(REVIEW) Is Callimachus the new Sappho?: After Callimachus, by Stephanie Burt
Charlotte Munglani teases apart Stephanie Burt’s After Callimachus (Princeton University Press, 2020) to highlight the collection’s ‘shareability’, situated in our post-internet age, whilst reflecting on the Greek poet Callimachus’s delight for the miniature. Drawing upon the popularity of Twitter Bots, and poetry in the Instagram era, Munglani opens up the potential of the collection to reach readers beyond the academic sphere.
Callimachus is a relatively obscure author. Even to most Classics undergraduates, he doesn’t tend to show up until more specialised post-graduate study. As written in the foreword to Burt’s After Callimachus (Princeton University Press, 2020), he is ‘the greatest Greek poet you probably haven’t read’; and this is the opportunity for Burt’s After Callimachus.
After Callimachus describes itself as an attempt to ‘reflect, interpret, adapt, respond to, and sometimes simply translate the poems’ and indeed rather than calling herself the translator, Burt is careful to position herself as the ‘interpreter’ of the poems and promoted the book to her followers on Twitter as a ‘collab w my fave queer poet from a few thousand years ago’. This sense of collaboration, of an active partnership and relationship, is key not only to Burt’s book but also to future uses of Callimachus by younger queer people. Callimachus composed his verses in the third century BCE and previously to Burt’s collection, the most accessible translation was to be found in two volumes of the Loeb Classical Library, the largest online library of Greek and Latin texts. Burt uses these, along with other translations, as the basis for her collection, but only as the starting point. It is not a literal translation, but an inspired reinterpretation that itself is open and ready for subsequent interaction.
You were already in pain when you came over for dinner, but the extent of your internal injury didn’t show till that third glass of wine. Then your face fell. It was like watching all the petals drop from a rose at once—like time-lapse photography. I couldn’t not see it. I couldn’t not see what it meant. Someone broke into your heart and stole all the valuables. I’ve been that kind of thief. But I didn’t say so. Instead I just said, ‘I’ve been there. I know.’ (Epigram 44)
The beauty of Burt’s interpretations is her choice of how she responds to the original ancient Greek: Burt’s unique translation and interpretation results in a modern approach where her Callimachus engages with modernity yet retains themes from antiquity, resulting in a strange — yet compelling — melange. The poems are not made relevant by glaring 21st century intrusions, but rather thoughtful additions; objects from differing time periods sitting comfortably alongside one another — karaoke, Tumblr, lip gloss, a hymn to Zeus — all the while emphasising the timelessness of the pain of a crush that only makes an appearance after alcohol:
‘Calli, please let me go back to sleep upstairs if I can. I don’t know if it was the wine, or when I told Niko about my crush, thanks to that wine, but I feel like I’ve been kicked in the nose by a horse.’ (Epigram 62)
Though this mergence of time periods in the language is often effective, the poetry can retain a more stilting reminder that it was composed close to two thousand years ago. This is especially evident in the longer poems such as in (Hymn 1: To Zeus) that begins:
Now we pour out wine to honor Zeus, lord of other lords, who drove the Titans away, and came to determine justice for humans on earth, and for other gods. (I say what things should be, as they must be if you rule all, and not as they appear to us on Earth.)
Callimachus’ own uniqueness when he was composing his verses is one reason why they lend themselves so well to a modern reinterpretation. From Cameron’s 1995 study on Callimachus: Callimachus and his Critics, the trend has been to emphasise Callimachus as a social commentator as much as he was a cultured, high-literary poet. Burt’s interpretations similarly emphasise this, stressing the poem’s fluidity and flux beyond their original temporal boundaries. Callimachus’ poetry spoke to contemporary society while keeping an active, backwards gaze on his own antiquity. He wrote poetry engaging with earlier poets such as Homer. Burt’s reinterpretation follows this cycle. She keeps the rules of the poetry, but course-corrects them: the metrical patterns found in the original Greek are replaced with modern rhymes. Both poets play with the temporality of the verses in order to allow them to retain a means by which to comment on the uniqueness of their current cultural context.
