Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground

Love, Death, and Everything

[The New Straits Times, 21 August 1991]


It would be hard to find two countries as similar and as different as Malaysia and Greece. Both countries consist of peninsulas and a group of scattered islands. Both countries traditionally look more outward to the sea than inward to the land. Both countries are hot.

While Malaysia is a green land, covered with rainforest, Greece is dry and barren. Its rugged mountains grew forests of oak and pine in prehistory. Loggers, invaders, and goats have over thousands of years denuded it, leaving behind rocks and scrub.

The difference between the two topographies is reflected in the poetry of their peoples. I am no expert on the pantun, but it seems to me a form of greenery and water that draws its images from forests and rivers. The pantun is made for singing and the accompaniment of drums, gongs, and dancing.

The Greek epigram is dry. It asks the bare, speaking voice. The word "epigram" itself means "something written on something," an inscription. Originally the epigram was public verse displayed on monuments, bases of statues, and graves.

Simonides was the first Greek to make a career of writing such noble inscriptions. He wrote his most famous epigram for the grave of the Spartan soldiers cut down while trying to hold the narrow pass of Thermopylae against the invading Persians:

Stranger, tell the Spartans, that here
We lie, still obeying their laws.

The Spartan military state held rigidly to the idea "death before dishonor," an ethic here literally carved in stone.

Every people needs a tiny poetic container for their personal feelings and thoughts. Early epigrams were private as well as public poetry, a few lines scratched on a favourite pot, for example, telling who was proud to own it. The Greeks quickly began to use the compact epigram to express themselves more intimately.

A poem from a gravestone---no one knows who wrote it---expresses the pathos of death more touchingly than Simonides with his nobility:

This little stone, Sabinos, is the only memorial
Of our great love. I will always miss you.
If it is possible, when among the dead you drink
The water of Forgetfullness, do not drink forgetting of me.

Wit, putting a striking turn on words, is the essence of the epigram. Brevity is the soul of wit. The verse of the Greek epigram is designed for conciseness and closure. The Greek language rejects rhyme, which would make verse intolerably jingly. The rhythm of the epigram, in which one short line follows one longer line, packs the sense into couplets. Few epigrams are longer than eight lines. One poem illustrates the ideal, and (if I've translated it well enough) the swing of the syllables, in groups of three.

Beautifullest th' epigram in a couplet. If you write three lines,
Friend, you rhapsodize; but you don't make epigram.

When spring comes in Greece thousands of flowers colour the landscape until summer's growing heat puts an end to them. An "anthology" is a "pick of flowers," rampai, as we heard before on this page. Short poems like epigrams, composed on scattered occasions by many different people---anybody, not just the professional poets, had a chance to write a good one---are like the flowers in danger of withering away. Early on, lovers of poetry began to collect the best poems they had heard and write them down and preserve them.

(Southeast Asian people collected pantun in the same way in their local scripts before outsiders arrived. A scholar told me that in the Philippines he had seen a pondok whose posts were covered with poems scratched into the bamboo, the owner's private anthology of the poems he didn't want to forget!)

The first ancient anthology was collected by Meleagros, who called it his Garland. A hundred years later Philip of Thessalonika published his own Garland of poems written since Meleagros' time. Other enthusiasts collected love poetry, satirical poetry, and "modern" poetry.

Around 1000 A.D. scholars in Byzantium (now Istanbul) used these collections to compile the Greek Anthology. Only one manuscript of the Greek Anthology survived the middle ages. So close it came to being lost forever.

Poetry comes back again and again to certain themes, the issues of life that preoccupy us: love, death, time and the seasons, poverty, loneliness, and joy. Ancient Indians, Chinese and Japanese arranged their great anthologies by these topics. The GA likewise contains nearly 4,000 poems on every human affair.

Love naturally has a large place in the Anthology. This one by Asklepiades deals with the "hitam/manis" theme.

Didyme waved her wand at me.
I am utterly enchanted.
The sight of her beauty makes me
Melt like wax before the fire.
What Is the difference if she is black?
So is coal, but alight, it shines like roses. (Rexroth)

Or this by Meleagros, on a situation also familiar in Malaysia.

(On a rooster.)

What have you got to crow about,
Beating yourself with your red wings?
This hour is for final drowsy
Wantonries, not for your noisy
Virility. Go back to bed,
Or we will mourn this maidenhead
With a chicken dinner. (Rexroth)

It was the custom, whenever a person passed through a change of life, an illness or retirement, to hang up in the temple of a god some token of what they had left behind. A poet named Leonidas wrote dedicatory poems for working-class people to place with their gifts.

Theris, whose hands were cunning,
Gives to Pallas, now the years
Of craftsmanship are over,
His stiff saw with curved handle,
His bright axe, his plane, and his
Revolving auger. (Rexroth)

The decline of western antiquity in the 4th century A.D. produced a remarkable poet, who alone left us a sort of biography in his 150 epigrams. Palladas was a pagan Alexandrian lecturer, whom an unhappy marriage, dismissal from his job in his old age, poverty and the success of Christianity made bitter. He had a sharp tongue, and with nothing to lose, exercised it in satirical poetry:

I have sworn ten thousand times
To make no more epigrams.
Every ass is my enemy now.
But when I look at your face,
The old sickness overcomes me. (Rexroth)

We must all know sorrow and grief. The Greek poets expressed the tragedy of life more keenly than any other. One late epigram, the sole piece of a man named Glykon, is the most disconsolate poem in any language:

It's all a joke, dust, nothing.
Nothing happens for any reason.

If these poets could be so intensely serious, they could be equally frivolous. It's one of the delights of an anthology never to have to read the same thing. Every emotion and situation of life found an expression in the Anthology. It's impossible to do justice to it here. I only wish to give you a sip out of the source.

[Kenneth Rexroth's translations are published by University of Michigan Press. Penguin also publishes a selection of epigrams edited by Peter Jay.]