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World Poetry: Some Works from the Bronze and Iron Ages

This book has been sitting quietly on my shelf for a while. I’ve skimmed through it a number of times, but never read it cover to cover. I’m going to start that now, making remarks as I go.

The poems are arranged chronologically and grouped by language and geography. The first section is dedicated to the Bronze and Iron Ages.

One of the things I noticed immediately is that there are few explanatory notes. Granted, the editors are poets, not historian, but a few well-written notes could, IMHO, enhance the reading experience. For example, in the excerpt from the Epic of Gilgamesh , Shamash is mentioned without hinting that Shamash is a sun deity and a god of justice, which is relevant to the passage. I happen to know this because I’m an ancient history nerd. My screen name, msiduri is based on that of a minor character from the Epic of Gilgamesh .

The first poem in the section is a short item, which the introduction refers to as an exorcism. It was originally written in Akkadin, the oldest known Semitic language (that is, it’s related to Hebrew and Arabic). Reading it gives the feeling of repetition with variations, so I assume is was chanted.

The next selection is an excerpt from the Cycle of Inanna and Damuzi , a work always popular for its joyful explicit sexuality. This excerpt comes from Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer’s translation, Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth . I just happen to own a copy and have read it several times. Told you I was an ancient history nerd.

The excerpt from the Epic of Gilgamesh , mentioned above, dealt with the death of Enkidu, the companion of Gilgamesh. This, I felt, was a good choice. Not only does it make for a good story in and of itself, but it sets in motion Gilgamesh’s search for immortality, which takes up the rest of the story.

The last piece is titled, “Prayer to the Gods of the Night.” This is a nice little description of a town settling down for the night. The gods of the night are constellations. The author is looking for “truth” in a ritual sacrifice.

Editor Katherine Washburn says in their introduction that “My one invariable criterion for whether a poem deserved to be included in these pages was this: that it should be able to surprise and delight the common reader.”

So far, I think these poems meet that criterion. I would prefer a little more background info to help people understand the work, though.

World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time 1998

Eds: Katherine Washburn, John S. Major, and Clifton Fadiman

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