Saturday 1 February 2014

Hackney, Sappho, and Bravery

East End Classics Centre--the Best Audience EVER

The prize for the best audience of my life was awarded last Monday, lecturing to the amazing students from several schools and colleges at BSIX BROOKE HOUSE Sixth Form College in Hackney. Some had never encountered the ancient Mediterraneans AT ALL and yet had the courage to speak up, asking, in front of several academics, penetrating questions about whether BAD LUCK or BAD BEHAVIOUR is the issue in tragedy.  Good work Crystal Addey, the Director of the whole enterprise!

So I was already on a high when I got my brain focused on the newly outed five-stanza poem by Sappho, in her delicious Sapphic metre.  Although not exactly “new” (a misnomer for a song composed nearly 27 centuries ago), it has probably not been read or heard since the 300 AD. At one hour’s notice I got to recite THE ACTUAL ANCIENT GREEK TEXT, in an embarrassingly amateur-thespian tone, over the closing credits of BBC Newsnight. I have never been so scared, but had to do it. How often does this beautiful language ever get to be heard at all?

It turned that the duty editor of Newsnight that evening, Marc Williams, had studied Classics at university, and had even heard me give a lecture on Sophocles long ago. So he knew precisely what risk he was taking miking me up for live delivery. He was very fortunate that I didn’t take up the hilarious challenge tweeted me by Professor Barbara Graziosi at Durham, an expert on the cult of ancient Olympian gods, to sing the poem instead.

As a woman with an elder and a younger brother myself, I am particularly pleased that the new poem shows the poet most famous for her erotic love of other women in a completely different light—as the responsible sister of two men, one a business traveler and the other still a youngster. Prof. Tim Whitmarsh has with enormous professional courage published the first translation in the Guardian; here’s the freer version I composed for recital on Newsnight before they opted for the Greek itself.

Why the incessant gossip about Charaxos’ arrival,
in a loaded ship? Only Zeus, I think, knows
the truth, along with all the gods—it’s not for you
to have an opinion!

Hardly! You should be telling me to go and make
repeated appeals to Queen Hera
that Charaxos can make his return here,
ship and all,

finding us safe and sound. Let us place
everything else in the lap of the gods.
Sudden spells of fine weather often emerge
from heavy gales.

Some people are lucky enough to have
their problems averted by the King of Olympus.
They are blessed
and enormously fortunate.

In our case, if Larichos can just grow up
to be a man of leisure and status,
then from our heavy cargo of sorrows
we may very soon be freed!

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed your reading. Newsnight's light set you up to look like the Pythia, and it was wonderful.