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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Michael Leddy interviews

Stanley Lombardo

This piece is 7,600 words or about sixteen printed pages long

You can read translations from Homer and Sappho by Stanley Lombardo in this issue of Jacket.

Photo of Stanley Lombardo Stanley Lombardo is Professor of Classics at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, where he has taught since 1976. He teaches Greek and Latin at all levels, along with courses in classical mythology and Greek literature and culture. His translations include Homer’s Iliad (recipient of the Byron Caldwell Book Award) and Odyssey, Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogeny (recipient of a National Translation Center Award), and Poems and Fragments of Sappho. He is known for performance as well as translation and has given dramatic readings from his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey on campuses throughout the United States, at the Smithsonian Institution and the Chicago Poetry Center, and on National Public Radio and C-SPAN. He is currently recording his Iliad and Odyssey for Parmenides Publishing.

He is also a Zen Master, and the guiding teacher of Zen Centers in Arkansas and Indiana. He is editor and co-editor of three of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s books (Bone of Space, Only Don't Know, and Ten Gates).

I visited Stanley Lombardo in Lawrence in April 2002. Our interview took place on a Saturday morning in a Classics seminar room. I brought a backpack full of books that I thought might be useful to have at hand — all of Lombardo’s poetry translations, the Loeb Classical Library editions of the Iliad and Odyssey, Georg Autenrieth’s Homeric Dictionary, and Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz’s Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, a book that, as it turned out, Lombardo already knew quite well. This interview is edited from three hours of taped conversation.

— Michael Leddy

Leddy: What was your first exposure to classical literature?

Lombardo: I guess the very first exposure was as a sophomore in high school, where the Odyssey is still often read in excerpted form. It made some sort of impression on me, but not that much. The first real exposure was at Loyola University in New Orleans. I took Latin as the foreign language, and we started to read things like the Fables of Phaedrus. That was okay, but it really didn’t make much of an impression on me either. It was when I started Greek in my sophomore year — it was either Greek or a sociology course, so I was going to do Greek, and the course was based on Homer. Father Emmett Bienvenu, to whom I dedicated my translation of the Odyssey, wanted us to get on to Homer as soon as possible. We wound up doing all the grammar, but we started Homer in something like the third week. As soon as I had read the first two lines of the Odyssey, that’s where — well, it was more than exposure; it was penetration. It just went deep into my consciousness, and that was it; I was launched.

Leddy: In the postscript to your translation of the Odyssey, you write that poetry was the stream of your life before reading Homer. In what ways?

Lombardo: It was the one thing that I wanted to immerse myself in deeply. Immersion — so there you have the stream of my life. We started to read poetry in freshman year of high school, and whatever we were reading absolutely captivated me, and I started to write myself, read everything I could about poetry, read as much poetry as I could, wrote incessantly. I don’t know if I really thought of myself as a poet. I knew I wasn’t there yet, you know.

Leddy: What were you reading?

Lombardo: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beowulf — trying to read some of it in the original, in whatever way I could. The Romantics, especially Keats and Coleridge, but also Wordsworth. I memorized ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat, The Waste Land. I would sit in a rocking chair — this is still in high school — listening to Albert Finney recordings of Shakespeare, Richard Burton’s recording of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ Dylan Thomas. I would borrow them from the library. Poetry as oral performance came into my consciousness very early. I realized that performance is the completion of the publication, of the making public of a poem.

Leddy: The experience that you describe in the postscript to your translation of the Odyssey — of reading the first few lines of the poem and feeling that you wanted to translate Homer and meet his poetry with your own — that seems like a relatively unusual experience for a future classicist.

Lombardo: Well, I didn’t think of myself as a future classicist [laughs]. I tried to translate Homer when I was in college, as soon as I read it, and realized, ‘This isn’t poetry.’ I had to get up to another level, both in Greek and in my own writing. So I came to major in classics because I wanted to learn more Greek, and Latin too. You know how that goes; before you know it, you’ve fulfilled the requirements for a major. I also felt that I was learning more about poetry in the Greek and Latin courses than in the English courses. I went on to Tulane University, right next door to Loyola, and got an M.A., and then to the University of Texas for a Ph.D. I wanted to go to Texas for the translators there — William Arrowsmith and Douglass Parker, preeminently. I thought of myself as a poet-translator. That’s what I was going for.

Leddy: How does the work of translation ‘sit’ in the world of a classics department? Are classicists generally interested in seeing how Homer, or anyone else, comes across into English?

Lombardo: More and more, there’s been a change in attitude among classicists toward translation as a legitimate activity. When I came to Lawrence for a job interview in 1976, my advisor at the University of Texas said, ‘Don’t you dare go up there and talk about translation. You give them something philological.’ So I said, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ I wasn’t going to misrepresent myself. I came and talked about my translation of Aratus’ Phaenomena. I was presenting myself as a poet-translator; I worked just a little bit of philology into it. I was hired, and I received tenure on the basis of translation, which back then was a somewhat tenuous proposition.

Leddy: Did you look at translations of Homer while in college?

