Reverie Thirty: it’s all greco-roman to me

It’s hard to believe that it’s nearly August, isn’t it? I’ve been living in New York for almost a year now, and I think I’m finally starting to get a handle on things enough that I can say I’ve found a groove to be settled in, for a while. Things are constantly changing, but in anticipated ways; goals and plans are made, fulfilled, and replaced by others; I have threads of activity that I follow. Can I call myself a New Yorker yet? Maybe, maybe not, but I’m getting there.

This week: “it’s all Greco-Roman to me

Sometimes, though, with all the new things flying around, you still have to go back to basics. We’re due for another world poetry kind of Reverie. I’ll be honest: I really wanted to do something on African poetry, either Yoruba or Malagasy, since I haven’t tackled African forms yet. But the information freely available on the Internet is woefully scarce, and I’m going to have to do some additional research before diving into it. Meanwhile, we’ll go back in time a bit, and head over to Europe again for some classical poetry.

In college, I dabbled in the Classics a bit, and had a semester in Latin Poetry that was a fairly even mix of surreal, frustrating, and fascinating. (The instructor was unhinged, though knowledgeable; the class was at the crack of dawn; and we read Catullus’ carmina cover to cover.) Naturally I had to try jotting a poem or two in Latin, and it was actually pretty fun. As with everything else, a lot of the forms were appropriate from Greek, so that a lot of the poetry from Catullus, Vergil, Ovid, and their pals is traceable to Sappho, Pindar, etc. We’re going to delve into some of these forms, and treat them as one big lumpen tradition of poetry (even though that’s simplifying it quite a bit).

Before getting into it, let me mention that, as the Greeks and Romans are most famous (well, to a large degree, anyway) for their mythology, I recommend infusing some mythic elements in the poems you write for this. While some forms are associated with particular themes, the meter itself is the most important thing, so adding in this motif can help distract a bit from what can become a sing-songy piece. Additionally, you may remember Reverie Twenty-Three had a lot to do with rhetorical devices from the Classical period; obviously, these would be well-suited for a Greek or Roman inspired piece. And one final note: rhyme will be an additional, non-compulsory challenge. If Catullus and Sappho didn’t care about rhyme, that’s dandy, but we are looking to push ourselves, yes? And English lends itself more readily to rhyme (okay, maybe equally well), so if you feel the bite of the rhyme bug, please feel free.

In the notation below, – means a long syllable, u means a short syllable, and x is an anceps, a syllable which can be either long or short.

So, here are five options you might choose for structuring your stanzas:
Sapphicthis is one of my favorites, and it never gets as much love as it should. Each stanza consists of three eleven-syllable lines that go like this: – u – x – u u – u – -, followed by a fourth line (in English scansion) that goes: – u u – u. You can string together as many stanzas like this together as you want.
Asclepiada line that actually comes in two versions, the “lesser” and “greater”. They are structured, respectively, like this: x x – u u – - u u – u – , and x x – u u – - u u – - u u – - u -. (The formal term is a “choriambically expanded glyconic”; sounds like a medical condition to me.) Note that the choriamb is a trochee + iamb, – u u -, a foot that is essential to all hoity-toity Greek lyric poetry.
Elegiac coupletinvented by the Greeks and gleefully adopted by the Romans, especially Ovid. First line goes: – U – U – U – U – u u – -, and the second line is: – U – U – || – u u – u u -. (Note that “U” can be either a long syllable, or two shorts, while the || signifies a caesura, sort of a poetic semicolon.) A couplet should be able to be self-contained, though it can also fit into longer pieces.
Hendecasyllablethe hallmark line of Catullus’ more famous carminaHen means “one”, and deca means “ten”, so as you might imagine, the lines have eleven syllables each. They go: x x – u u – u – u – -. The Sapphic stanza is also considered a form of hendecasyllable.
Alcaic stanza (Latin)there are two forms of this one, but we’re going to just focus on the Latin version. It has two lines like this: – - u – - || – u u – u -, then one that goes: – - u – - – u – -, and finally a line of: – u u – u u – u – -. If you couldn’t tell from all the hyphens, it can get very heavy and ponderous.

I left out some of the more well-known ones, like Saturnians (because even the Romans were over them by the time of Classical poetry), iambic forms (if you don’t know how to do an iamb, please go read some poetry, then come back), and odes (which are way more complicated than Keats would have us believe). Note that all of these are structural options for lines, couplets, or four-line stanzas at the most. The form was not the hallmark of a poem, but of a segment.

Here are two attempts, for an elegiac couplet and a hendecasyllabic bit:

These are the days when summer’s no longer welcome in our house,
sweat-stained prints on the doors; when will October arrive?

Clouded leopards recline on swooning shal trees,
lick their whiskers and watch. A spell of soft rain
pads through, west-bound; and every zoogoer sees
far-off javelins of lightning forge a white chain.

The meter is a little bit fluid, as it was in Latin; there was plenty of elision for those shorter syllables and vowels, which reflects nicely the English-language tendency to fudge meter a bit with things like “i’th” and “o’er”. But try out each line, and it should work, along the lines of the descriptions given above. I also did a series of Sapphics a while back; you can check out one of them here.

Hopefully that will be a good starting point for you. Thematically, the elegiac couplet is often used for epics and heavy-subject poetry, while the Sapphic and hendecasyllable turn up (in Sappho and Catullus, at least) for love poetry; but if you want theme suggestions, I can offer four. There’s the epithalamion, which has caught on lately: a poem for the bride on her way to the wedding chamber. A dithyramb is an ecstatic song written for Dionysus, while a hyporchema is a lively dance for Apollo; the two are very nicely opposed as symbols of the primal and the logical, but they both get lively dances. And then there’s the weighty gravity of the epinikion, or victory ode, written after a battle. Do a bit of research and find some more, as the Greeks and Romans had specific names for all their themes (though only rarely did they seem to prefer a particular form or another).

As one last note, if you need a source for English versions of all of these, check out some Tennyson; he was infamous for using classical forms in English. (Which is probably why they made him Laureate.) So go forth, write some stuff, try new things, come back and share!