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Poetry review from World Poetry: Pindar

Every so often I try to dissect poetry from a tome titled World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time . It does not skimp on the poetry, and happily includes selections from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas as well as Europe and the Middle East. While the editors provide introductions to the major sections, they do not provide context for any particular pieces of poetry or group of poems. If the reader doesn’t happen to be a scholar of world history or a particularly well-read in world mythology, s/he misses a whole lot without resorting to other resources when reading this book. It has been my gripe about it since page 1 and I don’t see any reason for the gripe to be lessened the more I read. So there.

When discussing this, I’ll try to furnish the context the book overlooks with the caveat that I’m not a historian or expert in poetry, mythology or whatever else would be required to provide the latest academic scuttlebutt. But, by the mighty Norse skald god Braggi (I’m not making that one up), I can go looking.

Today, I’m looking at the World Poetry entry on the Greek lyric poet Pindar (518-446 BCE or thereabouts). Excerpts from three different works are included: “For Agesidamus,” “The Hyperboreans,” and “For Midas.” The first and third are “victory odes." The first is a tribute to a winner of boys’ boxing match in an Olympic competition. The last speaks not of Midas with the gold touch but a real human who won a flute-playing competition. The second, “The Hyperboreans” deals with a classical myth of a paradise said to be “beyond the North Winds” which, for the Greeks, came from Thrace.

For the Olympian winner of the boys’ boxing:

Yes Agesidamus, trust to it now
that you’re living up to your gift for fists, you sprig of Archestratus
now, this talisman cast in song—I fling is over you olive wreath
to blaze its bloom of gold and the stock of Lorcis
where the West Wind waits to fill our sails.
(p. 106)

The section from the Hyperboreans is actually quite lovely, depicting a paradise (but there’s always a catch, which I won’t give away):

The dance whirls them away:
Age or disease, no toil,
Battle or ill-day’s luck
Can touch them, they
Are holy, they
Will outlast time, exempted
From the anger of the Goddess
And all decay.
(p. 107)

The last, “For Midas” is Victory Ode from a Panhellenic competition called a Pythian XII. The book dates the competition to 409 BCE.

I ask you
lover of brightness
men’s fairest city
Persephone’s home & throne
well built, set on a hill
by Akragas’ sheep grazed banks
kind, gentle to gods & men alike
take this crown
from Pytho for good Midas
& Midas as well
who beat Hellas at the craft
Pallas discovered
in the insolent Gorgons’
deadly song
unraveled by Athena
maidens worn out
sorrow shed
under snake infested heads
when Perseus slew
their third sister
he brought the Seriphians
their lot, their fate
darkened the ineffable race
of Phorkos, his share for
Polydektes’ feast
—his mother’s coffer
eternal bondage & bed of need
Medusa’s fair cheeks
her head cut off
by Danae’s son, born
I know, from a gush of gold
flux of itself (
pp. 107-108)

I have to wonder if even the contemporaries got all the allusions. Of course, the presentation is the translator’s.

A note in Wikipedia says that Pindar is not often read anymore and I can understand this: at least from these examples, he comes across as obtuse and rather difficult to read.


Yesterday’s review: “How to Break into the Gift Market” by Claire Bateman

Last World Poetry review: Aeschylus




Classical myth of Hyperborea


© 2015 Denise Longrie

Image Credit » by RonPorter

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alexdg1 wrote on August 3, 2015, 10:12 AM

I tend to prefer Shakespeare to translations from ancient Greek. The only exceptions to that rule are Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."

Feisty56 wrote on August 3, 2015, 11:49 AM

You're absolutely right -- context makes all the difference in trying to understand and enjoy the poetry from both cultures unfamiliar and times long gone by. I've often thought that the way history should be taught would encompass more than dry dates and statistics. If we were taught about everything going on in the world at a particular time, including the literature of the day, I think I would have enjoyed it more and certainly had a better understanding of the sum of it.

msiduri wrote on August 3, 2015, 12:31 PM

I happen to be an ancient history buff but never studied it in school because, particularly in high school, it's so incredibly dry! And now from what little academic stuff trickles down to me it's almost like the trend is, "We'll never know...."

CoralLevang wrote on August 3, 2015, 1:03 PM

I was also finding it difficult to read, so you made me feel better at the end, when you mentioned that! emoticon :winking: BTW. Check your Title..

msiduri wrote on August 3, 2015, 1:07 PM

I think maybe because I'm interested mythology and ancient history these things tend to capture more of my imagination.

msiduri wrote on August 3, 2015, 1:09 PM

Damn! I mean, of course, thanks for the heads up. emoticon :smile:

AliCanary wrote on August 3, 2015, 8:23 PM

Gotta love a first paragraph that ends with "so there"! I agree; I find any book exceedingly frustrating when it assumes the reader is exceedingly knowledgable. I think it's perfectly possible to write for an intelligent reader while still including supporting information. I think authors who write in the former way are either ridiculously snobbish and elitist or exceptionally lazy, and it is proper to call them out.

msiduri wrote on August 3, 2015, 10:25 PM

Well, ahem. About that first paragraph. Sometimes a little smart alecky comments just have to come out.

The point of the book is poetry, not history or mythology, of course, but the two things are not completely separate.