Robert Frost wrote in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” “Scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge; but I suspect they differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.”
Like burrs…or maybe more like ticks, which are plentiful in the long grass this early July in Vermont. But we don’t want burrs and ticks to adhere—we strip them off when we come in from the fields—whereas presumably we do want knowledge to stick. So that (as Frost observes in his talk “Education by Metaphor”) at some point the analogy breaks down. Ticks and burrs don’t nourish us (on the contrary); knowledge does.
“Knowledge” is a clumsy and imprecise term for the kinds of connections I find myself making when, every summer, we come up here and I find myself walking through the fields. One kind of connection is derived from poetry. In the silence as I walk or pick wild strawberries or weed the vegetable garden, a line from some neglected corner of my memory will suddenly detach itself and slot into place, lighting up the moment.
Last week I was fretting about the long-neglected flower gardens my mother dug and planted here half a century ago. If my mother, who died in 1992, is anywhere, I believe she is here in these gardens, now overgrown and bushy but still retaining more than a hint of their original beauty. And I think of e.e. cummings’s poem that begins “if there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself have/one.” But “all by herself” sounds lonely, solipsistic—even though cummings then swiftly corrects that solitude by introducing the courtly ghost of his father into the paradisiacal setting the reunited lovers share.
When I think of my mother’s gardens, when I think of this house, I think of people—family, children, grandchildren, friends, various connections rippling out from a center of, yes, spacious solitude and meditative silence. Gardens and houses create space both for solitude and for company. But as the Greek poet George Seferis notes, in another line that came back to me recently, “Houses, you know, grow resentful easily when you strip them bare.” (The poem is “Thrush,” translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.) Part of the furniture of this house, and of my mind, inheres in poems. So that’s one kind of knowledge.
I’m also thinking of another kind of connection for which, again, “knowledge” isn’t quite the right word. The idea is captured, though, in phrases my father, the classicist Moses Hadas, used in the titles of two of his books: Old Wine, New Bottles and the subtitle of his
Hellenistic Culture, which is Fusion and Diffusion. For Moses, who had a strong impulse to democratize the study of the classics, those new bottles would be the fresh container of translation. According to the parable, new wine will burst the old bottles; but Moses saw that the old wine would benefit from a new delivery system. And Fusion and Diffusion aptly evokes both the transformation and the expansion that attend on cultural transmission. If fusion suggests a coming together of previous separate entities and the possible creation of something new, then diffusion evokes an opposing outward movement. In the 21st century, surely the digital world is both the new bottle and a powerful new diffuser.
The apple (as Frost might have said) doesn’t fall far from the tree. I’ve recently completed verse translations of Euripides’s two plays about Iphigenia, spellbinding dramatizations of war and politics, family dynamics and trauma. As I worked, and particularly when I was finishing the translations and teaching “Iphigenia in Aulis” last November, there was no need to underline the alarming yet also perennial relevance of a story which was already old wine when Euripides decanted it into the new bottle of drama.
Another recently finished project sprang into being unexpectedly in January 2017, when our granddaughter was born. We knew the child would be a girl; and according to the custom of her father’s Guyanese family, her name would begin with the same initial letter as her mother’s. A C-name then; and (I proudly claim credit here), I thought of Camilla, the warrior maiden, the swift runner, in Virgil’s Aeneid.
The name met with approval, and soon I found myself returning to the Aeneid, particularly to the poem’s dark second half, which one rarely reads in high school. It didn’t hurt that I was on sabbatical and had no classes to prepare or papers to correct. Almost every day I’d read a few pages in Sarah Ruden’s translation, moving to the Latin whenever something struck me. Here were extraordinarily vivid depictions of war fever and hysteria, anxiety attacks, sleepless nights, fearful mothers standing on the battlements watching their sons march past.
If the cummings and Seferis poems cited earlier were already somewhere in my mind, the Aeneid was more like a field through which I found myself intentionally but unhurriedly striding, always ready to pause and pick up a treasure.
Poems for Camilla consists of twenty-nine poems written between January and May 2017. Some of their titles have a contemporary ring: “Poetry Out Loud,” “Filing System,” “Weaponized,” “Special Effects,” “Anxiety Attack”; some, like “Iron Sleep,” go straight to their Virgilian source. Neil Gaiman and David Copperfield, Riverside Park and Central Park, all make appearances, and the unnamed menace of President Trump broods over several of the poems. Camilla is there—both Camillas—and my husband’s beloved younger brother, his fidus Achates. Lavinia, Amata, Latinus, Euryalus, Nisus, the Sibyl, and of course Aeneas are recurring presences.
Poems for Camilla will be published around Camilla’s first birthday. Will she read these poems when she’s older? The intention is there, at the very least, the possibility. When and if Camilla is ready or curious, the poems will be available. I love this durability of the intangible. Last week, in the first reclamation project of this particular summer, we replaced the grubby old kitchen stove (had mice been nesting in the oven or in the burner coils? So it seemed, but who wanted to know?) with a new one. “This should last your time,” said the cheerful Sears delivery man. The bittersweet expectation is, of course, that the next stove, the next roof repair, the next revisioning of the garden will be the task of the next generation. Whereas the beauty of poems, of the classics, of the kind of knowledge we accumulate without having to go to the appliance store, is that that they never need to be replaced. By definition, they outlast our time.
Rachel Hadas’s verse translations of Euripides’s two Iphigenia plays are forthcoming in 2018, as is a poetry collection, Poems for Camilla (updated 8/2017)