Lombardo: T.E. Shaw, W.H.D. Rouse, the Victorian prose translations. I think Rouse’s was the first translation that I read. Back then most of the translations, except for Richmond Lattimore’s, were prose. I don’t think I read Lattimore in college. Not until graduate school was I even aware of him, I don’t know why. There weren’t many poetic translations that I responded to. I didn’t particularly like Pope, although now I have a better appreciation of his translation. I did like Chapman from the beginning. [Recites.]

Achilles’ baneful wrath resound, O goddess, that imposed
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loosed
From their breasts heroic.

Leddy: What about Robert Fitzgerald?

Lombardo: When I first read Fitzgerald, around 1970, I began to sense the possibilities of what a poetic translation of Homer might be like. Fitzgerald renewed my interest in translating Homer. But at that point still, there was no way I could compete with Fitzgerald, or have my own voice equivalent to what he was doing. Another ten years went by until I had the nerve to try myself, in the mid-to-late 1980s.

Leddy: What were you after in translating Homer that you didn’t find in Fitzgerald or other translations?

Lombardo: Let me begin by saying what I did find in Fitzgerald, which was a reimagining of the poem. By ‘reimagining’ I mean seeing the poem as if for the first time, with the attending sense of wonder, awe, and respect, with insight into the thing’s deep down freshness — going beyond the Greek words to glimpse the original experience. Other translations I’d read didn’t show any reimagining really, with the possible exception of Shaw. Then also in the early 1970s, when I first read Fitzgerald, I read Christopher Logue’s Patrocleia. What I saw in Logue was a complete reimagining of the poem, far beyond Fitzgerald, and the use of a cinematic imagination, especially in the way Logue would shape a scene — the sharp cuts, the modulation of the voices, the desperate urgency of the narrative. It’s wonderful stuff — I love all of it. But I didn’t want to do the sort of work Logue was doing. Even in the Patrocleia, where he’s closest to the Greek, it’s maybe 70% Homer, and 30% is not there in the Greek at all. In Kings, we’re down to 20% Homer. I wondered: Can I do something like that and still have it be 99% Homer and maybe less than 1% me?

Leddy: From the way you speak of ‘Homer,’ it’s pretty clear that you see the poems as the work of a single imagination. Is this something of a poetic intuition?

Lombardo: Yes.

Leddy: Not based upon particular textual arguments?

Lombardo: No, I’m aware of them, but I’m not swayed too much by textual arguments. The textual arguments show different strata. Well, my translations have different strata.

Leddy: Like the echo of Tennyson’s ‘Tithonus,’ ‘Then shook the morning into flakes of fire’ [Odyssey 5].

Lombardo: Or ‘Brightness falls from the air’ [Iliad 16], from 1600, when Nashe wrote ‘A Litany in Time of Plague.’ But it’s still one voice.

Leddy: How long did it take you to translate Homer?

Lombardo: I started the Iliad in 1987, and it was published in 1997. So in that sense, ten years. But along the way I published two or three other things — Hesiod, Lao-Tzu, Plato. I really got to work on the Iliad around 1993, after finishing Hesiod, so three or four years of pretty constant work. I did Books 22 and 1 of the Iliad first. I thought, Let me do a book of the Odyssey [Book 5] and see how that goes. And then I decided to go ahead with the Iliad.

I remember starting the Odyssey the very moment after I typed the last line of the Iliad that I translated, which was the last line of Book 23 — that was where I finished. And I said, Oh my God, I’ve finished the Iliad; what am I going to do? So I started right in on the Odyssey [laughs]. It was published in 2000, so three years on the Odyssey.

Leddy: Robert Fitzgerald spoke of carrying around a copy of David Jones’ Anathemata as a talisman while he was translating the Odyssey.

Lombardo: Really!

Leddy: Did you have a talisman that helped your work?

Lombardo: I work with a laptop, almost exclusively. There’s some room in front of the keyboard, and on it I would put a Greek coin that has the head of Homer. I used that for the Iliad, and for the Odyssey, the flip side of that coin is a Greek ship. So that was my talisman for translating Homer.

Leddy: Did you feel more at home in one of the poems than the other?

Lombardo: Originally I felt more at home in the Iliad, because the poetry in some sense is of a higher order. It’s always intense — you have only a few moments of letting down, a little comic relief here and there. And I was little bit concerned about the Odyssey. What’s distinctive about the Iliad is the surging drive of its scenes. I found myself piling on participial phrases to capture some of that. I got used to working with that technique, but I found it less applicable in the Odyssey, which has a more relaxed feeling. What helped, maybe more than anything, was working with the choreographer Susan Warden as my editor, which helped me see the movement of the Odyssey more as art. Once I saw it that way, and saw how the scenes are shaped — very differently from the Iliad — the movement of the verse in shaping a scene became very important. That’s what I call the choreography of the lines. Once I got into that, I began to feel very much at home.

Leddy: How did your other translations prepare you — or not prepare you — to approach Homer?

Lombardo: In some sense it was a conscious program of warming up for Homer, of developing my skills. Much of that translating was hexameter poetry: Parmenides and Empedocles, Aratus, Hesiod. Callimachus has a lot of hexameter verse in his hymns. So I worked out what I wanted to do with the hexameter line, a line that is strongly rhythmic. I follow what Eliot says in his essay on free verse, that there has to be the ghost of meter behind the tapestry. The ghost of meter that’s behind my translation of the hexameter line is — I really think it’s anapestic tetrameter. Being a verse form with two short syllables, the anapestic is analogous to the dactylic verse of Homer, so I’m pretty happy with this line. It’s been said that natural speech in English is actually anapestic, not iambic. I think of the line as an American line of poetry, based on speech and breath. The rhythm is not simply the phrasing and the colometry and the line endings. The rhythm is based on speech, strongly rhythmic natural speech.

Leddy: You’re pretty clearly drawing upon Pound in thinking about the line here, aren’t you?

Lombardo: Very definitely from Pound.

Leddy: And Charles Olson, with the idea of breath?

Lombardo: Certainly the idea. And here’s an interesting aside on breath. I’ve been recording performances of the Iliad and the Odyssey for Parmenides Publishing. The audio engineer has to edit out all the little mouth sounds now, because the recording is so high-fidelity that they’re annoying. One time he edited out all of the breaths, to make a point. You begin to get very nervous. The phrasing is unnatural. He explained to me that the art of editing is to leave just the breaths that are really part of the performance. That was a good confirmation for me of the line being based on breath.

Leddy: When in translating do you look at the other person’s answer? When you have various contemporary translations easily enough at hand, do you look?

Lombardo: Hardly ever. Very, very seldom. However, I had Logue’s Patrocleia memorized, and I was very familiar with Fitzgerald, so some phrases were inevitably there. Sometimes I’d deliberately imitate one of them. For instance, the second line of my Iliad begins ‘Black and murderous,’ and that’s a homage to Fitzgerald, the same rhythm as Fitzgerald’s ‘doomed and ruinous.’ And likewise with Logue, every now and then some phrase, often not where he would have it. Translators do this — you’re in a poetic tradition, just as Homer was. So for instance ‘the wine-dark sea’ is a ritual formula for us. It first appears in a Victorian prose translation, I think.

Leddy: If you’re in a tradition, are you also competing? George Steiner says that the relation of a new translation to previous ones is ‘corrective and agonistic.’ To what extent, if any, do you see your sense of Homer as competing with that of Lattimore, Fitzgerald, and Robert Fagles?

Lombardo: They’re so different from each other, all four. There’s certainly room for all of them, and room for every translation of Homer. My basic attitude is respect for anyone who’s published a translation of Homer. I feel that it’s more like a society than a competition. But of course it’s competitive. I would see my translations as competitive with translations starting with Lattimore. I certainly was competing with Fagles whether I wanted to or not. I was sending my Iliad around to publishers just when Fagles’ Iliad had come out, to reviews that were saying that it was the ultimate Iliad. I was amazed actually — the readers’ reports would come back saying, ‘I had thought Fagles was it, but no, I think maybe this is it.’ Still, in taking my Iliad on, Hackett made a tremendous leap of faith. And then of course my Odyssey came out a couple of years after Fagles’ Odyssey. I’ve never met Fagles, though we’ve done readings on the same night in the same town, in Austin, Texas.

Leddy: I like to read across translations, checking any details that happen to catch my eye. Here are two passages of Athena speaking in the Odyssey, in Fagles’ translation and yours. This is Athena speaking to Odysseus in 13:

‘[S]o, not even here, on native soil, would you give up
those wily tales that warm the cockles of your heart!’ [Fagles]

‘Even in your own land you weren’t about
To give up the stories and sly deceits
That are so much a part of you.’ [Lombardo]

And to Telemachus in 15:

       ‘Sooner the earth
will swallow down a few of those young gallants
who eat you out of house and home these days!’ [Fagles]

‘Those mooching suitors
will be in their graves before they can get at you.’ [Lombardo]

Lombardo: I think that’s a fair representation of Fagles, and maybe of me. I think Athena in my translation has a kind of dignity that a god must have. But it’s a sense of assurance, rather than diction. For me, the art of translating Homer is to use natural speech as characterization, to manage to make natural speech into poetry. One could argue that Homer’s poetic dialect is artificial, and that therefore we should use an artificial dialect in translating. But Homer goes the other way around: he takes a poetic dialect and makes it into natural speech. In my translations I take natural speech and make it into poetry. The processes mirror each other.

Leddy: Your Iliad and Odyssey have met with great praise from classicists. But they’re also ‘controversial’ — a characterization that seems to come only from Greekless readers. What expectations are such readers bringing to Homer?

Lombardo: That because it’s a classical work, it should sound like Elizabethan English, or at least have some element of archaic diction — I think those are the expectations. I suspect that these expectations come, ultimately, from the King James Version of the Bible, and from Shakespeare. If Milton were read more, I would blame Milton.

I don’t know of any classicist who has said anything negative about my translations. I’m sure there are some who don’t like them, but they’ve never said anything in public [laughs]. I think you’re right, that it’s Greekless readers who see them as controversial. Their only basis for comparison is other translations, which except for Fitzgerald and maybe T.E. Shaw, do have some of that archaic quality. So they think that must be the way Homer is. But for Homer’s audience, there’s no doubt that the poetry was an immediate, direct, vital experience, or it wouldn’t have survived, much less had the reputation that it had.

Leddy: There are some moments in your translations that are startling in their contemporaneity — for instance, Little Ajax’s exclamation ‘Shit!’ during the funeral games for Patroclus. I can imagine a reader objecting that an Iliadic hero would never say such a thing (and, literally, doesn’t). Yet other such moments are entirely true to the Greek. I’m delighted to see, for instance, that your inspired phrase in Iliad 5, ‘the automatic gates of heaven,’ with its suggestions of estates and gated communities, has its basis in the Greek, in the word automatai. Are there other such moments, where Homer’s Greek has a surprisingly exact fit in contemporary English?

Lombardo: Let me find one in Iliad 7. Hector is challenging the Greeks to a duel, and Menelaus is the first to stand up. It’s his job, you know.

‘This day will go down in infamy’ —

which is of course another modernism, but perfectly in context —

‘If no Danaan meets Hector’s challenge now.
May you all turn to mud.’

William Levitan, who has been with me since graduate school as an arbiter of literary taste, looked at a lot of my Iliad. When I sent this to him, he didn’t believe it, and then he looked at the Greek and it said exactly that. Sometimes what’s startling is what’s simply literal, what other translators may feel they have to soften. Similar expressions, equally startling, that are not exactly there in the Greek but the spirit is there, are thus completely justifiable. That level of diction is already established by Homer.

Leddy: ‘Bite the dust’ would be another example of the startling and literal, wouldn’t it?

Lombardo: Yes, that’s exactly what’s said. That’s the literal translation.

Leddy: At times you move from the Greek word or phrase into new possibilities of poetic language. In Iliad 15 the word kudalimoio, ‘glorious, renowned,’ describing Great Ajax, becomes a striking phrase — ‘As if scissored out of the sky.’ In Iliad 18 Achilles’ heavensent armor, which in other translations is simply ‘flashing’ or ‘shining,’ is carried ‘through the sky like summer lightning.’ I’m reminded of what Odysseus says of Demodocus’ poetry — ‘It’s as if you had been there yourself,’ and of what Homer himself says of Demodocus — ‘He made them see it happen.’ Do such moments represent a kind of heightened perception, as if you’re not translating but rewitnessing the realities of the poem?

Lombardo: Yes, that’s very much the idea, and it’s something that I saw in Logue, the visual element. Homer is so much about sound that we tend to overlook the visual element. Take kudalimoio, for instance: it’s the sound of it that makes you see Ajax. You don’t even have to know what it means; he’s [with great emphasis] KUDALIMOIO. But you can’t do that in English.

Leddy: Not with the word ‘glorious.’

Lombardo: No. In fact I don’t think we have a word that’s acoustically on the same level with kudalimoio. So you have to do it a different way, almost cinematically, as if you’re writing a screenplay and trying to give the director an idea of what Ajax should look like. Some screenplay writers are very good at this, and might use such a phrase — ‘as if scissored out of the sky’ — to show some kind of heroic stature, as if you’re almost in an altered state of consciousness when you’re seeing it.

Leddy: The introduction to your translation [with Stephen Addiss] of the Tao makes clear your preference for the concrete to the abstract — e.g., ‘headwaters’ instead of ‘order.’ I notice in your Iliad that Ajax is an ‘Achaean wall,’ not a ‘bulwark,’ as in other translations. ‘Wall’ is concrete, while ‘bulwark’ for many readers is probably an abstraction. Is there a Fenellosa-Pound connection here?

Lombardo: Yes — recovering the original experience behind the word. Homeric Greek is old enough that you can at least imagine Homer being aware of the original experience. I think that’s his direction. You want to take everything that’s embedded in the word. Like glaukôpis. Glau is grey, but in which associations? Grey of the sea? of iron? It’s also the word for owl. ‘Grey-eyed’ is fine — very specific, but that’s an example of unpacking everything that’s in a Greek word.

When Homer’s audience heard ‘an Achaean wall,’ I think that’s exactly what they heard. It’s right there, and Ajax is an in-your-face kind of guy. [Markedly dropping his voice] ‘Your move, Hector.’ ‘The gristle that was his face arranged into a smile’ [Iliad 7] — I’m trying to get under Ajax’s skin. Homer might not be doing it exactly like that right there, but if it’s a mark of the poet’s style, you certainly want to get it in somewhere, so that in the context of the whole poem, everything in your poet is somehow represented.

