Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, January 22, 2006

The rills and gullies and saddleback hills are sleeping now,

the talus slopes of the mountain are asleep,

and the low scrub thickets, and the riverine glades.

Sleep gathers in the sound of the water's fall,

in the trade winds riffling the coral shoals;

and all four-footed creatures the black earth breeds--

the race of bees, the gathering tribe of broad-winged birds,

the monsters plundering the bloodshot sea--

all are asleep in the depthless conjuring of that sound.

This poem by Alcman, a pre-classical Greek poet, has the quality of immediacy, that sensation of nothing coming between experience and feeling. (Medium means "between"; the news media and the entertainment media are thus go-betweens -- or, more negatively, come-betweens.) "Hypnos" describes various forms of this sensation. The hypnotic sound of the falling water seems directly connected to the sleepy feeling invoked by different terrains and animals: mountains along with thickets, rivers along with coral shoals; animals and insects, birds and fish. The poem's language feels transparent, creating another kind of immediacy: My feelings as a reader seem to grow directly from the poet's imagining of these landscapes and creatures.

That sense of an unmediated feeling, from nature directly to the emotion, and from the artist's imagination directly to the audience, is a powerful creation: the illusion of no distance. Other kinds of art are gloriously dark, mediated, gradual. With "Hypnos," the effect of immediacy is especially pleasing because the closeness is paradoxical; the poem is among the most distant from us in time, written in the 7th century B.C.E. This English version is by the American poet Sherod Santos, in his engaging new book, Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation .

The singular of "a" translation (rather than "new translations") indicates that this book is meant as a work of art: In it, a single approach, even something like a single voice, unifies works by many different poets over many centuries. For all, Santos creates an idiom based on plain American English, with only touches of special vocabulary, like "panniers" in Meleager's poem about a quick, lasting erotic burn:


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