 'a fart in a Bearskin'? or, how Translation practice matters in Poetry and Drama (Lorna Hardwick)
12. Electra in Sylvia Plath's Poetry: A Case of Identification (Anastasia Bakogianni)
13. The Autobiography of the Western Subject: Carson's Geryon (Edith Hall)
14. 'Purple Shining Lilies': Imagining the Aeneid in Contemporary Poetry (Rowena Fowler)
15. Shades of Rome in the Poetry of Derek Walcott (Emily Greenwood)
16. 'We'll all be Penelopes then': Art and Domesticity in American Women's Poetry, 1958-1996 (Isobel Hurst)
17. Catullus in New Zealand: Baxter and Stead (Stephen Harrison)

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