Leddy: Douglass Parker notes the high proportion of short words in your Homer. Looking at Homeric Vocabularies I’m struck by how many of Homer’s longish words come across in one or two syllables: salt, wind, man, city, king, belly, heap, dust. It’s like a primal vocabulary. Were you consciously choosing short words, or are they simply the result of a faithful translation?

Lombardo: Homer’s direction is extremely concrete and vivid, and that’s what’s behind my language. William Levitan’s advice was ‘Don’t use any polysyllabic words.’ Or any words with a Latin etymology. So I was conscious of monosyllabic words, but I was also conscious of playing off polysyllabic words with monosyllabic words, and Latinate words with English words, as Shakespeare does. [Recites.]

                       No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

[Macbeth 2.2.60–62]

That’s very effective. So at the very beginning of the Iliad:

         Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain. 

Just the juxtaposition of incalculable and pain is an effect I want. I don’t do it often, because I am deeply into the monosyllabic diction, but every now and then I insist on it.

Leddy: These sorts of choices are no doubt lost on many student readers.

Lombardo: Yes.

Leddy: Along with touches like ‘Brightness falls from the air’ and ‘Speak, Memory,’ the opening words of your Odyssey. How did you think about matters of audience — student readers and other readers — when translating?

Lombardo: I had my feet in two places, I guess. Hackett publishes books for text adoption in courses, so it has to work for students. My other direction is that I’m writing for poets. So I was trying to do both things simultaneously. In retrospect, I’m very glad, because it certainly hasn’t always been that way in translations.

Leddy: You’ve had, I know, many positive responses to your translations of Homer from teachers and students. Do you hear from those whom Logue calls ‘the hopelessly insane, the hard core of Unprofessional Ancient Greek Readers’?

Lombardo: We had many of those on the NPR ‘Talk of the Nation’ about the Iliad [National Public Radio call-in show] — Homer freaks coming out of the woodwork, people from every walk of life. It was wonderful [laughs].

Leddy: Let’s talk about performance, Homeric performance and your own performance practice. We see two kinds of poetry performance in the Odyssey. One I think of as ‘greatest hits,’ when Demodocus is taking requests and performing isolated passages in the court of the Phaeacians. We also see Odysseus doing four episodes as the work of an evening. What are your intuitions about performance practice in the ancient world?

Lombardo: We really don’t know much about this, but my intuition is that Homer was perhaps the first poet to succeed in a long performance. I think Homer is representing himself in Books 9 through 12 of the Odyssey. Most of the time performances probably were small pieces, not lasting more than an hour or two, and that would be the entire work. Whereas Homer is more like the producer of a serial [laughs]: ‘Tune in tomorrow.’ The poems are constructed that way. The division of the poems into books used to be taken as Alexandrian, 500 years after Homer. Gregory Nagy is now arguing that they go back to performance tradition. And anyway, we know that the Alexandrian editors consulted rhapsodes on matters of pronunciation, so they may well have consulted rhapsodes on the issue of the division. Or they may simply have been familiar with the division from performances.

These matters are also connected to the question of whether Homer wrote. The architecture of the poems: how could you do that without writing? My intuition is that you can probably do it better without writing. I’ve performed Iliad 1 and Odyssey 5 from memory, so I know what it’s like to have a book of Homer ‘in mind,’ because the symmetries are within books as well as in the whole. You experience the poetry in a different way. I think that’s how Homer came to this level of composition — through performance.

Leddy: Would you think of something like the Ring Cycle, with a number of episodes as an evening’s poetry, and the whole work being performed in perhaps a week’s time?

Lombardo: Or maybe just two or three days. We have to remember that Athenian audiences would sit through nine hours of tragic performance. I think six days though. Each poem falls into natural four-book units.

Leddy: How did your own performance practice begin?

Lombardo: It began at the University of Texas, where every week we would do play readings. It was a wonderful department for that — there’d be a party and we’d read a play. We also recorded performances for radio of the Iliad and the Odyssey in Fitzgerald’s translations.

My own performances began with Parmenides. My sense of Parmenides was that this was real poetry, not just philosophy. And being real poetry it was performance. I got together a performance of Parmenides with a musical background. And as soon as I started translating Homer, in fact as soon as I had one book, Book 22 of the Iliad, Book 5 of the Odyssey, I started to perform it, in classes and small groups, and it went on and on.

Leddy: When did you begin to use a drum?

Lombardo: At a philosophy conference in Kansas City, where Hackett had arranged a reading for me. (Hackett used to be known almost exclusively for publishing philosophical works.) For some reason I brought this drum — I’d never used it before. I remember marking up my text before the performance, indicating how the drumming would go. And it worked. Audiences really respond to it; it adds a certain kind of tension.

Leddy: Did you ever consider a lyre?

Lombardo: Of course. I spent a weekend with the singer Richard Dyer-Bennett, who was then preparing to record Fitzgerald’s Odyssey. This was shortly before Dyer-Bennett’s death; he never did it. He loved Fitzgerald’s translation, and around 1980 he started to work it into his repertory. His audiences liked it so much that he dropped everything else and became a rhapsode [laughs]. And of course he played stringed instruments, and he had a lyre built. He showed me his lyre and did the song of the Sirens, and some other pieces. And I didn’t like it. I was disappointed with the effects that he got. So I never pursued it.

