BMCR 1991.05.09

The Poet’s Voice

, The Poet's Voice: Essays on Poetics and Greek Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. xi, 369 pages. ISBN 9780521390620.

1 Responses

This dense and difficult book presents itself as a study of “how poetry and the figure of the poet are represented, discussed, contested within the poetry of ancient Greece” (ix). Readers whose basic interest is in literary theory (rather than in primary texts) and in abstract questions about the difficulty of reading poetry may find some of this interesting and important. For anyone more concerned with making sense of Homer, Aristophanes and Theocritus than with talking about how puzzling they are, however, The Poet’s Voice is likely to be a painful and massively unrewarding reading experience.

As Goldhill’s subtitle suggests, this book does not represent an attempt to write a complete history of Greek poetics, but is a series of five loosely related essays. Chapter 1 concentrates on the Odyssey, with particular attention to questions of recognition and naming, and to Odysseus’ Cretan Tales and the tale of the Wanderings. Chapter 2 is a study of the connections between social power and kleos in the Iliad, and of the Odyssey‘s alleged reevaluation of this ideology. There is also some discussion of the effects of the new institutions of patronage and the polis on the idea of kleos in selected lyric texts, including Theognis 237-54, Ibycus fr. 263 Page, Simonides frr. 14, 37, 362 West, and Tyrtaeus. Chapter 3 examines Old Comedy, and in particular the problem of parody in Acharnians and Frogs, all in the light of modern discussions of “carnival.” Chapter 4 is concerned with Theocritus and especially Idylls 2 and 7, although 1, 3, 11, 13 and 15-17 are also considered. Chapter 5 deals with some aspects of the image of the poet in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius.

I would like to be able to offer a simple, straightforward summary of what this book is about, but find myself unable to do so. Goldhill’s basic point (à la Derrida et al.) seems to be that poetry is polyphonal, full of complex and contrasting voices. As a result, it is ever evasive of final and absolute interpretation and constantly demands its audience’s active involvement in the “work” of reading. Much of the discussion here is murky and convoluted, but Goldhill’s basic interpretative strategy seems to be to produce (or allege) hermeneutic aporia and then present this as a critical insight. In some cases, this is simply wrongheaded and misleading. The precise syntax of Ibycus fr. 263.46-7 Page ( tois men peda kalleos aien/ kai su, Polukrates, kleos aphthiton hexeis) may be obscure on the modern written page, for example, but this was a performance piece and one can therefore safely assume that Polykrates could hear where the commas were. More often, Goldhill’s approach is simply sterile and unrewarding. Thus the main thrust of the discussion in Chapter 3 seems to be that it is very difficult to know just how seriously to take Dicaeopolis’ Telephus-speech in Acharnians or the parabasis and final “advice” of Aeschylus and Euripides in Frogs. This is true, of course, but hardly original or helpful, and Goldhill never gets around to anything which might be characterized as engaged critical reading of the plays themselves. Although we may never be able to know precisely what Dicaeopolis’ speech means after all, it is certainly worth trying to understand exactly what it is he says and does. Indeed, one might make the case that the reader’s real task begins precisely where this book leaves off: in undertaking the hazardous, painful and inevitably somewhat unsuccessful work of making sense of difficult and often somewhat ambiguous texts. To go on at length about how we have a puzzle before us, on the other hand, is not the same thing as trying to do something with that puzzle, although it is much safer, much easier and much less open to refutation. More to the point, this never-ending process of creating (or alleging) problems so as to be able to point to them and then immediately move on to another text is not very rewarding for one’s readers, who after a few hundred pages of this sort of critical navel-staring may quite reasonably conclude they have better things to do with their lives and go off to read (let us hope) the Odyssey or the Iliad instead.

Most of this book is thus devoted to wordy muddying of the critical waters in the name of greater clarity of thought. All of this would be distinctly more interesting and convincing, of course, if Goldhill showed a real engaged and imaginative concern with the poems he discusses at such length. Unfortunately he does not, and instead has a strong tendency to repeat the words and ideas of others and to use old, established (and often inaccurate) verities as the basis of his readings. Thus, for example, Goldhill asserts that Achilleus’ famous speech in the Underworld at Od. XI.488-92 (“Do not try to comfort me about death, shining Odysseus”) marks a sharp reversal of that hero’s position in the Iliad (esp. Il. IX.410-6). Achilleus now regrets having traded life for glory and, more to the point, has been converted into a foil for Odysseus, who escapes such a choice. A similar contrast is drawn between Odysseus on the one hand and Agamemnon and Achilles on the other in Od. XXIV, Goldhill argues, concluding that “When the Odyssey looks back to the Iliad, it is to appropriate its heroes, its actions, its kleos, in a strategy of redefinition, incorporation and contestation. In all its senses, the kleos of the Odyssey sets itself against the kleos of the Iliad” (p. 107).

