Saturday, August 16, 2008

Pindaric and Olympic

Strophe 1

Water is the finest of all, while gold, like a lambent fire,
Shines through the night in pre-eminence of superb wealth.
And if, my heart, you wish to tell
Of prizes won in trials of strength,
Seek no radiant star whose beams
Have keener power to warm, in all the wastes of upper air, than the sun’s
Nor let us sing a place of games to surpass the Olympian.
It is from there that the song of praise, plaited of many voices,
Is woven into a crown by the subtle thoughts of poets,
So that they chant the praises of Kronos’ son
As they make their way to Hieron’s rich hearth,

Michael Phelps having swept the board this past week and become the all-time swimming champ, I thought it might be stimulating to go to Pindaros (Pindar), the great 5th century B.C.E. Greek celebrant of Olympic athletes. The above is the first strophe from his Olympian Ode I.

Here is my effort to transliterate the sounds of the first two lines. I’m aware this isn’t the standard notation used by linguists, but it may give some idea of the sound, based on typical English spelling.

Ahriston men hiudor, ho de chriusos aithomenon piur
Ahtay diaprepei niukti meganoros eksokha plutu

The text in Greek and in William Mullen’s translation can be found at:

In Pindaros and in other Greek poets you find a frank acknowledgment of the love and admiration men have for other beautiful, physically agile men. And we see echoes of that in Whitman’s celebration of the young swimmers in “Song of Myself” and in A.E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young.”

At some point last week it occurred to me that TV coverage giving details about the lives of American contenders mostly left out information about their spouses or boyfriends or girlfriends. Why? I’m willing to bet that some of the women are lesbian and some of the men are gay. Just maybe there were a few hints about that here and there. However, though same-sex orientation isn’t illegal, apparently it still can’t be broadcast in Olympic coverage. Which means that TV has determined or arbitrarily decided that the broad public wouldn’t like it mentioned. That makes me angry. If the Olympians who happen to be gay really want to make a lasting contribution to life on the planet, they might consider speaking openly and honestly about who they are and thereby help remove the stigma projected by part of the public on the orientation that is theirs.

Back in the early seventies I used to have a magazine picture of Mark Spitz on my bulletin board. It was interesting to hear him interviewed about his own Olympic success and Michael Phelps’s. He had nothing but uncompetitive praise for the young man who has surpassed his record. Nor did he make any mention of the fact that the new swimming caps and engineered suits developed since his day help contenders trim seconds from their events. In 1972 Spitz had the typical longish hair of male fashion in the early 70s, which must have slowed him a bit. I also recall getting interested (in ’88, I guess it was) in Rowdy Gaines, a compact and appealing youngster, partly because Andy Warhol decided that year to take photographs of some of the competers and publish them in Interview. Interviewed back then, Gaines mentioned he had shaved his whole body so as to create less drag against the water. Well, Gaines was one of the newscasters for these games, and he appeared a couple of times, still fit, but clearly older and with a receding hairline. Spitz, also fit, now has white hair, and I believe his work for many years was to own a car dealership, though I gather he has become something like a corporate consultant now. Which leads me to this question: When the high point of your life comes around age twenty-one, how can the remaining fifty or sixty years not seem like a letdown? There was an article in this month’s Smithsonian magazine about Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the two African American runners who in the 1968 Olympics made the Black Power gesture just after receiving their medals. Their lives since then have been anything but a picnic, partly because of the controversy. I doubt any Olympic gold medal winner has read Frosts’s “Provide, Provide.”

It’s anybody’s guess what Phelps’s future life will be. I suppose he will earn millions by doing product endorsements. But there is something hard-edged and brooding in his nature, not entirely concealed in his interviews; and I wonder if he will remain in the public eye long enough for us to understand what the source of that is.

Meanwhile, anyone tempted to get Pindaric and base a poem on him? It would also be great to read a lesbian poem about some of the women Olympians. Come on, people, you can do it! There’s more than one kind of gold.


George Joseph said...

I am intrigued by the dilemma of what one does after creating so much very early in life. A number of artists seem to do their best early followed by efforts that are pale reflections of the original. Others seem to amplify and change over time in a way that is increasingly intriguing, and who's to say whether better or not. I think of Picasso, and Rembrandt, and Verdi as examples of getting better with age, and Mailer, Hemingway and maybe even Faulkner as having a productive early period followed by work that is not necessarily as amazing.
I love the poem, and feel the poignancy with regards to Spitz and Gaines. How about your own work, what does age add or detract from creativity? I treat some artists who become much more preoccupied by ongoing commercial success rather than the continual risk of failure which accompanies growth and experimentation.

Alfred Corn said...

Yes, a real question. Because of the psychological origins of lyric poetry, it is more true than not that lyric poets burn out quickly. Common pitfalls are: trying to repeat one's successful poems and thereby succeeding only as an imitator; becoming overconfident and publishing inferior work (often true of those who become famous); or being overtaken by silence (because of personal misfortunes, failure of inspiration, or lack of public response).
On the other hand we have examples of poets who wrote very well late in life (W. Stevens), and a few who wrote well in their eighties--Sophocles, Goethe, Montale, Richard Wilbur.
Authors' self-directed evaluations seldom coincide perfectly with the public's, and of course the public can be just as mistaken as the self-overrating author. Public estimates also tend to change over time, and rarely is the most revered writer of one era the same when the next era arrives. Given the uncertainty of the whole endeavor, the best plan is to keep working, to try to expand the repertory of what you can do, and to give yourself enough time to bring very close scrutiny to what you write before publishing it. Perhaps Horace was wrong to say one should wait nine years; but certainly several. The rest is in the lap of the gods. Or someone's!