Leddy: What performances have been particularly memorable for you?

Lombardo: I suppose my most memorable performance was here in the Inge Theater, a black-box theater. This was a 2-1/2 hour performance, a condensed Iliad, not memorized, but rehearsed — the only time I’ve ever rehearsed a Homer reading. A black-box theater is perfect for that kind of performance. I’ve performed in large auditoriums several times, and some of those have worked very well. When you can hold an audience of 500, you’re really pleased. It’s easy in a black-box theatre.

Leddy: You’ve never performed in costume, have you?

Lombardo: Well, once. It was for a chautauqua here*. I had the wreath, you know, and the clothes, and even the sandals. It was a humorous chautauqua, and I did everything in Greek, including answering questions, but I also mimed the answers. I kept my eyes closed because I was supposed to be blind — it was played mostly for laughs. But when I recited the Iliad, it was for real, in Greek.

* Chau-tau-qua n. [pron: shuh-TOK-wuh]

1. Lake, a lake in SW New York state, 18 miles (29 km) long.
2. a village on this lake: summer educational center.
3. an annual educational meeting, originating in this village in 1874, providing public lectures, concerts, and dramatic performances during the summer months, usually in an outdoor setting.
4. (usually l.c.) any similar assembly, esp. one of a number meeting in a circuit of communities.
           [Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary]

Leddy: You’re both a student and teacher of Zen Buddhism. How does Buddhism shape your understanding of Homer? Do you see Homer as a poet of great compassion?

Lombardo: I certainly do, more and more. Matthew Arnold’s statement about Sophocles, ‘Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole’: that’s one way to read Homer too. The notion in Buddhism is that if you really see life steadily and see it whole and see it clearly, you see the deep interconnectedness. I think Homer sees that, and that’s the source of his compassion — his broad and his very deep vision. He sees deeply into shin, the heart-mind. In Iliad 13, Homer is describing the play of light on the armor as the armies are advancing, and he has a comparison to light shining through a forest: ‘It was glorious to see’ — do you have that marked?

Leddy: I have that written out at the front of the book.

Lombardo: [Reads.]

It was glorious to see — if your heart were iron,
And you could keep from grieving at all the pain.

That’s compassion in his own voice. You wrote that out — so that hit you?

Leddy: Yes, I use that when I begin teaching the poem.

Lombardo: Great. You’re a man after my own heart [laughs].

Geryon depicted on a vase, Harvard 1972.42, Attic black figure amphora, c. 550-530 B.C.

Harvard 1972.42, Attic black figure amphora, c. 550-530 B.C. Side A: Geryon. Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of Harvard University Art Museums.

Leddy: I’m always struck by the eerie resonance Homer has for our culture. There’s the experience of berserking that Jonathan Shay explores in Achilles in Vietnam. And the all-too-familiar scenario of the berserker in the workplace or school. The diary of Columbine student Eric Harris sounds like Achilles’ ranting to Hector:

I want to tear a throat out with my own teeth like a pop can. I want to gut someone with my hand, to tear a head off and rip out the heart and lungs from the neck, to stab someone in the gut, shove it up to their heart, and yank the fucking blade out of their rib cage! I want to grab some weak little freshman and just tear them apart like a wolf, show them who is god.

Homer’s images seem to reappear: the dead American soldier dragged through the street in Somalia, the city under siege in Sarajevo, the river filled with dead bodies in the Rwandan genocide. And more recently, an image from a simile in Iliad 18 has come to pass: ‘Smoke is rising through the pure upper air / From a besieged city on a distant island.’ More and more, I feel as though we’re still living in the world as Homer gives it to us. Do you think Homer shows us human life as it irreparably is, both the beauty and —

Lombardo: And horror. Yes, I do. It’s the first noble truth in Buddhism: life is suffering. But the other three say there’s a way out of it, and I’m wondering if Homer points to a way out of it. If he does, it’s through fidelity, the fidelity in the Odyssey especially. But also the fidelity that soldiers have to each other in the Iliad. One of the noble things about the American military is that they don’t abandon their dead. Your hear these stories about a Marine swimming three miles with a corpse; he knows the soldier is dead but he’s going to bring him back. You see that in the Iliad. They will do anything to get Patroclus’ corpse back.

Leddy: How does fidelity differ from attachment?

Lombardo: Fidelity is for the other person; attachment is for oneself.

Leddy: I used to amuse my students by telling them that in Homer’s world one would introduce one’s partner as ‘the person I’m sleeping with,’ parakoitês or parakoitis. But now I find a profound sense of relationship in that word, as in the idea of partners who are homophrosunê, like-minded. Such words seem to imply not a practical arrangement but a remarkable intimacy.

