The Poet on The Road to Sparta

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When Barney first proposed the idea of my writing some poems for the film, I was flattered and intrigued, but wary. I have not had great luck in the past with writing poems for projects. (One attempt at a libretto failed entirely, and the composer decided just to write the libretto himself.) And I was frenetically busy with other deadlines. But Barney was cheerfully persistent. I sent him (as he mentions) some of the sonnets I had been doing out of Herodotus, from the Battle of Plataea. These appear in my new book, Like, as “Battle of Plataea: Aftermath.” Herodotus has such an eye (and ear) for a story, and there were so many vignettes that I felt I wanted to put a spotlight on. I started focusing on individual scenes, and recasting the Greek prose as English verse, sonnets, but then lineated the sonnets as prose paragraphs, in a nod to Herodotus’s seminal prose. And of course the story of Pheidippides’ run is itself one of these stories out of Herodotus’s history of the Persian war. So when I looked at it like that, I thought maybe I could expand on my project to include the story behind the Spartathlon. It was heartening when Barney told me that the Herodotus sonnets “sounded” right spoken over the images: their cadence worked, and their length. So I went back into Herodotus to read what he had to say, in book six of his History.

I was surprised by what Herodotus’s account did and did not contain. Pheidippides, a “day-long runner and an Athenian” is famous in Herodotus not for running from Marathon to Athens, but for running the much greater distance (246 km) from Athens to Sparta. Only two things stood out about the run from this account—that Pheidippides encounters the god Pan in Arcadia (which seemed to align with hallucinatory experiences of long-distance runners), and the fact that the Spartans were too superstitious to come to Athens’ aid in a timely manner as they were in the midst of a religious observance. So obviously the poems couldn’t work the way the Plataea sonnets had—they couldn’t simply be versifications of what was in the prose. I would need images from the film to fill out these poems, images from modern as well as ancient Greece, and images from the modern race, which was founded in 1983, partly as a test of Herodotus’s truthfulness. So it was thinking about the Arcadian landscape that helped to inspire the first poem I wrote in the sequence, about the encounter with Pan. And it ended up being not in Pheidippides’ voice, but in the voice of Pan himself.

As it happens, only one of the poems—the mirrored double sonnet—is in the voice of Pheidippides, and, perhaps, simultaneously in the voice of the modern runners in his footsteps. In truth, it is probably a stretch to think Pheidippides would have known the work of Heraclitus, but I really wanted to have the “road up is the same as the road down” for the run over the hills, and as a double sonnet with mirrored rhyme words, this was a poem that was both meditative and itself an “agon”—a challenge both technical and of sonnet stamina.

I realized too that I could put the troubles of modern Greece and Athens in the poems, that the poems need not be merely a commission or exercise. I’d like to think some of that urgency comes into “Threat.” “Threat” was written in 2015, when Greece did feel in the midst of dangers and difficulties on all sides, whether it was the callous treatment by German banks, or the sudden implementation of capital controls, the Damoclean threat of Grexit, the unrest of protests and street battles, the whiff of teargas, the leonine menace of riot police suited up like hoplites and lounging with frappes next to their cage-like buses, the sudden overwhelming influx of refugees from war-torn lands.

Likewise in the poem “Billboards,” I wanted to depict modern Athens looted by the financial crisis. Barney and I had a conversation about my using “Persians” in that poem—his concern, a sensitive and reasonable one, was that “Persians” could have been misconstrued to mean the actual Iranians who, along with Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis, etc., were seeking asylum in Greece; that it might seem, arguably, racist. But I felt strongly that Persians would instead hearken back to Herodotus and the war, and that it wouldn’t be misunderstood. And I love the actual sound of the word, as well as its allusiveness—it tends to put me in mind of Robert Graves’ wonderful “The Persian Version,” which opens:

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.

I think the last poem to come into being was the lyrical one in Leonidas’ voice. Admittedly, as a sonnet rather than an epigram it lacks an actual Spartan’s laconic flair, but I was intrigued by the story of the Spartans’ having to wait for the full moon of the month of Carian Apollo before they could take up arms. (We tend to think of Spartans as logical and efficient, but they were also deeply religious—superstitious even. Maybe not unlike Vulcans!) And, as a sonnet about the moon, it would go with images of the full moon during the night runs.

One sonnet did not make the cut—I tried to write one about the apocryphal story of Pheidippides running to Athens from Marathon, and dying right after delivering news of the Greek victory. It’s supposed to be the first case of anyone using the greeting XAIPE in Greece—“Rejoice!”, and the story comes out Plutarch and Lucian. But the story was not directly relevant, and the sonnet too academic and philological in its interest for the film, so it ended up (literally?) on the cutting room floor.

When I attended the premier here in Greece, and saw the images on the big screen, and first heard the words from “Threat,” the hair on my arm stood up. And yet I didn’t even recognize immediately that they were my own words. Spoken in Malamatenia Gotsi’s voice against the Greek landscape, they felt older, ancient even, in some modern translation. Maybe that is what I had been going for.