Essay

And the Winner Is . . . Pindar!

Can any modern poet beat the world record Pindar set 25 centuries ago?

by Stephen Burt


Photo by Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

You may not associate ambitious poetry with sports at all, much less with the Olympics, but Pindar certainly did. Perhaps the most-praised poet (besides Homer) in Greek antiquity, and one of the earliest poets for whom many complete poems survive, Pindar (5th century B.C.E.) celebrated in his best-known work the victors in ancient Greek athletic festivals. We now call those poems his epinician odes (from epi, “upon,” and nike, victory): Pindar seems to have written each one on commission—the sponsor whose chariot won the chariot-race, or the family of a winning boxer, paid Pindar to compose verse about the event, which was then performed, with music and dancing.

Each of Pindar’s epinician odes designates in its title the games, the winner, and the event (e.g., Olympian, Theron of Akragas, chariot race). The odes honor both the aristocratic winner and his family or city-state, often by retelling an apposite myth. Pindar declares in Olympian XI that athletic victories require appropriate poems (meligarues humnoi, honey-sweet hymns) as crops require rain: in Frank Nisetich’s elegant translation,

Sometimes men need the winds most,
      at other times
            waters from the sky,
                  rain descendants of the cloud.
                  And when a man has triumphed
            and put his toil behind,
      it is time for melodious song
to arise, laying
            the foundation of future glory,
a sworn pledge securing proud success.

For Olympian victors, such acclaim
      is laid in store
            without limit, and I
            am eager to tend it with my song.

Sometimes modern Olympics are still tended with his song. The 1984 Los Angeles and 2004 Athens Olympics included classical scholars reciting Pindar, or reading their own commissioned “Pindaric” odes. Our term “athletics” comes from Greek games of the kind that Pindar praised, aethloi (competitions, or ordeals; the word can also denote battles) whose victors could take home an aethlon, a prize. Of all the games, Pindar said (and his audience would have agreed), the Olympics were most important: Olympian I begins, in Anthony Verity’s new rendition,

Water is best,
while gold gleams like blazing fire in the night,
brightest amid a rich man’s wealth;
but, my heart, if it is of games that you wish to sing,
look no further than the sun; as there is no star
that shines with more warmth by day from a clear sky,
so we can speak of no greater contest than Olympia.

Many epinician odes connect the present honor of athletic prizes with the honor and deeds of legendary heroes, especially those in the victor’s family tree.

Pindar has long been a byword for lofty inspiration, for poetic difficulty, and for the supposed connection between them, as if a poet so close to the gods and their power must dwell far from ordinary human speech. Writing in ancient Rome, Horace declared Pindar one of a kind; to copy his effects, Horace continued (Odes, 2.4), would be like trying to imitate a flood. Around 1629, Ben Jonson composed the “Cary-Morison Ode,” the first English poem to imitate Pindar’s complex but regular three-part form. Many poets (though not Jonson) identified Pindar with wildness, irregularity, and mysterious, even supernatural, influence.

Pindar’s language really is difficult, partly because his stanzas use words and sounds from many Greek dialects, rather than staying with one. The 17th-century poet Abraham Cowley called Pindaric composition “the noblest and highest kind of writing in verse,” even though he also claimed, “If a man should undertake to translate Pindar word for word, it would be thought that one Mad-man had translated another.” Cowley then translated Pindar anyway, and wrote his own elaborate “Pindaric” odes.


In Pindar’s Footsteps

Twentieth-century poets, following Cowley, remembered Pindar as a poet of sublime victories over language, not as a poet of well-born athletes who wrestled and raced. The few exceptions to this rule are strongly ironic: Robert Pinsky’s resonant “Glory,” for example, or Delmore Schwartz’s “Exercise in Preparation for a Pindaric Ode to Carl Hubbell,” a self-mocking poem about the Brooklyn Dodgers’ decline. Robert Duncan’s vivid “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar” takes up—as classical scholars now also take up—Pindar’s interest in the life of the state, in the virtues of rulers and politics: “This is magic,” Duncan says, then goes on to list American presidents (“Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower”) in whom no poetic magic lay. For Duncan, as for his 17th-century forebears, Pindar had something to do with majesty, history, and tradition, and with ancient ritual, but very little to do with athletic events.

