The Poet’s Almanac ❧ Air

The Poet’s Almanac: 365 Days of Poetry
Week One: Air 

  • Air, in terms of this series, The Poet’s Almanac, refers to the poetry of the soul, spirit and spirituality.

The oldest surviving spiritual poetry also marks the first poet whom we know by name – the Mesopotamian Priestess Enheduanna (ca. 2285-2250 B.C.E.). The author of Gilgamesh is unknown. Some will argue that Gilgamesh is a deeply spiritual poem; and it is, but the concerns of Gilgamesh are more expansive than that. Gilgamesh tells a story. The poem is, as a genre, our first example of the epic. The poems of Enheduanna on the other hand, are first and foremost religious and spiritual. Their sole purpose is the celebration of spiritual and religious devotion. Enheduanna’s father, perhaps because of her brilliance and creative genius, appointed her the high priestess at the temple of the moon god, Inana, in the city of Ur. Enheduanna’s temple hymns, are hymns in praise of different temples, as though each temple were a living being.

Enheduanna’s surviving poems are as follows:

42 temple hymns roughly the same length as modern lyrics.

3 Longer Hymns describing Enheduanna’s relationship to Inana

Inninsagurra (274 Lines) ~ A hymn of praise to Inana.
Ninmesarra (154 Lines) ~ A hymn describing Enheduanna’s tribulations and exile.
Inninmehusa (184 Lines) ~ A narrative hymn recounting Anana’s destruction of the overly prideful mountain Ebih.

There are also two fragments attributed to the poet/preistess.

The most interesting facet of Enheduanna’s poetry is what it reveals to us about women and their place in the cultural life of ancient Mesopotamia. Scholars believe that Ninmesarra hues to some autobiographical details. Enheduanna’s  non-public duties are unknown but a high priestess’s public duties are better understood by historians. She would have lead religious rituals and performed sacred rites, such as those that involved expiation through sacrifice and the sacred recitations of the priestess. As James Dale Williams asserts, in his book An Introduction to Classical Rhetoric: essential readings, what is striking about Enheduanna’s hymns are that they are both public and private. For the first time, a poet “identifies herself and speaks in the first person”. Williams credits this development to the change in how the divine was increasingly perceived as personal – being directly involved in a person’s life and affairs. In this is true, it makes sense that Enheduanna would express Inana through her own experiences in life.

Some scholars have compared Enheduanna’s tribulations — her exile from from the temple during the military leader Lugalanne’s uprisings in Ur and Uruk  — to a kind of morality tale presaging womankind’s own exile from religion during the 4000 years that followed.  Her eventual restoration, which Enheduanna credited to the Goddess Ianan and not the indifferent male God Nanna, can be compared to modernity’s gradual re-acceptance of the feminine in religion and spirituality. The restoration is not complete, but perhaps history will recapitulate Enheduanna’s own story. The place of femininity in spirituality will be recognized and celebrated as equal to that of the masculine.

These first 12 lines of Enheduanna’s Ninmesarra are my own versification of a transliteration available online.

Since I couldn’t find a versification that I liked,  I created my own. The verse is blank verse. I don’t offer it as a faithful rendition. Rather, I’ve tried to capture what might have been the spirit of the original. Given time, maybe during the next week or so, I may try to versify the entirety of her poem.

The Exaltation of Inana

Mistress of the divine, resplendent light,
Woman of radiance, righteous and beloved
Of An and Urac – Heaven’s Mistress! – breasts
Bejeweled; cherishing the headdress of your priestess –
She who grasps the seven sacred powers!
Goddess, protector of the powers, and giver –
Behold your necklaced hand and fingers. Yours,
The gathering of the powers and yours to clasp
Against your breast. In foreign lands your breath
Is like the dragon’s venom. When like Ickur
The earth receives your roar, neither leaf nor wood
Withstand you. You are as a mighty flood
To foreign lands, the might of earth and heaven, you
Are their Inana.

Copyleft 2010 by Patrick Gillespie

That’s all.

The single best online source of information can be found at Infionline. From this website, a variety of links are provided.

An Introduction to Classical Rhetoric: essential readings
Princess, Priestess, Poet: The Sumerian Temple Hymns of Enheduanna
Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart : Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess

The Poet’s Almanac ❧ Earth

The Poet’s Almanac: 365 Days of Poetry
Week One: Earth

  • Looks like I’ve already fallen behind, but I have most of Sunday ahead of me. Let’s see what I can accomplish.

