BMCR 2020.10.26

Genre in archaic and classical Greek poetry: theories and models

, , , Genre in archaic and classical Greek poetry: theories and models. Studies in archaic and classical Greek song, 4. Leiden: Brill, 2019. xiii, 408 p. ISBN9789004411425 €132,00.

Open Access
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This impressive volume comes from a conference held at the University of California, Berkeley in 2015, and provides several excellent discussions of different approaches to genre in early Greek poetry (essentially from Homer to Euripides). The authors for the most part share a sense that we need to move away from the notion that occasions uncomplicatedly produce genres: we should not seek in or behind archaic and classical Greek song a pre-lapsarian, pre-literary generic system. Most stress that ‘purity’ of genre should not be sought or invoked, but they provide a variety of ways to reconfigure how we think of genre and how attention to genre can help us to read particular texts.

The editors start with a long, helpful introduction structured in part around consideration of two generic ‘moments’ in Greek literature: Pindar fr. 128c M and Plato Laws 700a9-e1. They trace the history of scholarship on genre and occasion, focusing on Gentili, Calame and Nagy, and identify weaknesses in this ‘oralist/ performance/ occasion paradigm’, that can impede producing readings of particular poems and cut off the study of Greek poetry from broader currents in lyric theory (both they and Ford, on whose contribution see below, are very helpful in orienting our reading practices within Greek studies vis-à-vis ways of reading genre and reading lyric outside our discipline). They explain the structure of the volume and identify key themes. The discussion of mixing of genres is exemplified by a subtle and persuasive reading of the Pindar fragment and introduces the concept of ‘generification’: genre as something always being done, rather than just being. A second theme is that of ritual and performativity, where they draw attention to different interpretations of the vocabulary of mimesis and to the sympotic taste for fictionalised performance. Prayers in Hipponax, for example, instantiate ‘the periperformative’: they evoke and enact a form of ritual but there remains a gap between his prayers and ‘real’ prayer. Finally, they identify a theme, perhaps more innovative in studies of Greek lyric, ‘Materiality, Affect and the Body,’ with a focus on somatic experience of performance, affect and emotional contagion between performers and audience.

The remainder of the book is structured in four parts:

1. a keynote address on Sappho by Gregory Nagy;
2. Genre, Generification and Performance;
3. Genre Mixing;
4. Affect, Materiality and the Body: the Somatics of Genre.

There are naturally overlaps between the sections (of which the last is the most heterogeneous), but in my view the structure works well. The extent of cross-referencing and engagement between papers is limited and variable, even though in many cases (e.g. Nagy vs. Power on chorality and Sappho) there is plenty of opportunity.

The first paper is the keynote by Gregory Nagy, in which he develops his views on genre and ‘choral mimesis’ in Sappho in the light of the newest fragments. Neither here nor anywhere else in the volume is there any acknowledgement of questions concerning the provenance and potentially the authenticity of these fragments; I imagine these questions came to light too late to be mentioned. As he acknowledges, Nagy’s paper was first published in 2015. All of the other papers are first published here.

In the second section, Andrew Ford begins with a kind of second introduction, which can be read alongside the editors’ introduction, treating genre theory and the problematic quality of lyric within it (he discusses the same example, Pindar fr. 128c) and setting out his critique of how genre has been approached in scholarship on Greek lyric: I found this very useful. He goes on to look at an example, the ‘Linus song’ as first encountered at Iliad 18.569-72. Starting from the reading the reading λίνος endorsed by Zenodotus for the transmitted λίνον at 570, he argues that already in our first encounter with this genre Homer presents it in a way which leaves it unsure whether we should understand that it started life as ‘the Linus song’ or as ‘the flax song’. For Ford, even in Homer, the ‘original’ of a genre is always constructed in the present text and retrojected in an ongoing process of ‘generification’. He continues in a reading of Eur. Heracles Furens 348-58: Euripides reaches back into the prehistory of song for a form that combines joy with mourning. This rich chapter, in which ‘fall narratives’ about genres gradually losing connection with their originally perfect match with occasions are always ‘an effect of the text’, struck me as especially strong.

Timothy Power writes on ‘parachoral’ monody in Sappho: for him, passages in Sappho that might ‘look choral’ on closer examination seem more precisely to associate with chorality or to evoke a rhetoric of chorality and may be read as monody which seeks to assume choral authority. He also analyses Alcaeus fragments in the same way.

Schironi provides a very useful survey of how ancient scholarship discusses ‘speaking personae’ in choral lyric, showing the origins of this approach in ancient genre theory. Scholia are very willing to attribute different lines to different speakers (chorus, poet, laudandus etc.), but where they do so it is prompted by an interpretation of particular lines and a response to the text, and is not an attempt to plot out performance as such. Thus analogous strategies are used in the interpretation of Homer, carefully distinguishing character speech from narrator speech, with no implication that it was performed dramatically.

In part 3, on generic mixing, Deborah Steiner’s chapter is a fascinating and stimulating gallop over a lot of ground. Starting from the start of Hesiod’s Theogony, she develops a very extensive argument about catalogues as a place of close, repeated contact between hexameter and choral lyric traditions: they are a site of intensified ‘intergenericity’. She does this by first looking for choral ‘markers’ in the Homeric Catalogue of Ships, then by reading lyric accounts of the daughters of Asopus in Bacchylides and Corinna against epic (probably drawing on the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women) at the same timing as emphasising their strongly choral poetics. The last section accounts for the parallels by discussing typological analogies between choruses and catalogues, also using evidence from painted pottery. Catalogues and choruses, circles and straight lines: this chapter is not only excellent scholarship but also reminds us of what is aesthetically delightful in archaic Greek artistic production across media and genres.

Naomi Weiss considers generic mixture in tragic choral song, focusing on Sophocles (Trachiniae) and Euripides (Heracles, Helen, IT, Troades, Bacchae). Tragedy here appears as a voracious super-genre, which radically transforms and recombines the lyric genres it absorbs.

Margaret Foster approaches tragedy from the other side, so to speak, in an impressive reading of Bacchylides 16. This song, classified in the London papyrus as a dithyramb, contains paeanic elements but has usually been interpreted as a dithyramb for performance in honour of Dionysus at Delphi. Foster argues on philological grounds that the basis for this reconstruction is shaky, and that it is better to see the song as articulating movement between a sequence of song-types, all in honour of Apollo, which are here combined into a new kind of song: a kyklios khoros for performance at the Thargelia in Athens. Both on the basis of long-perceived intertextual connections between this song and Sophocles’ Trachiniae and on the basis of the generic combination and juxtaposition described above she discusses the relationship between this song and the world of tragedy: one of contrast but not antagonism. She argues that the song shares in the generically flexible and thus exportable quality of circular choruses as a feature of the cultural politics of Athenian imperialism. This paper leaves us with a lot to think on.

The final section is probably both most heterogeneous and most innovative: all four papers in their different ways explore connections between genre, emotional response and the body. Mark Griffith provides a detailed account of ‘korybantic’ performances: song-dance events that are associated with strong emotional responses, where music and movement are likely to be more important than ‘poetic’ craft, located among a group of song-dance types likely to be viewed with disapproval by elite sources and practised more by marginalised groups, and sometimes associated with healing. He describes these both with a view to comparative evidence (as ‘trance music’) and through close readings of our sources and makes a good case that this kind of performance, just as much as the nobler paean, deserves to be counted as part of the broader generic system of ‘Greek Lyric’.

In a paper which I found both challenging and stimulating, Mario Telò employs ‘affect theory’ to locate distinctive features of iambus as a genre defined more by physiology and psychology than by pragmatics. The generic affect of iambus, for Telò, is one of ‘hairy, bristly, prickly roughness’ both of haptic texture and phonetics, especially in the use of ῥand other rough, aspirated sounds. This can be found in descriptions of rough landscapes and bodies, of animals and of pain and suffering, where the roughness may be directed violently at an enemy but also affects the physio/psychological responses of audiences, in an aesthetic of the body compared with kink or horror film. I would have liked more on the broken metrical bumpiness of choliambs, mentioned in connection with Hipponax’ pharmakos fragments. The strong emphasis on the materiality of language (I have a two-year-old niece and was reminded of the strongly sensual qualities of different phonemes in the process of language acquisition) seemed to me to work very well for this harshest of genres. This is a bold chapter and may strike some as rebarbatively bold — perhaps aptly so, given that the pleasures of the rebarbative are part of the point.

