Honor to the Poets
"All men owe honor to the poets - honor
and awe, for they are dearest to the Muse
who puts upon their lips the ways of life."
- Odyssey VIII, Fitzgerald trans.
I sat in a faded plush chair opposite Professor W in her messy office suite. A fan sat whirring softly on a stack of hardcovers on her desk, barely disturbing the pile of papers she left lying on the floor.
Our conversation turned to Homeric Greek, and she recited for me the Iliad's first line: "Menin aeide thea..." I savored the sinuous hexameter, the undulating coil of sound, spoken by someone who knew the language. How different it sounded from my own attempts at Greek!
Professor W's expertise lies in poetry, especially poetry in translation. She's won numerous awards for it, including one in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I met with her last week to chat about my own projects in translation, and see if perhaps I could solicit her to read my drafts or offer some practical advice as an expert in the field. But, as it turned out, I learned a lot more from Professor W than I could have expected.
I asked if she had any favorite works in translation. I said my own preference is for those of the late Robert Fitzgerald, whose Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid I have come to look at as examples of excellent verse written by a man who truly had "a knack...for putting things into verse," as he himself called it.
Fitzgerald also said, "Poetry is at least an elegance and at most a revelation." "Revelation" is not an overstatement. It was Fitzgerald's Odyssey, in fact, that first introduced me to the verse in translation. That was back in my eleventh grade English class (Thank you so much, Ms. Rice!). His works have been informing and inspiring my own writings ever since. Again and again I find myself turning to them for insight, instruction, and pleasure.
"I wish he had lived to translate Ovid's Metamorphoses," I remarked wistfully to Professor W.
Professor W paused for a moment, then leaned back into her sofa, looking snug. "Yes," she said, "he really was a fine poet. You know, I knew Robert Fitzgerald."
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that two eminent scholars working with similar material should have crossed paths before, but I think my jaw dropped for a moment.
"Yes," was her reply. "We were friends. He really wanted everyone to enjoy the poetry."
Who knew! The revelation amazed me. Here was a woman who knew one of my favorite poets in person, sitting across from me in a messy office at my university. She even agreed to take a look at my drafts! Somehow, in a strange sort of way, I left the meeting feeling like I'd come closer to the man whose writing I've admired for years, and more encouraged about my own work as well. I want to have some drafts done, and soon!