After the cycles of birth, lovemaking, age and death, the seasonal cycles of the earth are the great subjects of poetry. From the first songs to the modern era, no culture has so closely tied their poetry to the seasons as the Japanese. The development of seasonal references coincided with the beginnings of Japan’s own poetic tradition and the creation of the Tanka. The first references weren’t any more than might be found in the Western tradition, but the Japanese never consistently developed longer verse forms. There is no Japanese verse epic, for example. The closest the Japanese come to narrative verse is in the linkage of much shorter forms like the Tanka. The results can feel disjointed to a Western reader. Perhaps the most famous example of a narrative form by a Japanese poet is Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Interior 奥の細道. The narrative or travel diary, recounting Basho’s journey, by foot, to see some of Japan’s most famous landmarks, is actually prose interspersed by haiku, a genre that was known as haibun.

it hides in the moon—
the firefly

– Sano Ryota (Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems)

Writing in such short forms meant that there was little opportunity for scene painting. A Japanese poet simply didn’t have room to spare. So how does a poet evoke a sense of place while still allowing his or herself the space to poetize? The answer developed over hundreds of years. The quickest way to evoke a sense of place, a seasonal feeling, or mood (a poet’s intuitive relationship with the world) is to indicate one of the four seasons in which he or she was writing. All of us who live in the world’s temperate zones, grow up with strong seasonal associations and the Japanese learned to skilfully evoke those associations with a single word or image. The very first anthology to hint at the direction Japanese poets would take was compiled in the early 900’s (long before the development of haiku), called the Kokinshû. For the first time, Japanese readers found categories for the four seasons. Kenneth Yasuda, in his book The Japanese Haiku, writes that this early anthology “seems to recognise the importance of natural objects as subjects of poetry in the same way as love, or congratulatory, or elegiac poems were recognised”. Not only were the seasonal categories of poetry recognised but, more importantly, the Japanese began to develop the first inklings of Kigo. In other words, a reference to a plum tree became more than just the plum tree. The tree was also meant to evoke a connection with the wider setting of spring with all that season’s concurrent associations – but these were only the first inklings. Over the next several hundred years, the significance of a given image, like a reference to cherry blossoms, might be used without any seasonal resonance whatsoever.

Garden butterfly—
as the baby crawls, it flies

-Issa (Ib. p. 99)

A poetic form which was to exert decisive influence on the development of Kigo was the Renga, a form of linked poetry from which the haiku was to evolve. Renga were communal poems that honoured the hosts and celebrated the talents of the poets who participated. Because these renga were frequently published, attaching a particular date to the composition of the renga was considered essential. That task fell to the guest. His task was to write an initial hokku (which would later become the independent haiku) both honouring the host and indicating the date of the renga’s composition. By the end of the 14th century, the twentieth volume of the Tsukubashû (1356) contains only hokku, and though they’re not divided into seasons, all the hokku contain a seasonal reference. By the 15th century, the importance of kigo, as an art in and of itself, was systematically discussed by Sôgi (1421-1502) in his Azuma Mondô (1470). The tradition was now established. Sôgi was also among the first to compile a list (like a dictionary) of season words. His example was followed by Rippo in 1636, who compiled a listing of 650 seasonal references. By the 19th century, a compilation like the Haikai Saijiki (1803) contained 2600 items.

In truth, and with a little practice reading Haiku, a western reader can reliably discern a haiku’s season. Japan’s seasons aren’t so mysteriously different from our own that we can’t recognise the seasonal reference of blossoms or falling leaves.

The seasonal importance of haiku continues into the 21rst century. The modern, and western poet Lee Gurga, author of Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, considers the seasonal reference to be the soul of haiku. He writes:

Season is the soul of haiku, as simple as that. One can write fine short poems that do not have a seasonal element, but they will not offer the same gift that seasonal haiku do.

Many modern haiku poets would not consider a poem, otherwise identical to a haiku, a haiku without some kind of connection to the earth’s seasons.

after Christmas
a flock of sparrows
in the unsold trees

– Dee Evetts (Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, p. 25)

That’s all.
& Further Reading:

The Japanese Haiku: It’s Essential nature, History, and Possibilities, with Selected Examples
Haiku: A Poet’s Guide
The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku
Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems
Basho’s Narrow Road • Spring & Autumn Passages

The Poet’s Almanac ❧ The Artful Shape

The Poet’s Almanac: 365 Days of Poetry
Week One: The Artful Shape

The earliest collections of poetry all seem to share a common ground – the song lyric. And for many centuries the earliest poems seem either to have been written to the tune of a given song, or seem to have been written as though a melody could be found. In a sense, one could say that the song lyric is the earliest form of poetry. On

The MAN’YŌSHŪ (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) The oldest existing anthology of Japanese poetry

the other hand, if a distinction is to be made between song and poetry, then the first poem was the first lyric written to be read (not sung).