The idea that the Underworld scenes in the Odyssey mark a reevaluation of Iliadic kleos is an old one, of course, but not a very good one. That the Odyssey is in any way dependent on the Iliad, first of all, is highly debatable and finds no obvious direct support in the text of either poem, as the immense subtlety of most modern attempts to establish a relationship between the two makes apparent. Nor is it clear how the stories of the deaths and burials of Agamemnon and Achilles (the explicit subject of the discussion in Od. XXIV) could reflect a reevaluation of the Iliad, as Goldhill alleges, since neither incident takes place there. (The Iliad is obviously aware of Achilleus’ impending death, but that is a rather different matter). More important, the basic idea that Odysseus somehow avoids Achilleus’ choice of “life or glory,” so that the two figures can be seen as contrasted, is simply wrong. As Telemachos says, his father has disappeared “without kleos” ( Od. I.241-2). By enduring this “gloryless” existence with Kalypso (“the hider”), however, Odysseus can live forever, and it is precisely that possibility which he gives up when he elects to go home ( Od. V.204-10; cf. I.57-9). To return to the world of men (and so to be “heard of,” i.e., to gain kleos) is thus to die, as the hero himself hints in his description of Ithaca as pros zophon (“toward the west/gloom”) ( Od. IX.25-6). This is bad geography but good symbolism (cf. Od. XI.57, 155), and Odysseus accordingly goes home bound in “the sweetest, wakeless sleep, that most like death” ( Od. XIII.79-80), for death, he tells Arete just before he leaves Phaeacia, “comes to all men” ( Od. XIII.60). Indeed, the idea that the hero must die as part of his final reconciliation with Poseidon is fundamental to Teiresias’ prophecy to him ( Od. XI.129-36), and the oar he is finally to plant in the ground ( Od. XI.129) is simply the mark of a sailor’s burial and his one hope of being remembered ( Od. XI.75-8), which is to say of kleos.

My point is not so much that Goldhill is wrong in this one instance (although I think he is), as that he has not read his primary texts very carefully or creatively. Indeed, one wades through page after page of The Poet’s Voice waiting in vain for some new or telling point to be made about the poems allegedly under discussion. New critical approaches are always welcome, provided they offer real and powerful insights into the texts in which we are all (presumably) primarily interested. This book, on the other hand, provides a fine example of what has gone wrong with many modern “theoretical” studies of classical literature. “Theory” has become the almost exclusive subject of discussion here, while the real complexities and possibilities of the texts themselves have been ignored. The “work of reading,” supposedly central to criticism, has instead been systematically deferred in favor of the much easier (and much less interesting and rewarding) “work of talking about reading.” The poems themselves have been firmly banished to the status of proof-texts for discussions ultimately destined to put their readers to sleep (as, e.g., the Odyssey and Acharnians do not).

Given the exalted status given the critic here, a few notes ought to be offered about style. Goldhill is extremely difficult to read. His writing is crabbed, awkward and obscure, and full of barbarous neologisms such as “instauration.” Virtually every sentence must be read a second time in order to be understood, and twenty words are routinely used where one (or, more often, none) would have been appropriate. One is also forced to endure all the faded and tiresome conventions of deconstructionist criticism: the faux-profound quotes at the beginning of individual sections, the painfully punning titles, the aggressive and omnipresent parentheses. At the same time, scores of sentence fragments are scattered throughout the text, sometimes piled one on another. I find it extremely difficult to understand why the editors at Cambridge University Press have allowed English of this sort to go out under their imprint. The one bright spot in the book is the full and helpful bibliography, which nonetheless includes very few items after 1987.

I would like to be able to make some final, generous remark about The Poet’s Voice, but find I cannot. Indeed, it is very difficult not to be quite openly angry about the amount of time and effort required to make even partial sense of this tedious and largely unreadable piece of prose. Goldhill tries his reader’s patience to its limits, does so at immense length, and offers very little of substance in return. Much of what is in this book did not need to be said, and most of what needed to be said could have been said in many fewer words and in a far more straightforward and intelligible manner. Perhaps there is an audience for this sort of thing somewhere. I myself can see little excuse for this type of writing and little use for the conclusions allegedly reached.

After I had finally managed to plow through the first two chapters of this book and had begun to despair of ever seeing the end, I asked a close friend if he thought I was ethically obliged to read every word before writing a review. We concluded that I was, and I have. Indeed, I have read much of it twice and some of it three times. I hope no-one else is ever forced to do the same.