The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Claudio Sansone
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
In the past few years, I’ve found myself going back to the poems (or fragments) of the Greek poet Archilochus. I like to puzzle my way through the Greek, and look at the context in which the fragments were preserved as windows into later moments of Greek literary history. But I also like to read them in Guy Davenport’s translation, which does a great deal of work to make the fragments moving, like aphorisms, in English.
e.g. fr. 20 in Davenport’s translation:
Balanced on the keen edge
Now of the wind’s sword,
Now of the wave’s blade.
I like to put this kind of text in conversation with short Sanskrit lyrics, such as the following translated by Brough in his old Penguin volume Poems from the Sanskrit.
‘I see that a little person
Who has obtained a high situation
Very easily falls from it,’
Said the pebble,
As a breath of wind dislodged it
From the mountain-top.
When did you first come across these sources?
I think I first read Archilochus in graduate school, as part of a broader (re)discovery of the Lyric poets—but he stood out immediately. I got a copy of Poems from the Sanskrit during my undergraduate studies, when I was working on modernist poetics and their appropriation of ancient sources. I had no idea I’d be learning Sanskrit one day and that I would be able to read it in the original just under a decade later!
Can you tell me a bit about these poems and their context?
Archilochus lived in the 7thc. BCE, and he was likely from an island called Paros. Some say his poems were quite literally deadly. I think his cutting wit is not quite that kind of weapon, but then again, I was never on the wrong end of one of his invectives. While we have some papyrus evidence for Archilochus, the fragments often survive also in citations by later authors.
The poems in Brough’s collection are drawn from many sources (and in fact they are often drawn from earlier collections of poems extracted from longer prose texts). The shorter poems are really one-verse pieces (in Sanskrit terms, this is often translated as two or four lines for us—or more if the translator is using some poetic license for effect). These short poems are memorized as short songs and can be thought of as not dissimilar to proverbs, but at some point they were integrated in various ancient texts, giving them specific (and often surprising) connotations.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I like to translate poetry, usually from odd languages that are considered peripheral by the field of Classics. Recently, I’ve really been trying to work hard on my Old Irish, as I’m preparing a short publication on a really funky piece of Irish verse. Learning languages has a soothing effect on me—however hard it may be, you can always make a little bit of progress, even ten minutes at a time. Even just learning one new word can spark all sorts of creative activity, which is a good bonus for me because I like to write my own poems and stories too.
Claudio is a PhD Candidate at the University of Chicago. His work focuses on poetics and ideology in Greek, Ancient Near Eastern, and Indo-Iranian contexts. During COVID he has been tweeting (@rhetpoet and @cldsnsn) and running a Homer discussion group on Thursday, called #HomericDisputations.
“Feel free to join us—no expertise required!”