Poetry before Writing

“Greece down through the fifth century has aptly been described as a ‘song culture’.” ~ Michael Schmidt in The First Poets, 10, quoting Leslie Kurke, “The Strangeness of ‘Song Culture’:  archaic Greek poetry”

In ancient Greece the mainlands and the isles
Held deeply in their peoples’ fireside souls
The singing.  Long before the columned aisles
Were raised and long before poetic scrolls
Were written, closed, and opened up for song,
The culture was a culture of the throat.
The words were memorized.  The lines were strong.
The lines did not need papyrus to float
Them old and perfect through the night-time air
Or through the fields of harvest and the rooms
Of weddings.  Altars knew the sacred flair
Of singing words and singing sealed the tombs.
_  The alphabet and writing were not missed.
__    In death, and life, and love the singing kissed.

 

The Poetic Kind of True

“The stories begin in kinds of truth.  As events recede in time, they grow not smaller but larger in language.  The ancestor who fought locally becomes a hero in a battle which assumes the scale of the epic.” ~ Michael Schmidt, The First Poets, 9

The poet makes life truer, makes it large
As it is meant to be.  The poet makes
Our history higher.  This provides the charge
That it deserves.  The Everest language shakes
The past as if volcanic, lava’s spew
Writ hotter in an earthquake realm of love
Or war.  The poet’s panoramic view
Is like the three dimensional above
The landscape of the long ago.  The lens
Is clearer, or at least it seems to be.
Its focus peels away the small to cleanse
Or shows the small with male intensity.
_  The epic eyes of poetry are blue,
__     As vast as Greek skies, truer than the true.

 

Before the Internet in the Ancient World

“Hellenistic culture was of necessity a culture of the book . . . :  the age of the reader had arrived, and a poet was often a man speaking to a man, not to men.” ~ Michael Schmidt, The First Poets, 13

The audience grew smaller in the room.
Where once were men, now only just one man
Unrolled a book in sunlight.  In a gloom
Of loneliness a candle held the span
Of largest minds and universes.  Pen,
Papyrus and some ink set forth a mind
In afternoons and nights.  Now thinking men
Could sit in peristyles alone and find
The cosmos of the poets, ink distilled
Philosophy, and ivory knowledge peeled,
A torch-lit space with soul-like letters filled
With treasures that the reader now unsealed.
_  A man from distant pasts or distant lands
 _  _  Spoke silently.  He spoke in new-found hands.

 

Phillip Whidden is a poet published in America, England, Scotland (and elsewhere) in book form, online, and in journals.  He has also had an article on Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est” published in The New Edinburgh Review. www.phillipwhidden.com

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5 Responses

  1. Sultana Raza

    Beautiful words. Deep concepts. Couldn’t agree more. If only Europeans were more appreciative of the country which lit up their culture. There was more to antiquity than meets the eye, as for example, the Antikythera Mechanism.

    Reply
    • Phillip Whidden

      I really appreciate your comments (this one and earlier ones about others of my poems) Sultana Raza. Probably you know more about how much modern Europeans appreciate the ancients of Greece and their accomplishments. I get the impression that most educated and cultured Europeans do have quite a bit of such appreciation, but perhaps other Europeans do not. Thank you very much for calling my attention to the Antikythera Mechanism, which I had never heard of before. I’ve read about it now and am very impressed. Ironically, it seems that many ancients did not know about such devices, either, since it disappeared from European culture.

      Your praise of my poems is warmly received. Thanks.

      Reply
    • Phillip Whidden

      Today I wrote a new sonnet which depends heavily on the ancient device, the Antikythera Mechanism, for its “argument.” Thank you very much for that gift and inspiration.

      Reply
  2. Laura Wetterlin

    “The culture was a culture of the throat”. Double entendres at its finest. This poem gave me such a sentimental historic vision. As a singer, the romantic picture you painted was truly moving.

    Reply
    • Phillip Whidden

      Yes, Laura, as a singer you would naturally have gravitated towards this poem and its message. It is true that the vision in the sonnet is sentimental–to the extent that it doesn’t include even a slight nod to negative facts that might have been involved in this new method of communicating poetry, but focuses only on pleasant factors. It seems to me that the singer herself (as in Sappho) or himself (Homer, etc.) would, arguably at least, have lost out because of poetry being passed on in scrolls–lost out because there would no longer have been the direct contact between the singing poet and the audience seated around her or him. Furthermore, poetry was stripped of the music that used to accompany poetry in the more ancient past. Still, if the poet were clear thinking enough, she or he would welcome the fact that the words themselves at least would survive after the vocalist was long gone. That is very positive. Again, this is a bit too positive a view of the situation. We can perfectly well assume that the vast majority of poetry that was written down was later lost through the usual forms of attrition in history. For instance, we know that plays by the great Greek playwrights have been lost and that much of Sappho’s own poetry is no more.

      I have slightly rewritten line 8 of the sonnet today. Here is the new version:

      Poetry before Writing

      “Greece down through the fifth century has aptly been
      described as a ‘song culture’.”
      ~ Michael Schmidt in The First Poets, 10, quoting Leslie
      Kurke, “The Strangeness of ‘Song Culture’: archaic Greek poetry’”

      In ancient Greece the mainlands and the isles
      Held deeply in their peoples’ fireside souls
      The singing. Long before the columned aisles
      Were raised and long before poetic scrolls
      Were written, closed, and opened up for song,
      The culture was a culture of the throat.
      The words were memorized. The lines were strong.
      The lines did not need vellum, rolled, to float
      Them old and perfect through the night-time air
      Or through the fields of harvest and the rooms
      Of weddings. Altars knew the sacred flair
      Of singing words and singing sealed the tombs.
      The alphabet and writing were not missed.
      In death, and life, and love the singing kissed.

      Reply

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