This is an innovative and sumptuous anthology, says Jay Parini

In a sense the Greeks invented poetry, as the term itself has a Greek derivation, and so many essential forms – epic, lyric, elegy, ode – were Greek inventions. Reading through this sumptuous new anthology, The Greek Poets, one marvels at the accomplishment of the ancient Greeks in particular, a period that stretched for nearly a thousand years (from the second half of the eighth century BCE through the second century CE). And one supposes that even the earliest Greek verse – Homer, Hesiod and the Homeric hymns – represents not the invention of poetry but its coming into view, as it was in the eighth century that the Greeks learned alphabetic writing from the Phoenicians.

It’s worth noting that Greek prose did not appear for another two centuries after the first poems. The primary impulse of the Greeks was poetic: they admired its concision, its music, its rhythmical thrust. They adored metaphor, with its juxtapositions and dislocations. Indeed, metaphor itself, often in the form of simile, is the glory of Homer, who spins similitudes with abandon, as in the Robert Fagles translation here from The Iliad:

So they fought to the death around that benched beaked ship

as Patroclus reaches Achilles, his great commander,

and wept warm tears like a dark spring running down

some desolate rock face, its shaded currents flowing.

From the “beaked” ship, with its birdlike prow, to the immense, rocky face of Patroclus with currents flowing over the desolate surface, one reads in amazement.

The wise practice of this anthology is to mix translators, so one hears various shades of the original. Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald – two of our best contemporary translators – mainly represent Homer, along with a few others, including Richmond Lattimore (still my personal favourite, as his rough-hewn verse has an oddness of texture that lends an appropriate strangeness, a violent beauty, to The Iliad in particular.)

To some extent, as the editors note, it was the translations themselves that governed their selections, at least in part. These poems have a strongly contemporary feel, no matter what their date of origin, and a wide range of excellent poet-translators appear, including Seamus Heaney, Anne Carson, Fleur Adcock, Tony Harrison, James Merrill and WS Merwin. Of course Ezra Pound is present – but in one tiny fragment from Palladas. (I would have liked more of him, as in his oddly compelling version of Sophocles’s Women of Trachis.) The four editors themselves are first-rate translators, and they are appropriately present. Rachel Hadas is particularly worth reading for her sparkling Euripedes. Here, for instance, is Helen of Troy (in Helen) lamenting her fate:

God damn that man

who cut the pine

that made the ship

that Paris, Priam’s son,

sailed in over the sea

to my house, my bed, my god-damned beauty,

goaded by the goddess of desire

whose savage cruelty

brought Greeks and Trojans sheer

disaster – death with impartiality.

The first of four sections of this anthology deals with classical antiquity and, as expected, the best of Greek poetry will be found there. But this ambitious selection represents Greek poetry “to the present” – the last poet included here is Jenny Mastoraki, born in 1949.

The lengthy Byzantine period, which occupies nearly a hundred pages of this book, was not especially fertile ground for Greek poetry, though some of the work of this era was appealing. Clement of Alexandria (c 150-216) wrote memorable Christian hymns, one of them included here in a version by Peter Constantine. Rufinus – known for his erotic poems – was among the finer poets of this era, as seen in this brief lyric translated by Robin Skelton:

Time has not withered you; in age

your shining apples, your moist rose,

retain that beauty that has burned

more hearts to ashes than it knows.

This innovative anthology also brings into view a selection of poems from the early modern period, its third section. This period runs roughly from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 through to the end of the 19th century. In this fruitful time the language of Greek poetry veered from ancient and ecclesiastical forms and themes, with poets beginning to approximate ordinary human speech, as in the splendid poetry of Dionysios Solomos, who wrote in the early to mid-19th century. The work of these poets paved the way for the modern era, which ushered in a daunting array of major poets, including CP Cavafy, George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis and Yannis Ritsos, whose work graces the final section.

Anyone doubting the strength of this work should look, for example, at Cavafy’s homoerotic “Days of 1908”, sumptuously rendered here by James Merrill, with its culminating vision of a naked man:

Naked he stood, impeccably fair, a marvel –

his hair uncombed, uplifted, his limbs tanned light

from those mornings naked at the baths, and at the seaside.

In addition to the more famous names of modern Greek poetry, one will discover any number of affecting poems by Maria Polidouri, DI Antoniou, Kiki Dimoula and many others. The 20th century marks, for the Greeks, a return to poetic grandeur.

It’s difficult to shake the notion that Greek poetry consists of the incomparable poets of ancient times and a handful of modern masters, with a massive wasteland stretching between. The Greek Poets offers a substantial challenge to that idea, and it has convinced me that there is something in the Greek light and landscape, perhaps within the language itself, that engenders poetry, and that the lyric impulse has remained alive on this significant soil for a very long time.

Jay Parini’s The Last Station is published by Canongate. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds