In his 1871 poem “Song of the Exposition,” Walt Whitman grumbled at the pride of place his culture continued to afford the Greek and Latin classics:
Come Muse migrate from Greece and Ionia, Cross out please those immensely overpaid accounts, That matter of Troy and Achilles’ wrath, and Aeneas’, Odysseus’ wanderings, Placard "Removed" and "To Let" on the rocks of your snowy Parnassus …
New poetry is there to be written, Whitman announces, which finds its subjects and forms in American modernity; it’s time to stop paying homage to the myths of the ancient Mediterranean.
A lot has changed since then: no longer is an acquaintance with antiquity considered the indispensable marker of an educated person, and only a few of us study Latin, much less ancient Greek. But poet-translators continue to return to the monuments of Greco-Roman literature, at once so familiar and so utterly alien, seeking to bring them to life for new generations of readers and to use them as the jumping-off points for entirely novel poetic projects.
A classical scholar, Anne Carson burst onto the scene late in the 20th century with her writings on archaic Greek lyric, culminating in If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (2002), a translation that demonstrated how at once fragmentary and suggestive the works of this 7th-century BCE poet are. Since then Carson has published a number of volumes of her own genre-bending poetry, as well as essays, plays, and opera libretti, all of them rooted somehow in antiquity.
The base text of Carson’s H of H Playbook is Herakles (which she translated in the volume Grief Lessons), one of Euripides’ more unsettling tragedies. The hero has returned from the last of his 12 labors to find his wife Megara and their sons menaced by the usurper Lykos; after a joyful reunion with his family, Herakles proceeds offstage — where all the real action takes place in Greek tragedy — to put paid to Lykos. As he’s doing so, the deities Iris and Madness, sent by Herakles’ heavenly nemesis Hera, arrive on the scene and inflict him with insanity: after killing Lykos, he proceeds to murder his own wife and children. When he comes to his senses, Herakles’ first thought is suicide, from which his friend Theseus dissuades him; the play’s ending finds a broken Herakles being led off: “So I, a man utterly wrecked and utterly shamed, / shall follow Theseus / like a little boat being towed along” (Carson’s translation, from Grief Lessons).
H of H Playbook is a striking visual object, an artist’s book version of Euripides. A “playbook,” in theater parlance, is the director’s marked-up copy of the script; Carson’s volume seems more like a scrapbook. Most of the pages contain paintings and drawings of various degrees of abstraction, along with some awkward sketches of characters, with the play’s text, in sans-serif printout, “pasted on” in little postage-stamp white patches. The dialogue and choral odes have been radically pared down (that three-line passage of Herakles I just quoted becomes “You’re my tugboat now”), or reworked as highly demotic, sometimes sing-song rhyming lines. Herakles’ father Amphitryon laments,
But now doesn’t it seem ironic to you, just as H of H [Herakles, that is] is finally through with the last of his Labours—the underworld (Cerberus) dare— his family finds itself on a slippery slope to down there? Doesn’t Zeus care?
It seems hard for such language to bear the tragic burden of the play’s events, but this slightly flat, somehow hypnotic idiom becomes more compelling as it progresses.
While much of the text is a boiling down of Euripides, at crucial points Carson stretches out and expands her original, introducing material quite foreign to the Greek theater. In H of H’s first monologue, we realize that the hero, freed of his imposed labors, is in a predicament reminiscent of the post-Soviet Eastern Bloc:
All those years, all those Labours, I’m living a completely socialist existence …. The Labours tell me when to go to bed, what to eat, what to wear, who to kill and what next. Then I come up from hell, Labours done and they say, Magic! Two o’clock today you are a capitalist! Figure it out! … You think psychopathy has nothing to do with the capitalist system? You’re wrong. Capitalism farts cruelty like gas from a lawnmower.
Our hero’s problems go beyond the lack of clear social purpose. He is suffering from radical PTSD, stemming from the violence of his labors.
