Fresh attention for the life-affirming poetry of Ancient Greek epitaphs

Guest post by Michael Wolfe

Cut These Words into My Stone, my book of Greek epitaphs in translation, came out recently from the JHU Press. Already the question I’m most often asked is, How did you come up with this book?  What moved you to make a collection of Greek epitaphs ?

It’s a natural question, whether you’re a Greek scholar or a layman. I’ll try to address it for both types of readers,  at the end of this post. First, let me offer some brief, more personal background about the whole project.

In my early twenties I managed to earn a B.A. in Classics  with only a passing glance at The Greek Anthology, the modern reader’s central collection of surviving ancient Greek epigrams and epitaphs. This is not unusual, I think. If you’re an undergraduate set on learning ancient Greek and reading some of the literature in eight semesters, you will likely start with Herodotus and Homer, tackle some Plato, and perhaps move on to the plays before you graduate. That was my experience at Wesleyan University in the late 1960s.

My first real exposure to The Greek Anthology came later, in the 1980s, through a little book of translations by the American poet Kenneth Rexroth. It was Rexroth who remarked that the personal voice of lyric emotion is a comparatively rare item in ancient Greek.  Sappho, Anacreon, Alcman, Archilochus, and a handful of other early lyric poets struck out in this direction, but their work exists mostly in fragments.  In The Greek Anthology, however, you find individual emotion expressed in short verses on almost all of its several thousand pages.

Being a practitioner and reader of lyric poetry, I felt an immediate affinity with the The Greek Anthology, where even the most effective poems are rarely more than a dozen lines long, and most are shorter. The compression, the succinct use of imagery, the occasional readiness to trust to raw emotion were all attractive features.  After reading Rexroth’s versions of a few of the epigrams,  I looked at other translations in English. But ten years went by before I had time to study the original Greek versions.

I found the volumes of The Greek Anthology in a Santa Barbara, Calif., bookstore in January 2002. Over the next two years, as time allowed, I would pull one or another of these little Loeb Classics off the shelf and pan through them like a prospector. I thought at first I might try translating some of the “amatory” epigrams, but in truth I found the Greek epigrams on love neither very original nor moving. It was Book VII, the “sepulchral epigrams” or epitaphs that consistently impressed. A chorus of gravestones incised with genuine voices speaking crisply and directly to the reader was very compelling.

Happily, a few of the epitaphs fell into English almost by themselves. From the start, the variety of lives they celebrate, their great range of tone, their economy and resonance held my interest.

Between 2004 and 2010, my trove of English versions grew. My goal with each epitaph was to make a reasonable English poem while not departing far from the Greek.  Along the way, I shared these versions with a handful of people who had a shaping hand in the book that emerged.

Andy Gaus, a gifted translator of Greek and a Wesleyan classmate, read and commented on every piece, almost invariably improving it simply by asking questions—a truly Socratic exchange over hundreds of emails. My publisher at Grove Press, Joan Bingham, helped me shape, out of a pile of short translations, the structure and shape for an interesting presentation of the tradition of epitaphic writing. Later, my friend the poet and translator Richard Wilbur liked the few versions I sent him and passed them on to his neighbor, the American poet Robert Bagg, whose wonderful translations of Sophocles I knew. Professor Bagg in turn introduced me to Professor Richard Martin, at Stanford, who ultimately provided the fascinating foreward to my new book. Fortunately, Matthew McAdam, my editor at JHU Press, saw the point of this effort right away and recommended its publication.

And now, back to a question I set aside at the start of this article: Why produce a collection of Greek epitaphs?

To the expert I would answer that, while various volumes of Greek epigrams are available, no collection (to my knowledge) has concentrated solely on the Greek epitaph, from its earliest appearance through several stages in its development over a thousand years. Yet these are among the most powerful pieces in The Greek Anthology, one of the most important poetry collections from the Classical world.

Lay readers for their part may ask why a project as apparently morbid as a book of epitaphs would attract a translator today.  But the Greek epitaphs are the opposite morbid!  In fact, they comprise some of the most vivid and life-affirming poetry in ancient Greek. In their size and brightness they resemble the small, brilliant tiles in a frieze that, viewed together, form a lively picture of a world that remains thoroughly fresh and human even today.

Don’t let the brevity and miniature size of these epitaphs fool you. It doesn’t always take twenty thousand lines by Homer to move the human heart.  In any one of hundreds of the more successful epitaphs, it takes a few words.

The great Homeric epics and the modest epitaph first appeared together at the dawn of Greek writing. The Iliad and Odyssey are perennially  world-renowned. The epitaph could use some fresh attention. That’s one reason why I produced this book.

wolfeMichael Wolfe is a poet, author, documentary film producer, and president of Unity Productions Foundation, a nonprofit media organization. Wolfe is the author of many books of verse and prose, including The Hadj: An American’s Pilgrimage to Mecca. His latest book, Cut These Words into My Stone, is available to attendees of the 2013 Joint Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and American Philological Association for $15.00, tax included. Stop by booth #414 (across from the registration desk) to get your copy.