Seth Estrin, in his rich and thought-provoking account of the inscribed Ambracian polyandrion (SEG 41.540A, 44.463), is concerned with different kinds of somatic interactions with genre. This cenotaph is inscribed with a long funerary epigram in elegiac metre. Estrin reads the distinctive structure of the text as it interacts both with the complex layout of the monument, so large that the text compels its reader to move in front of its face to follow the letters, and with traditions of elegiac poetry as evoked by the sensory experience of the metre while reading (the argument requires that we believe in a lamentatory tradition in elegiacs). The chapter involves extensive discussions of emotional responses as provoked by monuments (inscribed or otherwise) and plots out how the elegy moves from emotional response to civic identity, integrating grief with citizenship.

In Sarah Olsen’s paper on Pindar’s sixth Paean, the author is concerned with how the song retains its generic identity even as performance circumstances change: she hypothesises sympotic reperformance of the Delphic part (i.e., the first two triads). She does this by considering the somatic experience of genre through dance-theoretical work on ‘embodied cultural knowledge’ as well as theory of ritual and ritualisation. Starting from a reading of the Delphic part of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo she considers choreia as a form of ritualisation reconciling individual, local and ritual identities. Moving to the paean, she traces out how, in non-choral reperformance, its language of sound and movement would rekindle memories in a chorally experienced audience. Descriptions of the control of bodily movements in the song would evoke the experience of controlled choral movements in performance. The murder of Priam by Neoptolemus is characteristically associated with uncontrolled and violent movement, here transferred on to the ‘leap’ of Priam, whereas the murder of Neoptolemus, inasmuch as it feels like a replay of the killing of Pytho, suggests the origins of the paean-cry itself, so for the audience of a version without the Aeginetan coda the evocation of that cry at 121-2 is an apt conclusion to the song, rather as this paper, combining attention to genre, generic flexibility, reperformance and the somatics of performance, functions well as a conclusion to the book as a whole.

Table of Contents

Margaret Foster, Leslie Kurke and Naomi Weiss, ‘Introduction,’ pp. 1-28
PART 1: Keynote Address
1. Gregory Nagy, ‘Genre, Occasion, and Choral Mimesis Revisited, with Special Reference to the “Newest Sappho,”’ pp. 31-54
PART 2: Genre, Generification and Performance
2. Andrew Ford, ‘Linus: the Rise and Fall of Lyric Genres,’ pp. 57-81
3. Timothy Power, ‘Sappho’s Parachoral Monody,’ pp. 82-108
4. Francesca Schironi, ‘The Speaking Persona: Ancient Commentators on Choral Performance,’ pp. 109-132
PART 3: Genre Mixing
5. Deborah Steiner, ‘Chorus Lines: Catalogues and Choruses in Archaic and Early Classical Hexameter Poetry and Choral Lyric,’ pp. 135-166
6. Naomi Weiss, ‘Generic Hybridity in Athenian Tragedy,’ pp. 167-190
7. Margaret Foster, ‘Athens and Apolline Polyphony in Bacchylides’ Ode 16,’ pp. 191-228.
PART 4: Affect, Materiality, and the Body: The Somatics of Genre
8. Mark Griffith, ‘Is Korybantic Performance a (Lyric) Genre?’ pp. 231-270
9. Mario Telò, ‘Iambic Horror: Shivers and Brokenness in Archilochus and Hipponax,’ pp. 271-297
10. Seth Estrin, ‘Experiencing Elegy: Materiality and Visuality in the Ambracia Polyandrion,’ pp. 298-324
11. Sarah Olsen, ‘Pindar, Paean 6: Genre as Embodied Cultural Knowledge,’ pp. 325-346.