Modern poems about sports, on the other hand, forget Pindar, and many of them forget about victories too: perhaps from a sense of fairness, perhaps from the contrarian impulse endemic to modernism, the poets of the past century most often laud things and people who would not (without the poet’s attention) get the respect they deserve. A.E. Housman was also a classical scholar: his popular “To an Athlete Dying Young” (1896) is the exception that proves the rule, making a local boy’s recent triumph (“the time you won your town the race”) an occasion to remind us all that we will die. More recent poets who address sports tend to describe either losing teams, or else amateurs, who could use the recognition that poetry gives. Consider the ex-NFLer “Big Daddy Lipscomb” in Randall Jarrell’s 1965 poem about him, “who found football easy enough, life hard enough / To . . . die of heroin”; consider the tennis players in Robert Hass’ “Old Dominion” (1979), “graceful from this distance” but stressed-out up close (the same poem laments the death of Jarrell).

Poems about basketball and about ice skating (Mary Jo Salter’s “Sunday Skaters,” Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Slam, Dunk, & Hook,” Ed Hirsch’s “Fast Break,” Major Jackson’s “Hoops”) seem more likely than poems about other sports to emulate, in the suspensions and arcs of their own verse, the skillful motions that the athletes themselves undertake. Yet those same poems (including all four named above) also emphasize the amateur, impromptu nature of the contests that they portray. They emphasize, too, the fact that contests always end. For Salter (whose skaters are children), “It’s all / about time, about time!” For Jackson, “a sneaker’s a cave” and a playground dunk could be a prelude to oblivion. Modern poems that do show competitive victors come down hard on victory’s irony, on what the winners gave up in order to win: Donald Finkel’s “Interview with a Winner” begins “What was it like? / like losing” and continues “For what? / to do it again.” Elizabeth Alexander’s fine 12-part “Narrative: Ali” dwells mostly on Muhammad Ali’s setbacks away from the ring: “Olympic gold / can’t buy a black man / a Louisville hamburger / in nineteen-sixty.” After such slights “The People’s Champ,” “The Greatest,” must boast (“come and take me”) in order to keep back his own self-doubt.

The critic Don Johnson, who wrote The Sporting Muse: A Critical Study of Poetry About Athletes and Athletics and edited the baseball-poetry book Hummers, Knucklers, and Slow Curves, believes that each team sport implies its own poetic subject: American football means pain and injury. Baseball means nostalgia and inheritance from fathers (not mothers) to daughters and sons. Basketball, with its fluid moves, fast pace and high leaps, means escape, self-transcendence, stopped time. Ice hockey, as Johnson does not say, frequently means Canada (Randall Maggs would likely agree); poems about women’s sports usually invoke women’s solidarity, and focus (with recent exceptions) on amateur or noncompetitive events.

What gets lost in many of these poems is the analogy that Pindar’s work implies, between technical excellence in one craft—the handling of a chariot, the running of a race, a serve, an assist—and technical or professional excellence in another: the handling of words. Jarrell used to make that analogy in conversation. Asked how he knew if a poet was any good, Jarrell used to respond (I paraphrase), “How do you know that Johnny Unitas is any good?”

Pindar sometimes predicted that his odes would make victors’ names last: he was right, too. (Here we are, reading about Theron of Akragas.) Can anyone now alive imitate Pindar by writing memorable verse in a living language about an Olympic champion? Should a contemporary poet even try? No one now speaks, as a first language, Pindar’s Greek, and no public ceremony provides the occasion for complex versification that Pindar and his rival poets-for-hire enjoyed. Few Anglophone poets these days want to confer divine sanction on sporting triumphs, much less on the nation-states that the Olympics glorify.

You might, however, say that modern doubts provide all the more reason to imitate Pindar, or at least to try, if we write about sports at all. Despite their obvious elements of chance (does the wind help or hinder the javelin-thrower? will that last three-pointer fall?), athletic competitions can seem like an oasis of justice in an unfair world; sports are one of the few parts of human life where we can see, and choose en masse to see, superior skill or effort (years of practice for individual events; months of learning to play as a team) receive an immediate, evident reward.

If we are looking for modern poets who celebrate triumphs in sports, we can find them, but we may have to look in unexpected places. W.H. Auden said that poetry was the clear expression of mixed feelings. Modern poems about competitive sports, with their praise for losers and the amateurs, their ironies for the winners, fit that rubric; so does Geoffrey Hill’s long poem, The Triumph of Love (1998). His vast knowledge of the past seems at times to match his contempt for the present, and his poem found “Stunned words of victory less memorable / than those urged from defeat.” Yet Hill nonetheless found something to praise, and something to emulate, as he watched the Boston Marathon:

                              how
amazing it still is, the awaited name
hailed through our streets, under the pale leafage,
springing from the hierarchies of splendour
and salutation, prodigious messengers
with their own heralds and outriders—
yes, look! the Kenyan runners, look, there they go!
stippled with silver, shaking off the light
garlands of sweat—

Hill’s laudatory passage breaks off unfinished: one of the runners will win, and the race goes on.

