Old Songs: Celebrating the New in Ancient Poetry

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By Kim Leith, Humanities Department

April is National Poetry Month, and to continue the Pratt Library’s festivities, we’ve invited Old Songs members Chris Mason (of The Tinklers), Mark Jickling (of Half Japanese), and Liz Downing (of Lurch and Holler) to perform ancient Greek poetry in the Poe Room, Wednesday April 24 at 6:30 p.m.

Old Songs Band

Mark Jickling, who learned ancient Greek in college to read Homer, responded to my questions.

What is it about Sappho and other ancient Greek poets that echoes to us over 2,500 years later?
Greek lyric is still interesting because for the first time you have poets saying this is what happened to me, this is what I saw, and here's how I feel about it. And not censoring themselves at all. Their thoughts and feelings are like ours (when we're inspired, anyway), even though society was obviously different in many ways. Part of the fascination is that we know so little about pre-classical Greek life, beyond the material conditions that archaeology reveals.

Image Courtesy of
The Walters Art Museum

An example is the constant reference to divinities and divine rivers and places in the poems. What did the poets really believe about the supernatural? [Liz Downing discusses this in her introduction to Old Songs/All Birds, published March 2013 and not yet available in Pratt's catalog.]

Finally, it's worth noting that most of the texts we have are fragments, which are naturally evocative to post-Dada sensibilities.

Part of the delight of Old Songs’ approach to performing Greek poetry is the folksy, familiar American roots music they join with ancient voices who speak of love, hunger, joy, and yearning. How did Old Songs come up with the idea to set ancient Greek poetry to American folk music?
We're musicians, so we approached the Old Songs project as "let's start a band." Chris had just learned Greek—on his own, amazingly enough—and wanted to put it to use. My basic intuition has always been that since these poems were composed to be sung, translated words on the page are just not going to put them across.

How do Old Songs members go about translating Greek poetry?
Our translations are on the literal side, even when we use very colloquial English. For the sake of melody, we rearrange words, and repeat phrases that are not repeated in the Greek, but we don't add anything new. (Although bilingual puns are sometimes irresistible.)

My philosophy of translation is that whatever principles you bring to a job, you will eventually abandon them.

What are your favorite Greek poems or authors, and why?
Sappho, for thinking of us thinking of her, and Hipponax, for his sweet nightmare quality.

Listen to Old Songs performing Sappho on Mindspring.com.

For more Poetry & Conversation with Old Songs, please join us in the Poe Room April 24 at 6:30. Follow @librarypoems to learn about other poetry events at the Pratt Library, & join the conversation at #PrattPoetry.

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