Garry Wills observes that the classics “are no longer vital to the culture” (modern secular culture), and he takes Sherod Santos’s selection of Greek Lyric Poetry as a symptom of that decay [“Slop and Gossip,” October 2005]. There is no question that we have lost the intimacy with the Greek and Latin poets that educated readers in the later Renaissance and the eighteenth century could assume. Wills, with his own superb classical training, usefully points out instances where Santos has needlessly decorated the Greek or failed to take account of some crucial assumption shaping the original. But Wills’s devotion to the originals has deafened him to the artistic achievement in Santos’s collection.
Let me declare my interests (and conflicts therein). I looked over Santos’s versions in manuscript, though I didn’t have time to offer a poem-by-poem critique; I recognized the enterprise as what Dryden would have called “licentious.” I admired them sufficiently to praise them on the book jacket for “finding new harmonies for old, accepting change and reinvention as a law of art.” I should also say that I have translated a few poems by Sappho, Alcaeus, and Alcman myself, working closely from the Greek, so I know what it is to grieve over lost Greek metrics and crystalline diction.
While it’s true that Santos’s title announces “A New Translation,” in his introduction he admits his ignorance of Greek and calls his work “not proper translations, in the strict sense, but not exactly imitations or paraphrases or verse transfers either.” He thinks of them as “collaborations,” and that strikes me as a good description. Wills grants Santos “a deft quiet music,” but accuses him of not being “interested in or capable of dealing with” the formality of ancient Greek metrics and rhetorical convention. What is missing here is any appreciation for the subtle formality—let us retain that word—Santos brings to his reinventions. This is not slapdash free verse but an art of disciplined and lively cadences, bound sometimes by off-rhyme, sometimes by disposition in well-weighed couplets, tercets, or larger stanzas, with the syntax cannily ferrying the sense forward beyond the linear bounds. The diction may strain here and there, but that is a small price to pay for its savor and idiomatic freshness. Doesn’t it matter that Santos has made living poems in English? Look at his version of Alcaeus’s ship in the storm:
I can’t make sense of these offshore winds.
One lumbering comber crests this way,
the next one crests the other,
and in between we’re bandied about,
barely afloat in our steep-hulled ship.
Compare it to Diane Rayor’s worthy, semantically accurate rendition, and you see the difference between art and trot:
I don’t understand the conflict of the winds,
one wave rolls round from this side,
another from that, and we in the middle
with our black ship are carried along . . .
Occasionally, Santos’s delight in the poems, coupled with his lack of feel for Greek, can lead to inflated phrasing. It is an effect of generosity, of ebullience, and it overruns the economy essential to Greek lyric beauty. Yet in most of these cases Santos has not betrayed the originals so much as amplified them in his imagination. So in Alcman’s fragment about the sleeping creatures of the night, Santos expands the landscape to include “the low scrub thickets and the riverine glades” and several other features absent from the original, and concludes in a lush line of summation (“all are asleep in the depthless conjuring of that sound”), whereas Alcman ended simply with the long-winged birds. Why begrudge the modern poet his riff? It has its own beauty, and Alcman’s birds survive.
It is not as if Sappho & Co. had fared so very well in the classicizing centuries. Each era imposes its own poetic conventions and inventions upon the classics. Sappho’s first appearance in English, in 1652 in John Hall’s version of her famous “Phainetai moi” (“He seems to me equal to the gods”), traded in all the clinical specificities of the Greek for sausage links of clichés (“sweet languors to my ravish’d heart”) far worse than Santos’s occasional indulgences. And if one traces the history of that poem in English, one finds betrayal after betrayal.
Santos is not a classicist. He does not know Greek. But his poems plucked from the Greek Anthology have more vitality, strength, and delicacy than a good number of so-called original works that cram the pages of our magazines these days. Why not be grateful?