Since he is so young,
He will not know the road to take:
I will pay your fee —
O courier from the realms below,
Bear him there upon your back.  Yamanoe Okura (?660-?733 AD)

Written on the death of Okura’s son.

Most sources assert that the epic is the oldest form of poetry. In some ways that’s true. But what all epics have in common is not what all Sonnets have in common. All sonnets are essentially alike in the number of their lines, their meter and their rhyme schemes. Others point to Hebrew poetry, which ranks among the oldest, but (to my knowledge) no poetic form, comparable to a sonnet, survives. For this reason some assert that the Sonnet is the oldest poetic form in continuous existence, having originated in 13th Century Italy. Others assert that the Ghazal, common in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Uzbek, Pashto and Urdu literature predates the sonnet, having more or less established its canonical shape in the 11th and 12th centuries. But perhaps the oldest poetic form in continual existence (if not the oldest poetic form in all of poetry) is the Japanese Tanka, dating back to the 6th Century.

Although my feet
Never cease running to you
On the path of dreams,
Such nights of love are never worth
One glimpse of you in your reality. Ki no Tsurayuki (868-945 AD) (A female poet.)

Tanka means “short song”. It’s syllable count (understood in the sense of the Japanese symbol) is 5-7-5-7-7. Interestingly, the Japanese historically considered the Tanka a feminine form. The later Haiku, which sprang from the Tanka, was considered a more masculine form. Part of the reason Tanka were considered a feminine poetry may be because many of the form’s most famous practitioners were women – poets of the gentry, nobility and court.


unable to be seen
through these clouded windows
on this spring day
of endless rain,
my yellow yamabuki blooms. Shiki Masaoka (1867-1902)

Further Reading:

An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry
Songs from a Bamboo Village: Selected Tanka from Takenosato Uta by Shiki Masaoka
Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology


The Poet’s Almanac ❧ The Daily Calendar

This is probably the least interesting post ever; but I just wanted to put in print how I’ll be divvying up the week. Read if you’re curious.

Day One: Artful Language
Day Two: Poetry’s Artful Shape
Day Three: Earth
Day Four: Air
Day Five: Fire
Day Six: Water
Day Seven: Poetry’s Storytellers

Artful Language: ···········The artistry of poetry’s language: rhetoric, imagery, metaphor.
Poetry’s Artful Shape: ··The different forms and traditions in which poetry has been written.
Earth: ·······························Poetry of the earth: it’s seasons, nature and it’s beauty.
Air: ····································Poetry of the soul, spirit and spirituality.
Fire: ··································Poetry of desire, lust & Love
Water: ······························Poetry as Essay: Politics, War, Debate & Persuasion
Poetry’s Storytellers: ····Narrative Poetry: From the Fable to the Epic

I’ve recategorized (and renamed) the first three posts. The post Rhyme, Women & Song has been renamed The Artful Language and will now stand as the first post of the series. The post Poetry’s Lumberyard has been recategorized under Artful Language and will represent the first post of Week Two. The Post Gilgamesh has been renamed The Storytellers and will represent Day Seven of Week One. Confused yet? None of it really matters. I’m off and running. Wish me discipline.

The Poet’s Almanac ❧ Poetry’s Lumber Yard

The Poet’s Almanac: 365 Days of Poetry

Week Two
Artful Language

Whenever a builder wants to build a house, the first thing he or she does is to visit the lumber yard. This is where we buy the raw goods to build with: the 2×4’s and 2×6’s, sheet rock, joint compound, electrical and plumbing supplies. During

Aristotle's Art of Rhetoric

the medieval  and Renaissance period, the field of rhetoric was the lumber yard of the practicing poet, pamphleteer, writer and orator. Before they put pen to paper, they drew on their education in rhetoric to organize their thoughts.

These days, only devoted scholars and academics study rhetoric.

The result is that modern poets never truly understand or appreciate how great poets did what they did. They blindly use rhetorical figures without the faintest knowledge they are doing so. They argue that they use rhetoric every day, why should they study it? But they use language the way an unexperienced fisherman casts a line. The beginner will go to the pond, brook or lake without thought to where the fish might be. The adept fisherman will consider the time of day, the season, the depth of the water, the temperature, whether it rains or shines. The adept fisherman will consider bait and lure. The adept fisherman will catch the fish he’s fishing for.

The study of rhetoric, up until the 19th century, was part and parcel of a child’s and young adult’s education. The intent was to treat children how to present and develop their thoughts persuasively and clearly. The study of rhetoric, after all, sprang from Greek oratory and debate. This was rhetoric’s purview, not philosophy’s. The closest modern school children come to rhetoric is the five paragraph essay, and even that has fallen by the wayside.

