Poetry - Spring 2017

Shorter Means Sweeter

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By Langdon Hammer

March 6, 2017


 

Born in North Africa around 310 BCE, writing in Greek under the rule of the Ptolemaic pharaohs, Callimachus was a refined, cosmopolitan poet: allusive, self-conscious, and a master of verse technique. Coming at the end of a tradition dominated by Homer, he wrote against the dominance of the epic and praised what is small scale, subtle, and finely wrought.

He was also known for his catalog—120 volumes!—of the works in the library at Alexandria. Bibliography, however, wasn’t merely his day job; as the classicist Wendell Clausen once put it, “Callimachus was not a poet and a scholar; he was a poet because he was a scholar, a grammatikós, a man whose business was literature.”

The same may be said about Stephen Burt, a professor of English at Harvard, scholar and teacher of modern poetry, tireless reviewer of new books of poetry (with an open-minded curiosity unusual in this hyperpartisan field), and author of four volumes of poetry, counting a new collection that will be published this year, Advice from the Lights.

Burt’s “After Callimachus” poems are sometimes close translations of Callimachus’s poetry, known to us through papyrus fragments and copies and quotations in medieval texts. More often Burt is paraphrasing and adapting the Hellenistic poet, both honoring and updating his example. Contemporary and ancient worlds interpenetrate while remaining distinct and equally genuine. Like Callimachus in the proem to his Aetia (Causes), Burt insists that “the sublime, / the useful and the beautiful in poetry / are all inversely correlated / with size: shorter means sweeter.” Burt directs us to two musical models: Erik Satie, French modernism’s sad, whimsical miniaturist, creator of the experimental, classically inspired Gymnopédies, and Young Marble Giants, a Welsh rock band that made just one, now coveted, studio album, the title of which, Colossal Youth, referring to the radiant male statues that the ancient Greeks called kouroi, might have made Callimachus smile.

The freshness of the young and the wisdom of the old are aligned for Callimachus; Burt, being “past forty,” admires both without quite claiming either. Burt remarks about Callimachus sympathetically: “He liked to present himself as learned, clever, but also childlike, a latecomer, somebody civilized, somebody (perhaps unwillingly) on the sidelines while great events took place nearby”—the “sidelines” meaning for Callimachus the library and for Burt the university, places where poets go about their work in a tradition stretching far backward and forward in time.

“Anubis” is spoken by the ancient Egyptian god who, like a literary critic, sees to the fate of the dead in the afterlife. Burt describes Anubis succinctly, caustically, and self-referentially as “dog-jackal-god-judge.” The poem has nothing to do with Callimachus directly, but it draws on antiquity to comment on the ethics of a life whose business is literature. Think of Anubis as a teacher with a whole lot of papers to grade, who yet remains committed to “the future of the living”—the future of her or his students—as it might be tested and inspired by “the unsatisfiable / demands of the dead.”


Langdon Hammer is the poetry editor for The American Scholar.


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