‘Epinician Odes And Dithyrambs Of Bacchylides,’ Translated By David R. Slavitt

Epinician OdesI bought this book at the Strand in NYC. I entered the store half an hour before closing. In less than ten minutes, I’d spent $49 on books. Seven books total.

The first piece, Ode I, won me over quickly with lines like:

I am, she says, bereaved, with a double-edged
grief sharp as a Cretan axe………..

The “…….” represents missing parts of the poem.

And then:

here in our town that is washed
into loveliness in the evening sunlight….

Tell you can’t dig that? I had no idea that Cretan axes were famed for any particular sharpness, but you are instantly caught up in the simile. It reminds me of the opening line to William Gibson’s Neuromance: ‘The sky was the color of television tuned to a dead channel.’ You’d never heard such a metaphor before (nor seen the art design style based around ‘pale Milanese plastics’) but you are instantly transported in time and space by it. Same with Cretan axes, I say.

After my good time reading Virgil, I’m thinking that I need to add more classical Greek and Latin poetry to my diet. It seems to agree with me.

And one thing I learned – epinician poems are poems celebrating the winners of sporting event. I mean, it was obvious that the poems were doing that, but I didn’t know that’s what epinician meant. Apparently, the ‘nic’ comes from Nike, the goddess of victory.

The old standby of the occasional poem (which is to say, a poem written for a particular occasion, not some poem only read infrequently) has really fallen out. You have poems written by poet laureates for presidential and gubernatorial inaugurations, but beyond that, the only occasional poet I can think of is Calvin Trillin and no one is going to confuse him Bacchylides.

On a related note, did you hear about the South Carolina kerfuffle? The state’s poet laureate, who has read at the last three inaugurations, had her spot cut from the program. The official word is that there wasn’t time for the two minute reading, but no one believes that. While celebrating the state, it also mentioned things like slavery and migrant labor and the state’s conflicted past and future, which is just not cool to acknowledge, apparently. Would you be surprised if I told you that the governor of South Carolina is a Republican? Of course, you’re not.

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