Saturday 24 June 2017

What did the Greeks do for Ezra Pound & Should we Care?

I spent half the week in Philadelphia giving a public lecture on that city’s most famous poet at the annual Ezra Pound International Conference. I never actually liked much of Pound’s poetry; his famous Cantos are crammed with allusions to other poets so dense that you need a literary encyclopedia to make sense of them.  And then there were his silly hairdos and the fascination with Fascism.

Questionnable Coiffure
But Pound did almost single-handedly free poetry from the rhetorical verbiage and conventional verse forms of the 19th century, stress the importance of crystalline imagery, and introduce the idea of verse libre and singable verse, verse cantabile. This makes an aural impact by careful handling of vowel sounds. He cannot be written out of the history of aesthetics however hard some, repelled by his politics, have tried.

Pound is Hellenic Maiden Second from Left
I argued that the primary reason he was able to invent a whole new kind of lyric song was his experience performing in the chorus of a Greek tragedy by Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris in 1903, at the age of 17. This meant learning off by heart nearly 300 lines of limpid lyric poetry which sounds, when sung or spoken out loud, very like much of Pound's most beautiful, melodic lines, e.g.  ‘Eyes, dreams, lips, and the night goes’, or ‘In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it.’

'ecstasies of emotion'
Pound as Hellenic Maiden made an impression which his friend William Carlos Williams regarded as hilarious, ‘in a togalike ensemble topped by a great blond wig at which he tore as he waved his arms about and heaved his massive breasts in ecstasies of emotion’. Hilda Doolittle, however (better known as the poet H.D.), developed a crush on cross-dressed Pound and thenceforward spent most of her life imitating or translating Euripides.

Poster advertising the  Play
I believe that the older Pound was in denial about the importance of Euripides to his own development because Euripides was associated, through his popular translator Gilbert Murray (co-founder of the League of Nations which became the UN), with the liberal and humanitarian causes which Pound came to despise. I also learned on Tuesday that Pound corresponded with fellow-Modernist-of-dodgy-politics T.S. Eliot in an excruciatingly racist parody of what they regarded as the diction of African American people (although they called them by another, less respectful name).

The Messenger spoke Greek skilfully & was talked about for years
Which all goes to show that the Classics lurk beneath stones where nobody has suspected them (like the form and sound of Modernist free verse) and do indeed belong to everyone. This includes august poetic types I personally would rather not hang out with, even at such a monumental performance of my very favourite Greek play.

Monday 12 June 2017

Adventures in Aeschylus' Argos

Coast where the Danaids arrived from Egypt
I spent two days finding the places where Aeschylus set some tragedies, in the Argolis, around Argos in Greece.  The plays, topically enough, are about the blessings and hazards which immigrants can bring to a community. Over a hundred Egyptians of both sexes, fighting between themselves for power back home, suddenly turn up at a sanctuary by the beach where on Friday morning I celebrated the young British electorate’s courage.

Suppliants just off the boat at Edinburgh Lyceum
There were originally four plays, making a ‘tetralogy’ called Daughters of Danaus. We only have one, Suppliants, and a few fragments. The enterprising Actors Touring Company recently wowed the Edinburgh Lyceum and Manchester Royal Exchange with a new version of Suppliants by David Greig. You can already book tickets for its much-anticipated opening in November at London’s Young Vic.

Daughters of Danaus wreck their Wedding Night
But the ATC has an exciting plan to reconstruct the other plays in the group too. So our tour included several pertinent sites. One episode was the beheading of 49 male Egyptians by their 49 female cousins, on the orders of their father Danaus, who wanted to become Undisputed Top Male. The mass murder took place  at Lerna, just down the coast south-west of Argos and famous for the hundred-headed Hydra.

Ancient Argos reconstructed with market-place centre left
The tetralogy’s climax was the trial in Argos of one Egyptian woman, Hypermnestra, who fell in love with her cousin and refused to kill him. We decided the small theatre in the market-place is an appropriate setting. She got off because (1) the goddess of sex, Aphrodite, turned up and said It's Love that Makes the World Go Round and (2) the Argives decided to Grow Up and Take Responsibility for their Democracy, For The Many (all of them including the cooperative amongst the Egyptians) Not The Few (the tyrant Danaus).