In both their self-reflexive commentaries, Burt and Callimachus embrace a sense of humour or irony. In Burt’s interpretation this is often demonstrated through her contrasting use of high and low cultural signs placed next to one another, such as in (Epigram 39) where the intensity of love is sustained by a collection of trinkets. It is not certain whether Burt is humourizing the contrast she has drawn from her observations of society, whether we as the reader are meant to laugh alongside or with her, or instead reflect on the way that human emotions supersede temporality:
It’s hard work making people fall in love, even harder to get them to stay that way. No wonder my friend Simone has built, for the goddess of love, an idiosyncratic altar: on it, one tube of lip gloss, a charm bracelet, car keys, a rental agreement for a basement apartment, a doorbell, a star for a Christmas tree, a salt or pepper shaker, the mouthpiece for a pocket trumpet, a pill splitter, and under them all, a folded velvet satchel, in which the lucky couple who stay together into a shared old age can keep whatever other sentiment- al objects they decide to save. (Epigram 39)
Callimachus was a prolific writer, writing more than any of his contemporaries (Cameron, 1995). Indeed his most famous poem, the Aetia, is an epic four-volume ‘collection of curiosities’, an early version of a just-so story. Here, Callimachus delights in the small, in the miniature and as such, reception and reinterpretation are constructed differently. Rather than the fragments inspiring a larger narrative exterior to the verses, the extended length provides the space for readers to consider the nuance, the gradation of emotion and situation. It is also this focus and approach that allow these poems to retain significance and value today. As Payne writes in the foreword, Callimachus does not try and ‘synthesize’ the oddities and differences that he saw in the world around him, but rather celebrated the quirks. Burt also emphasises these oddities of feeling, the peculiarities of emotion:
Zeus (I read here) once made love for three hundred years. It doesn’t say how, or with whom. Nor do we hear whether his partner, or partners, were into it that much, or one three-hundredth that much. As for me, I’m just starved for touch, or else exhausted from yearning every minute. Unsatisfied love is a tomb. (Aetia, book 2, frag. 48)
The real strength of Burt’s interpretations lies in their shareability, and any resharing or reinterpretation of these poems will follow the same ethos of fluidity and flux. This is not a new theme for Burt. As emphasised in the title of the Washington Post’s review of Burt’s Don’t Read Poetry (2019): ‘”Don’t Read Poetry” is a literary manual for the Instagram era’. This use of poetry from antiquity to narrate and curate a modern social media presence is well-trodden. At the time of writing @sapphobot, a Twitter bot posting fragments of Sappho’s poetry every two hours, has over 68 thousand followers. Interestingly, the creator specifies that although they use Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho, ‘Modifications have been made to fit the character limit’. Similarly, on Instagram #sappho has almost 90 thousand posts, and #sapphopoetry 2.2 thousand. One reason for the attraction of Sappho to a modern audience is the fragmented nature of the poems — they are ripe for the reader to fill in the gaps, to insert themselves and their love into the malleable framework that is rich with the possibility for queer and anti-heteronormative readings.
Remember when we didn’t get along? And now you blush, telling your story – which isn’t all mine to tell – while you squeeze my hand. (Aetia, book 3, frag. 80-82)
As with Sappho, the incomplete nature of some of Callimachus’ work leave words hanging, suspended and waiting for the reader to provide their own context, whether this be in their own personal reading and interpretation, or the context of an image that the words accompany on social media. The verses are infinitely shareable and lend themselves to pithy one-liners, a caption to an Instagram post of a throwback , or a tweet to express general ennui with lockdown:
I already know how your friends with the school-spirit hoodies are jerks who won’t accept me, who mock or spy on me and mine Monday through Friday. Frankly, it’s rough. Don’t ask me what my fucking mood is. (Epigram 4)
Burt writes in her imitator’s note that this book is not an attempt to be an ‘accurate scholarly translation,’ but the publication has so far mostly attracted the attention of academics. As such, the poems have been engaged with by classicists or those with an interest in the ancient poet. But what happens when these fragments are read, and more importantly shared and further interpreted, by non-classicists? For a start, they may not even be recognisable, to a classicist at least, as a fragment of Callimachus. This is the challenge. One Amazon review for Burt’s collection expresses frustration at ‘trying to find the fake additions posing as the writing of Callimachus’ in the poetry — but the modification and mutability of these interpretations celebrates this muddle. Unlike Sappho, due to the relatively unknown status of Callimachus, the discourse is still intwined with a scholarly approach to his work. This collection provides an opportunity for engagement with the work of Callimachus to change.
I amble the library stacks and get lost in YA; I want to go home, paint my nails until they iridesce, clamp on my headphones, and pray to Taylor Swift. (Epigram 62)
The popularity of Sappho demonstrates the clear current appetite for a sense of claimable queer ancestry. Burt’s interpretations add to this collection of available material to be drawn on. The challenge of this collection is to attract and inspire this form of interaction, to engage readers outside of Callimachus’ traditional readers. In the same way the societal idea around Sappho and her poetry has become independent to a ‘scholarly’ approach to the poet, Burt’s new adaptations of these poems are masterful in now enabling this same step to occur. Burt has translated not only the words of the ancient Greek, but the sense of feeling and thought behind the lines. In doing so, the feelings are prioritised over and above the lines in Greek, and therefore, like the lines of Sappho, a new interpretation cycle has been created.
As for me, I need to learn how not to speak, when not to hit send. (Epigram 60)
The sentiment, the feeling and emotion behind the words is available for all to use, apply and reformulate in a way that acknowledges the original, yet facilitated by the fluid temporality, retains applicability to contemporary society. Callimachus himself is re-writing the poetry of those before him, Burt collaborates with him to interpret new meaning, and the next step is a personal interpretation by the reader with both writers. Further fragmenting, and deconstructing of Callimachus’ words, and indeed Burt’s interpretations of these words, is within this same spirit. Payne refers to Burt’s ‘poetic license’ in her interpretation, and each reader also possesses this license. It is now up to the reader to carry on this cycle.
Further sources :
Burt, Stephanie, 2019. Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems (New York: Basic Books).
Cameron, Alan, 1995. Callimachus and His Critics (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
You can order a copy of After Callimachus from Princeton University Press, here.
Text: Charlotte Munglani
Image: Charlotte Munglani