The Poem That Invented Us

By Sherod Santos on 3.29.10

It’s a thing of the past, we often say of the past. But like childhood, something within it is always present. And something within the lyric poem relives that fateful moment when the human figure stepped from the shadow of heroes and gods to assume its natural form. Here I am, the lyric said, and here I am as I am.

we are born of the dead

In the seventh century BCE, poets first began to compose whole poems around the day-to-day particulars of their own lives; and in so doing, they invested the lyric with an awesome, self-renewing power, the power to fire the human spirit and, at the same time, to call into question the religious, social, and political structures that governed their daily world.

we are born of the dead

This no doubt sounds strange to us today, for we live in a time when the lyric is often discounted as self-interested and socially disengaged, a kind of adornment attached to the blood-stained jacket of our century. But the past invents the future, and to people in ancient villages who gathered in the dusty market squares to listen to their poets, what they heard was something never heard before: not the stock of literary figures, but the life-sized passions of human existence coming into being.

we are born of the dead

No less remarkably, they heard those poems recited in a language alive with their own speech, for not only was the common tongue true to the lyric poem but, coming from an oral tradition, it was an event that kept on happening in the voices of weavers and vendors, swineherds and cooks, in the wheat fields and market places, in small huts and in the open air.

we are born of the dead

We can hear the defiant force of that change in Sappho’s poem to her beloved Anactoria (my translation):

And now that you are gone, Anactoria, I know that power,
know deep down I would rather see your bare feet
on these flagstones, your face reflected in a looking glass,
that I would watch the man-killing chariots of Lydia
or the sun-enameled armor of the hoplites in battle.

topics: Columnists

1 Comment

Jessie Carty said on 3.30.10 at 11:23am:

I am reading “The Intricated Soul” right now and I find it fascinating how Sherod Santos balances having both high quality lyric and narrative poems.