But if you truly want to understand what makes the poetry of Shakespeare, Milton, Keats and even Robert Frost and other modernist poets, great, then understanding rhetoric will go some way toward teaching you. If you want to absorb their art into your own poetry, then consider a passable familiarity with rhetoric a flashlight in a dark room.

As far as English poetry and rhetoric are concerned, the sixteenth century represents the flowering of both. The favored classical rhetorician was  Cicero. Other rhetoricians included Quintilian, Trapezuntius, Erasmus, Melancthon, and Diomedes. The effort of 16th Century rhetoricians wasn’t so much reinventing the wheel, but organizing, categorizing and expanding on the work already done. The most influential of  these was George Puttenham, who wrote The Arte of English Poesie. Most importantly, Puttenham’s book is a defense of the English language (the vernacular) and of poetry written in the English language (as opposed to Latin or French). He writes:

And if the art of Poesy be but skill appertaining to utterance why may not the same be with us as well as with them [classical poets], our language being no less copious pithy and significative than theirs, our conceits the same, and our wits no less apt to devise and imitate than theirs were? If again Art be but a certain order of rules prescribed by reason and gathered by experience, why should Poesy be a vulgar Art with us as well as with the Greeks and Latins, our language admitting no fewer rules and nice diversities than theirs?

This was the spirit in which Shakespeare came of age – when a poem was an act of linguistic patriotism. Inventiveness and wit in language were  valued not just in respect to the speaker or poet, but the language itself. When the Elizabethans established Iambic Pentameter as the meter of the English Language, they did so with a sense of pride. When Elizabethan poets sported their knowledge of rhetoric in poetry and drama, they were simultaneously asserting their pride in their nation. Of all our great poets, no reader can truly understand or appreciate Shakespeare’s art without appreciating his knowledge of rhetoric. The ease with which Shakespeare drew on this knowledge and displayed it in his poetry and drama is fully comparable to Johann Sebastian Bach’s profound knowledge and ease with the “rhetoric” of counterpoint. Just as counterpoint was considered the non plus ultra of baroque musical knowledge, a 16th century poet’s use of rhetoric was considered the highest statement of his art.

How can my Muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O, give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
· If my slight Muse do please these curious days,
· The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 38

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 38 is a playful and artful display of Ironia (the Greek term) or Illusio (the Latin term). In the sixteenth century Irony was more strictly defined as saying one thing while meaning another. While proclaiming the poverty of his sonnet’s rhetorical inventiveness he simultaneously promises that his efforts will “outlive long date” – that is, contrary to his assertions, his verse is in fact very clever and rhetorically inventive!

Shakespeare complains that his Muse wants subject to “invent“. Cicero’s most famous discourse on Rhetoric was called De Inventione. Invention, as Cicero defined it, was ‘the discovery of valid or seemingly valid arguments to render one’s case plausible’. From invention (the assertion of an idea) follows the argument (it’s working out). The phrase ‘eternal numbers’ is figurative (rhetorical) language for verse and meter (numbers eventually came to refer to meter). Shakespeare returns to this theme in Sonnet 76, when he writes:

Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do  I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed[?]

Invention, once again, refers to the rhetorical creativity of his ideas. The phrase noted weed refers the manner (in this case the sonnet) in which he clothes his ideas. (Weeds, in Elizabethan times, was another word for clothes.)

Elizabethan Dramatists and Poets assumed their audiences were equally familiar with rhetoric, all educated Elizabethans having been trained in the same grammar schools. Here’s Ben Jonson in the The Alchemist:

O, this’s no true Grammar,
And as ill Logick! You must render causes, child,
Your first, and second Intentions, know your canons,
And your divisions, moodes, degrees, and differences,
Your praedicaments, substance, and accident,
Series externe, and interne, with their causes
Efficient, materiall, formall, finall,
And ha’ your elements perfect. (4.2.21)

Each one of the italicized words refers to a figure of rhetoric which most educated Elizabethans would have recognized. It’s all but opaque to modern poets, let alone audiences.

Fortunately, if you’re curious and want to learn more, you don’t have to read Puttenham or Cicero, below are several of the best books on Rhetoric from the most general to the more detailed:

A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms

  • An alphabetical list of rhetorical figures with modern definitions.

A Handbook of Sixteenth Century Rhetoric

  • The above can be a hard to find book. It offers an alphabetical list of rhetorical figures but with examples and definitions from 16th Century rhetoricians.

Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language

  • A thorough book by Sister Miriam-Joseph. She gives examples of nearly every rhetorical figure as exploited by Shakespeare.