Originally Published: August 21, 2008

COMMENTS (7)

On August 22, 2008 at 8:34am John wrote:
Many thanks to Stephen

Burt for his thoughts on

sport and poetry. He writes

as a poet and lover of

sport; I as an

anthropologist who admire

but have failed at both.

Pindar, to me, seems

beyond imitation, not so

much because of his

achievements, but rather

because of his position in

his world. He wrote for

tyrants who had won in the

Nemean or Pythian or

Olympian games, tyrants

who put him up in their

courts. The men he

celebrated were the

wealthiest and most

powerful, commanding

armies and fleets to crush

their foes at sea (battle of

Himera, Pythian 1) and not

just in the stadium. The

athletes were aristocrats

who could buy a celebration

of their achievements and

have them compared

(implicitly) to current the

heavenly regime (again,

Pythian 1 illustrates this

perfectly).

This comparison of ancient

to modern highlights, in my

mind, the circumscribed

positions of the modern

poet and the modern

athlete. Their social roles

have shifted so drastically.

I find it hard to imagine the

men and women from our

most privileged families

being able to control access

to international games.

When the Olympics were

revived, this was still a

possibility perhaps, but

sport today has become a

means of empowerment

and social mobility as much

as an issue of glory.

And poets are no longer

vying for a place in

aristocratic rites of display

and self-promotion. The

triumph of prose has left

that game to certain

journalists.

So I'm left wondering

whether the changed

circumstances (and our lack

of a comparable myth-

world as a language of

praise) have left Pindar out

of the poetic canon for

sport-poets.

On August 22, 2008 at 1:25pm K. Silem Mohammad wrote:
http://www.shawnjohnson.net/inspiration/poems.aspx

On August 28, 2008 at 2:08pm Henry Gould wrote:
In the 20th century, there is also "The Horseshoe Finder : a Pindaric Fragment", by Osip Mandelstam. (see a translation by Steven J. Willett here : http://www.bu.edu/arion/Volume9/9.2/willett92.pdf ).

Mandelstam turns the victory ode into a plangent elegy for (Everypoet's) "failure", and an exploration (very Pindaric, in this way) of the dynamics of poet, poem & reader - text and life - "letter" and "spirit".

On August 28, 2008 at 2:25pm Henry Gould wrote:
... another thing Mandelstam does with this poem is to invert his neoclassical/Acmeist demand (here roughly translated) for - "not just the poems - we want the living, breathing Ovid..." -

in the idiom of the "Horseshoe Finder", the speaker BECOMES Pindar; his generation of poets, living through the living death of Stalin's era, are identified with an archaic past, with lost archaeological fragments - "not enough left for myself".

Which is one dimension of Mandelstam's overall poetic strategy, an Olympic race against time itself.

On August 29, 2008 at 7:25am Henry Gould wrote:
One more thought on this & then I'll pipe down.

Mandelstam's Pindaric fragment is relevant in another way, in the particular context of Stephen's essay. M. was one of Stalin's most prominent literary victims, basically killed off because of a satirical poem he recited about Stalin himself. "The Horseshoe Finder", written in 1923, serves as a kind of coda to M's classical/Acmeist period. It was followed by 5 years of increasing political ostracism, and poetic silence on his part.

Stephen's post is about the Olympics, Pindar, and poetry & athletics. Russia's post-Soviet Stalin epigone, Putin, used the occasion of the 29th Games as cover for an aggressive attack on Georgia - with the aim of recovering control over Ossetia - Stalin's native region, and Stalin's home town. (This was the athletic display of Putin, former KGB man & judo afficionado.)

M.'s Pindaric ode is an "archeological" voice from the grave of Stalin's era - and a literary counterpoint to Putin's actions today.

On July 30, 2012 at 8:42pm Bill wrote:
My only complaint about this story is, in essence, my complaint about Pindar's surviving poems. "Here we are, reading about Theron of Akragas," indeed, but he was no athlete. He was the ruler of a city, granted an Olympic victory because he owned the fastest horses. Pindar wrote expensive poems for wealthy people. In a few cases that meant poems commissioned by the towns where great athletes were born (Diagoras of Rhodes comes to mind); but in many cases he was the mouthpiece of the wealthy dynasts who would not be able to distinguish themselves in the modern Olympics.

That said, Pindar had a reputation for brilliant poetry in the ancient world. He had 17 volumes in the Alexandrian library. The only four surviving volumes are his athletic victory odes. Perhaps if more poems of other genres had survived, he would not come across as a toady to the political elite.

On October 31, 2013 at 12:29pm obyh wrote:
looser

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 Stephen  Burt

Biography

Stephen Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” He grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. Burt has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and Popular Music (1999).

Burt's works of criticism include Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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