Lombardo: Homophrosunê in the Odyssey is key. The poem can be seen as the development of homophrosunê between Odysseus and the women whom he encounters. With Odysseus and Calypso, their minds don’t meet at all. With Nausicaa there’s a meeting of minds, and on the appropriate level. It’s interesting what Circe says. At first she and Odysseus are completely at loggerheads, and then she says, Let’s go to bed, so that we’ll trust each other, establish a bond. And that’s a kind of homophrosunê.

Leddy: That’s an interesting sequence, because it’s not the chronological sequence.

Lombardo: Right, it’s the sequence in Homer’s narrative.

Leddy: The ultimate in homophrosunê would be the much-debated recognition scene, if it is a recognition scene, between Odysseus and Penelope in Odyssey 19. If oblique, coded communication is taking place between Odysseus and Penelope there, it would seem that Homer is making a narrative with the subtlety of Jane Austen or Henry James. What does that do to the well-known Erich Auerbach thesis about the transparency of Homeric narrative?

Lombardo: Homer does have a certain clarity of expression. But I think that as far as the narrative is concerned, it’s more complex. I think of Helen in the Iliad for instance, her relationship to Hector. There’s something there. Or Achilles and Patroclus, and the homoerotic relationship that is assumed in the later Greek world to be there. I think Homer consciously creates that kind of ambiguity. And so with Odysseus and Penelope, and the extent to which there’s recognition. In Book 19 I think he creates the ambiguity and pushes it to limits that must have amused him. I can imagine Homer performing Book 19 and having complete mastery over the audience. They’re leaning forward — are Odysseus and Penelope going to get to overt recognition? Because clearly they’re there. But they don’t, and Homer must have loved it.

Leddy: How do you see Penelope’s role in the poem? In the Loeb translation, Penelope speaks in 19 of the possibility of Odysseus coming back to ‘tend’ her life. But in your translation she says ‘If he were to come back and be part of my life.’ Do you see greater autonomy for Penelope, with Odysseus having to make himself part of a world that’s her own?

Lombardo: Let’s look at the Greek there. [Looking at the Loeb text] Amphipoleuoi [a form of amphipoleuô] is a verb that describes the work of a servant, someone who’s around the house and helps. As often, I go back to etymology, to try to express the deeper layer and at the same time suggest the current meaning that a word might have for Homer. Amphi means ‘around,’ and poleuô means ‘to turn about.’ As we say, ‘being around.’ She says literally, ‘to be around my life.’ Well, you can go both ways with that. You can be around in the sense of taking care of it, or you can simply be present and available, around.

Leddy: So the Greek doesn’t in any very clear way say tend ?

Lombardo: No. It might clearly mean that if there were, say, a shepherd tending flocks. It’s a strange expression, ‘to tend a life.’ I remember what I thought there; I considered ‘take care of me.’ And then I said ‘be a part of my life,’ because there’s an intimacy there. It does establish some autonomy as well, which Penelope always insists on.

Leddy: Do you see Homer as something of a feminist? Is he making poetry against patriarchy?

Lombardo: You could see Homer as a feminist, but what you’re really seeing is a mind that’s very large and infinitely attentive. That’s beyond gender.

Leddy: Your Sappho, Poems and Fragments, has just been published by Hackett. How did you come to work with her poetry?

Lombardo: Sappho is another poet whom I’ve wanted to translate since I first read her as an undergraduate. I translated just one poem as an undergraduate, maybe two, very short. The midnight poem is the only translation in the book that I did as an undergraduate:

The moon has set,
And the Pleiades.
              The hour has gone by.
I sleep alone.

What I couldn’t do then and couldn’t do for thirty years was the first line of the first poem, the hymn to Aphrodite. And in fact it was the first word, which is poikîlothron. Poikîlo means ‘variegated,’ ‘intricate,’ ‘multicolored.’ Thron can either mean ‘throne’ or ‘flowers.’ I never could do that, and just couldn’t stand anything I saw. ‘Dappled throne,’ ‘Throned in splendor,’ ‘A whittled perplexity your bright abstruse chair.’ Uh-uh.

In spring 2000 I taught a seminar on Sappho, the first time I’d taught Sappho for an entire semester, and in the course of that I came up with something I liked, and which established a voice for me. It goes,

                 deathless Aphrodite.

One reason I like it is for how acoustically one word leads into the next. Another is that I thought it reimagined Aphrodite, her presence, in a Sapphic way. And I thought finally that I’d caught the image, which is one of shimmering iridescence. It doesn’t matter if it’s a throne or flowers. We don’t have to decide. The translation captures the phenomenality, in a phenomenological way [laughs]. Once I had that, I did it all.

Leddy: What was it like to work with her poetry after Homer’s?

Lombardo: I think it’s Plato who says, ‘After Homer, Sappho.’ Which means that she comes in second only to Homer. She’s well aware of Homer, and she deliberately places herself in a Homeric context, takes on Homer, to establish herself. For instance, in the poem about Helen [31],

Some say an army on horseback,
some say on foot, and some say ships
are the most beautiful things
on this black earth,
                            but I say
it is whatever you love.