H of H Playbook begins as a visually striking, frenetically paced summary of the high points of Euripides’ play, but by the end it has assumed a kind of awful power and pathos compounding the Greek’s meditation on calamity and necessity with the dreadful panorama of 20th-century history: the glimpses of the Soviet years include the horrors of Chekist massacres and the burial of Chernobyl’s radiation victims. The “hero cult” that made Herakles central to ancient mythology is revealed as a pathology that has destroyed countless soldiers and civilians. At one point, Carson quotes an artist whose work seems especially pertinent: “’I think there is no such thing as an innocent landscape,’ / said Anselm Kiefer, painter of forests grown tall / on bones.”
Despite Whitman’s impatience with “the matter of Troy” and “Odysseus’ wanderings,” 20th-century writers like Ezra Pound and James Joyce kept coming back to Homer. Virgil’s Latin Aeneid, however, has had a more ambiguous place. Homer’s poems radiate the mystique of their oral, perhaps collective, origins — “the tale of the tribe,” Pound called the epic genre. But the Aeneid is a “literary” epic, written in conscious imitation of its Homeric precursors, and — worse yet — composed for its patron Augustus as a programmatic justification of Roman imperialism. Not merely is the Aeneid a “secondary” production, but its politics are bad.
Recent years have seen a flurry of new English Aeneids, ranging from taut and wiry (Sarah Ruden, 2009), to stolidly “poetic” (David Ferry, 2017), to a classroom-ready translatorese (Shadi Bartsch, 2021). The poet David Hadbawnik’s version is by far the most violent and aggressively “contemporary” take on the poem yet. Famously, the Aeneid falls into two parts. The first half, recounting the wanderings of the Trojan prince Aeneas after the fall of Troy, his love affair with the Carthaginian queen Dido, and his arrival in Italy to found the kingdom that will be Rome, is modeled closely on the Odyssey. The second half, in which Aeneas battles the local strongman Turnus to win the hand of the Latin princess Lavinia, resembles the ceaseless bloodshed and back-and-forth fighting of the Iliad.
To some extent Hadbawnik finds a precursor for his modernizing of Virgil in the English poet Christopher Logue’s nail-bitingly cinematic War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad (2015). Hadbawnik certainly seems to find the Iliadic section of the Aeneid more compelling than its Odyssean first half; while his translation of Books I to VI is a remarkably fast-paced affair, brusquely summarizing or even omitting many of Virgil’s passages of description or rumination, his version of Books VII to XII is relentless in rendering the brutal movement of the battle scenes.
Hadbawnik isn’t interested in imitating the stately movement of Virgil’s hexameter (Ruden and Bartsch, for instance, write in iambs). He wants to capture the chaotic energy of the Aeneid’s action — its fight scenes, its shifting alliances, the raging emotions of its characters. And he does so with brio, in choppy, slangy (sometimes too slangy) free verse, often sacrificing the nuance of his original to reproduce the sheer momentum of its narrative. We see scores of warriors killed, like the Latin Murranus:
as Murranus sounds off about his grandfathers and the ancient names of his line descended from Latin kings AENEAS takes him down headlong with a huge rock and hurls him onto the ground where caught in the reins and yoke the wheels carry him while horses stomp him to death with no thought of their former master
This is an Aeneid for readers who can watch Fight Club without wincing — at times, perhaps, an Aeneid for the Marvel Universe generation. But it constantly reminds us (as does Virgil’s original) of the pain of exile, the violence of colonization, and the dehumanizing effects of even the most high-minded war.
I wouldn’t recommend Hadbawnik’s Aeneid as the first Virgil for an English-language reader, just as I’d send someone interested in Euripides’ Herakles to William Arrowsmith or Carson’s own earlier version before reading H of H Playbook. But Hadbawnik and Carson aren’t aiming to produce new schoolroom translations of the classics: in the best modernist fashion, they’ve reimagined these ancient texts in the light of our violent and chaotic contemporaneity.
H of H Playbook by Anne Carson (2021) is published by New Directions. David Hadbawnik’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid Books I-VI (2015) and Books VII-XII (2021) are published by Shearsman Books. Both are available online and in bookstores.