Selfie with John, Sasha and a Satyric Ramin at Amymone's Fountain
The final play was a satyr drama, featuring goat men in the mountains above Argos/Lerna. They wanted to rape another daughter of Danaus, Amymone. Poseidon ‘rescued’ her, and threatened to rape her himself. But when he came and wooed her respectfully she married him. He struck his rock with a trident to make a wonderful spring and named it for her. We found the source of water, today diverted straight into a cistern and irrigation system at the top of the mountain. My colleagues Ramin Gray (Director) and John Browne (Composer) had to be dissuaded by me and Sasha Milavic Davies (Movement Director) from impersonating goat-men too convincingly.

Argive Sanctuary of Hera
It was also inspiring to visit the beautiful sanctuary of Hera where the daughters of Danaus would have prayed for better husband material and fed the sacred peacocks. What a great start to June all round. Let’s hope that Things really can Only Get Better this time.
Amymone not yet too keen on Poseidon

Monday 5 June 2017

Why Aristotle Would Have Voted for the Green Party

As if the world didn’t have enough problems already, Donald Trump has pulled the USA out of the Paris Climate Agreement which, for all its limitations, represented a multilateral human acknowledgement that greenhouse gas emissions were wrecking our planet. Time for a look at the history of awareness of the damage humans can do to the rest of the natural world, an awareness already developed in the Father of Zoology, Aristotle.

When he is describing shell-fish, we discover that in the lagoon on Lesbos the red scallop has actually been rendered extinct. It has been destroyed partly by droughts but also ‘partly by the dredging-machine used in their capture’. This is probably the earliest reference to overfishing in world  literature. Aristotle also cites the destruction which can be cause by human interference, motivated by financial greed, with naturally occurring animal populations. A Carpathian tried to make money out of hare breeding, and introduced the first pair onto his island. Carpathos was soon over-run with hares, which devastated its crops, vegetable beds and plant ecology.

Aristotle is aware of the destructive potential of farming, as a form of interference in natural processes. He even suggests that kitchen vegetables flourish better if left to the elements than if they are irrigated artificially. He certainly condemns some human practices in the farming of animals as contrary to nature and pernicious. 

Some animal breeders tried to make the young males of certain species breed with their own mothers. This mother-son inbreeding was attempted either because the owners could not afford to hire a stud or because the animals they possessed were regarded as particularly fine specimens with specific attributes they wanted to perpetuate. This practice is not unknown amongst breeders of pedigree dogs today, although it is rightly regarded as genetically risky and abusive; line breeding, where animals mate with distant cousins, is infinitely preferable.  Aristotle is certain that animals do not naturally want to mate  with their mothers, and has collected examples of animal resistance to enforced ‘Oedipalism’: ‘The male camel declines intercourse with its mother; if his keeper tries compulsion, he evinces disinclination.' On one occasion, when intercourse was being declined by the young male, the keeper covered the mother and put the young male to her. But after the intercourse the young male camel bit his keeper to death. In another example, he reports that a young stallion forced to impregnate his own mother committed suicide by hurling himself of a cliff.

Methods of raising and feeding horses worry Aristotle. Horses should be allowed to roam freely at pasture, since then they remain free of disease apart from an affliction of the hoof which is in any case self-rectifying. But stables are breeding-grounds for malnutrition and all forms of infection: ‘stall-reared horses are subject to very numerous forms of disease: one which attacks the hind-legs’ (Equine Degenerative Myeloencephalopathy?)  

Aristotle can have known nothing about species resonance. Yet he tells us of an instance in 395 BCE. All the ravens disappeared from southern Greece when a battle much further north resulted in a particularly high death toll. Ravens are opportunistic carrion birds. Aristotle calmly infers from this, that even across vast distances, ‘it would appear that these birds have some means of intercommunicating with one another’. It’s a pity Trump doesn’t have a similar means of inter-human communication.