The Poet’s Almanac: 365 Days of Poetry
This is the first post of what, I hope, will turn into a year-long journey. Once a day I’ll post one poem, or extract and tell you one thing about – one thing that makes it unique. Maybe, by the end of the year, I’ll have something to publish, something you can hold in your hands and enjoy: a real and honest to goodness book from PoemShape. I thought the best place to begin was with the most ancient poetry that still remains to us.
Gilgamesh represents the world’s oldest surviving fragment of poetry, the oldest story told in verse and the oldest epic. The oldest surviving poetry is a story. The version which most of us read survives from around 1700 BCE, but fragments of the same epic survive from 3700 BCE. The first version of Gilgamesh, as it has come down to us, was probably written inthe 21rst century BCE – as far before the birth of Christianity as we are after it. What follows are the opening lines from Andrew George’s faithful rendering of Gilgamesh. Rather than piece together a whole and coherent narrative, he presents readers with two surviving and differing fragments just as they are.
He who saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
[who] knew . . ., was wise in all matters!
[Gilgamesh, who] saw the Deep, the country’s foundation
[who] knew . . ., was wise in all matters!
[He] . . . everywhere . . .
and [learnt] of everything the sum of wisdom.
He saw what was secret, discovered what was hidden,
he brought back a tale of before the Deluge.
He came a far road, was weary, found peace,
and set all his labors on a tablet of stone.
He built the rampart of Uruk-the-Sheeofold,
of holy Eanna, the scared storehouse.
See its wall like a strand of wool,
view its parapet that none would copy!
Take the stairway of a bygone era,
draw near to Eanna, seat of Ishtar the goddess,
that no later king could ever copy!
Climb Uruk’s wall and walk back and forth!
Survey its foundations, examine the brickwork!
Were its bricks not fired in an oven?
Did the Seven Sages not lay its foundations?
[A square mile is] city, [a square mile] date-grove, a square mile is
clay-pit, half a square mile the temple of Ishtar:
[three square miles] and a half is Uruk’s expanse.
[See] the tablet-box of cedar,
[release] its clasp of bronze!
[Lift] the lid of its secret,
[pick] up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out
the travails of Gilgamesh, all he went through.
Surpassing all other kings, heroic in stature,
brave scion of Uruk, wild bull on the rampage!
Going at the fore he was the vanguard,
going at the rear, one his comrades could trust!
A might bank, protecting his warriors,
a violent flood-wave, smashing a stone wall!
Wild bull of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh, the perfect in strength,
suckling of the august Wild Cow, the goddess Ninsun!
Gilgamesh the tall, magnificent and terrible,
who opened passes in the mountains,
who dug wells on the slopes of the uplands,
and crossed the ocean, the wide sea to the sunrise;
who scoured the world ever searching for life,
and reached through sheer force Uta-napishti the Distant;
who restored the cult-centres destroyed by the Deluge,
and set in place for the people the rites of the cosmos.
Who is there can rival his kingly standing,
and say like Gilgamesh, ‘It is I am the king’?
Gilgamesh was his name from the day he was born,
two thirds of him god and one third human.
In his book, Visions and revisions: of American poetry, Lewis Turco informs us that the “verse” of Gilgamesh was distinguished by “grammatic parallels”. Presumably, this artificial construct was meant to heighten the aural impact of the epic in the same way that, thousands of years later, meter and rhyme would distinguish poetry from prose or every day speech. In some ways, the poet who most closely approximates that experience might be Walt Whitman, whose poetry is marked at times by grammatic, syntactic and rhetorical parallelism. The parallelism of Gilgamesh probably represents a traditional and ancient formalism typical of ancient poetry. The only equivalent in our own poetry is the meter of blank verse – Iambic Pentameter. To get a feel for the heightened effect the language of the original might have had on an ancient reader, a modern reader might want to avoid free verse translations. Consider reading David Ferry’s recent translation – Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse – a blank verse translation (the same meter as Paradise Lost).
who knew the way things were before the Flood,
the secret things, the mystery; who went
to the end of the earth, and over; who returned,
and wrote the story on the a tablet of stone.
He built Uruk. He built the keeping place
of Anu and Ishtar. The Outer wall
shines in the sun like brightest copper; the inner
wall is beyond the imaginings of kings.
Study the brickwork, study the fortification;
climb the great ancient staircase to the terrace;
study how it is made; from the terrace see
the planted and fallow fields, the ponds and orchards.
This is Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh
the Wild Ox, son of Lugalbanda, son
of the Lady Wildcow Ninsun, Gilgamesh
the vanguard and the rear guard of the army,
Shadow of Darkness over the enemy field,
The Web, the Flood that rises to wash away
the walls of alien cities, Gilgamesh
the strongest one of all, the perfect, the terror.
It is he who opened passes through the mountains;
and he who dug deep wells on the mountainsides;
who measured the world; and sought out Utnapishtim
beyond the world; it is he who restored the shrines;
two-thirds a god, one-third a man, the king.
Go to the temple of Any and Ishtar:
open the copper chest with the iron locks;
the tablet of lapis lazuli tells the story.
If you’ve never read Gilgamesh, consider reading it. The epic isn’t long; but tells us a story as true to our condition as 6000 years ago – a story about friendship, loss and acceptance.