O Muse!

This week’s video and blog is celebrating classic epic-style poetry.  Though this is not the easiest type of poetry for the modern reader, this video attempts to prove that sometimes it’s fun to get ‘lost in the translation’ be that from the ancient languages that much of this poetry comes from or due to the cultural and literary differences between that long, long time ago and our current day.

stone sculpture by Unknown – Jastrow (2007) *

I suspect that the term, ‘lost in translation’, must have been born from the study of our ancient poets because the richness and beauty of their epic poems is often dependent on the strength of the translations.

I have found when reading some translations of the Roman poet, Virgil, that often I am compelled to shout, ‘it doesn’t always have to rhyme!’  However, I recognize that my tastes are subjective and influenced by my own culture and society.  Much of the epic poetry known to the Western world is translated into Old English.  It was as different a time and place, to me, as was ancient Greece and Rome.  It is natural that I prefer the more direct and modern translations of our classical, epic-style poetry by the great American poet, Robert Fitzgerald.

– illustration ‘Great American Culture’ by Pui Yan Fong*

Another impediment to epic poetry for the modern reader (who is like me) is that these publications often resemble ancient Greek or Roman columns; blocks and blocks of text, text and more text.  For the TV babies out there, raised to have short attention spans, the mere sight of these poems is daunting.  These stony blocks of classical verse are a huge contrast to the fluid lines and generous use of airy space found in most modern free verse poetry.  For this reason, it is essential for lovers of these classic poems to bring us their favourite passages in bite-size pieces because, after all these centuries, hidden deeply within these columns of text, are lines of poetry that have not lost a drop of their original succulence; have not withered any of their heroic richness; and speak on themes that are as relevant to our current day.

It was the film, ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ that re-introduced to me Homer’s epic poem, ‘The Odyssey,’ by providing a small quote in the beginning of the film.  I hadn’t read it since University and back then, it did feel like a chore.  So it took the Coen brothers to revive for me this quintessential quote for the human soul’s trials through this earthly life.

“O Muse! Sing in me, and through me tell the story

Of that man skilled in all the ways of contending,

A wanderer, harried for years on end …”

*The translation appears to be a slightly tweaked version of Fitzgerald’s translation.

I should also note that epic poetry is an international genre. There have been epic poems written in many different cultures and languages. Unfortunately, I’m limited by what is available to the English language, and online.

After completing the research for this poetry video, I have concluded that our master epics need a fresh translation with every generation.  The alternative solution would be for a new Homer or Dante to emerge and write a new ‘Odyssey’ or ‘Divine Comedy.’  However, it is hard to imagine a world of literature without these specific pieces somewhere inside despite having been written so long ago.

I hope you enjoy this next video installment to our poetry campaign on YouTube.  This video will introduce to you some bite-size pieces of poetry from Ovid, Homer, Dante, Virgil, and (my favourite poet) Anonymous:

(Aug 6, 2016 – I’ve tweaked this video twice now to improve flow and sound quality. Hard to tell if it actually does sound better because I believe WIN 10 has messed up my audio!  Everything sounds ‘tinny’.)


© lyw

* stone sculpture by Unknown – Jastrow (2007), CC BY 2.5, c/o: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2598931

* Great American Culture – illustration by Pui Yan Fong c/o: http://www.puiyanfong.com/thesis.html

Author: lillian y wong

lyw (lillian y wong) is a writer.

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