Simonides, my teacher for 2009
January 7, 2009 § Leave a comment
I’ve been reading Anne Carson about the poet Simonides, supposedly the first poet to demand payment for his work, other than the traditional guest privileges. She estimates he earned, for one poem, the annual income a successful doctor made in a year (in Greece in the 5th century bc). Doctors were in those days far less effective than poets, but people still paid to have their bones set and their humours balanced, which often involved vomiting, enemas and bloodletting. By another measure one of Simonides poems earned the equivalent of what an ordinary laborer earned in 28 years. Not so much really when you think of today’s movie stars and directors. But having paid the upstart poet in coin, the patron would short him on the dinner: no snow to cool his wine, a measly portion of roast hare. That was okay; Simonides knew how to write poems about such things, as well as sell the food he didn’t want out the back door. Carson’s thesis is in fact that this emergence of the money economy within the old gift economy was Simonides’ subject: he wasn’t so simple as to bemoan the slipping-away of the old, ‘human’ connection—the linkage of guest and host, giver and recipient (all meanings of the same word ‘xenos’, which also of course means ‘stranger’). Rather he noted it, thought about it, wrote his poems and got paid, much like some of the hipper cultural observers at The New Yorker. I can nibble on Simonides and feel refreshed, but he’s too far away for me to desire too much. Anne Carson is someone whose mind you want to hijack for a week or two, just to know what it’s like in there before the pruning and exquisite ordering, amid the original (still orderly?) ferment. It can be nothing like my woolly mess, my thoughts that wander like mountain goats in NYC streets—the yellow-eyed ones that blunder out of mists, slink back in—luckily too benign and out of place to be remembered. Do you know how magicians do sleight-of-hand? It’s not just by distracting your attention—or rather, how distracting your attention works isn’t simply grabbing it with bright shiny stimuli over here, but by feeding your brain incomplete information about an event it has witnessed before. The brain, in its need for shortcuts, is willing to take half a story and extrapolate the rest; it jumps ahead, just as you do when you get to a boring bit in a book or a blog and who’s to say the boring bit is actually there if you’ve jumped ahead? But back to Simonides. There’s a story about him finding a dead sailor on the beach and doing the right thing by burying the corpse as well as writing an epitaph that asks God, in the sailor’s voice, for his enemies to get what he was given and for the one who put him in the ground to profit from life. Simonides didn’t actually expect this profit, perhaps (except in the way that a poem is always a gift from what inspired it) but the sailor came to him in a dream and warned him not to board a particular ship. He paid attention to the dream, stayed home, and the ship sank. As I said, a man who knew how to obtain serious recompense for his work. I’m going to think about him at the dinner table, drinking his overly warm wine, eating his slender hare, and feeling the weight of coin in the little leather pouch hanging from his waist—or wherever he kept it.