So she goes back to Homer, she’s using Homer to establish her individuality. Of course the poem becomes fragmentary, but you can see how it goes, it moves on to Anactoria, obviously describing a relationship with Anactoria.

That’s one way in which she takes on Homer. Another is in a poem [54] in which she has an epic simile — in lyric. It takes up a fair amount of the poem. The simile has a texture and unity and poetic quality that Homer never quite gets to. Every now and then he’ll have a simile that doesn’t wander off too much [laughs] from the initial point of comparison. The way Sappho moves into the simile, through, and back, it’s as if she’s saying, Okay Homer, this is how you do an epic simile. Not that Homer isn’t a master, but she has her own style.

And her poem about the wedding of Hector and Andromache [24] is ‘oriental’ in its lushness — the sounds, the smells, the descriptions of clothing. I think she’s establishing her sensuality there, which goes beyond any kind of sensuality in Homer.

Leddy: Your Sappho translations look and sound remarkably contemporary. For instance, 17,

            I can
may it be mine
to shine on me
                      your face
             close whistling

Or 53,

enough smoothness

           the wind
until the branch
           while I live

Did anyone in contemporary poetry influence your handling of the line in Sappho? Larry Eigner, perhaps?

Lombardo: That sort of convention in contemporary poetry, definitely, though not any particular poet. It could be Larry Eigner, but it’s a general memory, a general visual impression. Certainly Olson, in the use of the page. And as it worked out, every poem fit onto one page, even the longest ones. That was very nice, and I was so grateful.

I write in the preface to the translation about my interest in the rhythmic phrase and making it work on the page. The sapphic stanza, which Sappho uses and may have invented, has a strong caesura, as do her other lines. That’s how Sappho’s poems move. Some people think the hexameter line comes from the lyric, from rhythmic phrases put together, usually three phrases in a line. In translating hexameter you don’t want to separate and use the page that way, because it’s going on and on and on, and the flow is very important. But I thought for lyric it was right. To represent it, you break it up.

The aesthetic of the fragment is Poundian of course, ‘Spring... Too long... Gongula... ’

Leddy: There’s a line that I think you might like from the poet Clark Coolidge, ‘Fragments are our wholes.’

Lombardo: I like that very much. I wish I had it in the preface.

Leddy: Is there anyone else that you’re particularly wanting to translate? I know you have mixed feelings about Vergil. What about Ovid?

Lombardo: I’ve thought about Ovid, but all that playfulness would get to me after a while. Too much [laughs]. Vergil is very tempting, but I am ambivalent still. I haven’t found Vergil’s voice, his mind. Vergil is a kind of contemplative who finds himself writing epic, at the average pace of about three lines a day. I used to listen to Beethoven’s late quartets when I was translating Empedocles. I think I’ll try Gregorian chant for Vergil.

Leddy: One last question. Is there a muse of translation, and if so, what is her name?

Lombardo: Mind. The word Muse in Greek means ‘mind’ originally. It’s originally mont, cognate with ment, which comes into Latin. The suffix was a -ya sound, montya, and eventually that came to be Mousa, which I sometimes translate, though not in poetry, as ‘mind-goddess.’ Memory could be another answer. Memory, Mnemosyne, is the mother of the Muses, and memory is the closest word we have in English to ‘mind-goddess.’

Mind is for me the essence of translation. Odysseus has to attain the minds of many people in his wanderings. That’s what Homer has done, and it’s why his characters are so real — he attains the human mind, he attains many human minds. Translation is mind to mind, not dictionary to dictionary. Homer is a mind that I try to attain.

Photo of Michael Leddy

Michael Leddy teaches English at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He has poems in recent issues of Bird Dog and Range. His essay on John Ashbery and Henry Darger appeared in Jacket 17 (June 2002).

Translations by Stanley Lombardo

Parmenides and Empedocles, The Fragments in Verse Translation. San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1982.

Aratus, Sky Signs: Aratus’ Phaenomena. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 1983.

Callimachus, Hymns, Epigrams, Select Fragments. With Diane Rayor. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Plato, Protagoras. With Karen Bell. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992.

Hesiod, Works and Days and Theogeny. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993.

Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching. With Stephen Addiss. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993.

Horace, Selections from the Odes. In Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry: An Anthology of New Translations. Ed. Diane Rayor and William Batstone. New York: Garland, 1995.

Plato, Lysis. Plato: Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper and D.S. Hutchinson. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.

Homer, Iliad. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.

———,Odyssey. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000.

Sappho, Poems and Fragments. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002.

Other Publications

Seung Sahn, Bone of Space. Compiled by Stanley Lombardo. San Francisco, Four Seasons Foundation, 1982.

———, Only Don't Know: The Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn. Introduction by Stanley Lombardo. San Francisco: Four Seasons, 1982.

Phoenix Papers: Twenty-Three Lawrence Poets. Ed. Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo. Lawrence: Penthe, 1993.

‘Homer’s Light’. In The Epic Voice. Ed. Alan D. Hodder and Robert E. Meagher. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

Jacket 21 — February 2003  Contents page
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