April 02, 2010

Pindar's Odes

For my lit project, I read Pindar's Odes.

Pindar's Victory Odes celebrate athletes who have triumphed at the Panhellenic Games (4 places hosted such events: Olympia, Delphi, Corinth, and Nemea -- the 4 books of Pindar's Odes are divided according to these four events). The games include boxing and wrestling and chariot driving and spear throwing and race running (both in armor and the nude) and whatever other physical abilities the Ancients prided themselves in.

Pindar is often considered the "poet's poet." This reputation (I discovered) is granted to Pindar less for his content and more for his form, which is compulsively metrical and rigid (with a concentration on the balance of strophe/antistrophe). Even the Pindaric Odes which have been popular through the ages borrow his form rather than his language (the book I read had an appendix which included some of these Pindaric imitations; Cowley's reinterpretation of Pindar into English was most fascinating). I, however, do not feel qualified to say any more about this form and how it operates. Undoubtedly my lack of education in poetry means there are yet secrets in Pindar for me to unearth.

Pindar's method of praise is similar throughout the Odes: compliment the victor, his family (usually father or son, sometimes uncles and brothers and other MEN of the family), his homeland; relate a myth which in some way compares the victor (or his family or homeland) to gods and heroes; tell the victor that though he may never achieve what the gods have (and he should not be so arrogant to try), he has achieved the highest among mortals. Pindar's sobriety is most effective in making the Odes sincere (rather than simple flattery).

Horace (in his Odes) describes Pindar as a river whose forceful torrents flood its banks. This description has persisted, and it is accurate in its own way. Pindar's metrical diligence is counterpoised by his dense and stately language. He flies to heroic heights but is ever sure to scale back to human dignity (defined by chance and change). Pindar's poetry rolls ferociously, insistently; one steps into this river to be swept away, to be drowned.

Pindar proved difficult for me. The first Odes I read were too heroic, too obscure. As one who admires simplicity and clarity (and humor), I felt there was little in Pindar for me. Only in Book II (Pythian Games) did I begin to feel some of Pindar's power. It took patience. I took time to work through his language; I read up on each myth he cites and tried to figure out why it was relevant and what it accomplished; I reread difficult passages and abrupt transitions. And finally something in Pindar's poetry gleamed. I could finally respect Pindar's style, if I could not yet love it (and I may never love it).

While reading the Odes, I thought often about how poetry developed and evolved. All the Ancient poets I have been reading write in specific styles to accomplish specific things. Pindar praised. He wrote Odes to be sung in honor of those who wanted to be honored by poetry. (<-A fine business, I'm sure, for talent like Pindar's.) Some poets taught. Some poets loved. Some poets mourned. The poets wrote our myths. The poets thought our thoughts...

But poetry is different today. It is abstract. It has lost its forms. What poets write today is abstract and formless. Ah! but so is the way of all arts. If poetry is obscure today, it is because new media have taken its place. Our myths were once written in poetry; we write them now with Images. Film is our new poetry. Griffith is our new Homer, Eisenstein our Pindar... (or not). And yet we still have Pindar.

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