The Classical Rhetoric of English Poetry

  • This book isn’t a catalog of figures like the others. Vickers discusses the importance of classical rhetoric to English Poetry.

Renaissance Figures of Speech

  • A recent publication (2008). A thorough and categorical overview and discussion of rhetoric then and its abiding influence now.

Shakespeare’s Wordcraft

  • This last book may be, in some ways, the most easily enjoyed. The author, Scott Kaiser deliberately eschews the Latin and Greek terms historically used to classify figures of rhetoric. This is both good and bad. It’s good if you just want an  overview of rhetorical techniques (with examples from Shakespeare) and don’t need to know the names. It’s bad if you need to know the names. Maybe you want to look them up to find out how other poets used the same techniques? Kaiser’s book is useless in this regard.

The Poet’s Almanac ❧ The Artful Language

The Poet’s Almanac: 365 Days of Poetry

Week One
Artful Language

Ask the average person what separates Poetry from Prose and many readers might still answer that a poem rhymes and prose doesn’t. The rhyme may well be the feature with longest and most consistent history in the poetry of all cultures.

The earliest evidence of rhyming is commonly ascribed to China’s Book of Songs – compiled in 600 BC. The Book of Songs represents China’s earliest collection of poetry – believed to span some 600 years. The earliest poems may date as far back as 1200 BCE. While fully half of the poems may be lyrics or songs, more interesting are those which may not be. When did poetry make the transition from being ‘words to music’? When did the human ear decide that the music of language was beautiful in and of itself? China’s Book of Songs may quietly suggest the transition.

Plop fall the plums; but there are still seven.
Let any gentleman that would court me
Come while it is lucky!

Plop fall the plums; there are still three.
Let any gentleman that would court me
Come before it is too late!

Plop fall the plums; in shallow baskets we lay them.
Any gentleman who would court me
Had better speak while there is time.

• Arthur Waley translation from Anthology of Chinese Literature

How long has it been since the girl offered her love? Meter is nothing more than the echo of music’s time signature. Rhyme is nothing more than an echo of a melody’s refrain. Until the 2oth Century, when free verse all but quieted these echos, the music of our ancient ancestors survived in our poetry. In April of 2004 National Geographic reported the discovery of ancient Egyptian Love Poetry. The poems are likely to predate China’s Book of Songs, making them, in fact, the earliest surviving evidence of rhyme. In his book The Ancient Egyptian Culture Revealed, Moustafa Gadalla writes:

The Egyptians perceived language and music as two sides of the same coin. Spoken, written, and musical composition follow the same esact patterns. Both poetry and singing followed similar rules for musical composition. Poetry is written not only with a rhyme scheme, but also with a recurring pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. Each syllable alternates between accented and unaccented, making a double/quadruple mater and several other varieties. Patterns of set rhytyhms or lengths of Ancient Egyptian poems, praises, hymns, and songs of all kinds, which are known to have been chanted or performed with some musical accompaniment were rhythmic with uniform meters and a structured rhyme. p. 155

The Harper’s Song for Inherkhawy (Excerpt)

So seize the day! hold holiday!
Be unwearied, unceasing, alive
you and your own true love;
Let not the heart be troubled during your
sojourn on Earth,
but seize the day as it passes!

(Translated by J.L. Foster)

China’s Book of Songs and Ancient Egypt’s Love poetry has more than rhyme and meter in common. Women’s voices sing strongly in the ancient poetry and songs of both cultures – women were as equally desirous of life and love as men and were as joyfully smitten with the beauty of language.  Writes the National Geographic:

Women’s voices were strong in Egyptian poetry—as the narrators of poems or as lovers making choices about their beloveds, for example. This strength confirms that women had a higher position in ancient Egyptian culture than in other societies at the time, Wilfong said. Women may even have written some of the poetry.

Further Information:

Handbook for the Studies of Eastern Literatures: Book of Songs
Ancient Nile’s ancient Egypt – Egyptian Poems /Poetry
Ancient History Sourcebook:  Egyptian Love Poetry, c. 2000 – 1100 BCE

Love Poems from Ancient Egypt
Amazon: Reading Ancient Egyptian Poetry Among Other Histories

The Poet’s Almanac ❧ The Storytellers

The Poet’s Almanac: 365 Days of Poetry

Week One
The Storytellers

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 translationGilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse – a blank verse translation (the same meter as Paradise Lost).

The Story

of him who knew the most of all men know;
who made the journey; heartbroken; reconciled;

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.

Further Information:

The Epic of Gilgamesh: An online Translation

Storytelling, the Meaning of Life, and the Epic of Gilgamesh