Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Frisky Moll Press, 2009    £3.00


Sphinx six point five striper


Reviewed by Michael Tolkien, Emma Lee and Hilary Menos


Michael Tolkien:

A brief foreword stresses the “wry perspectives” on love, drinking and aging found in this 6th/5th century Greek lyrical poet, and the poet-translator provides delightfully articulate, often colloquial approaches to these perennial preoccupations. Most pieces are headed as numbered Fragments (as in collections), but their impact is seldom fragmentary. They are compact, and rounded with an internal coherence making titles superfluous.


Particularly engaging, despite the apparently direct tone, is a sense of the elusive ego, a complex factor in Classical lyric poetry: is it adopting a stance, imitating an attitude,  posturing, or all three and more? One of several poems that bewails decrepitude (with suspect hyperboles) has an enigmatic yet potentially playful view of death’s finality:


So it is fitting that I celebrate my fear of the underworld:

The kingdom of Hades is dark and grim, the way there pitiful,

and once arrived, there is no coming back.


Hamilton also exploits ambiguous imagery and settings. His version of the frequently anthologised address to a standoffish Thracian filly, who shuns advances and skills, brings out the interplay of sexual and equestrian implications where so many plodding literal renderings have failed.


And the first of a series of light-hearted poems about pederastic love suggests that the protagonist is relieved to have finished a wrestling match, supervised by rather inappropriate deities:


…a tough ring to fight in and a hard man

To face. I pull myself up groggy

From the canvas. Thank you, Dionysus, that

That’s over. Goodbye Eros, Goodbye

Aphrodite, for a time.


Then this mock-formality gives way to celebrating the release of wine and how “bedding the bottle/ ’S better than bedding that boy!”  Though I’m reminded of Frost’s dictum that “poetry is what is lost in translation”, I am still, here and elsewhere, compelled to feel that Hamilton has consistently brought alive the unique spirit of this ancient poet. He captures the pagan surrender to pleasure and its contrast to our post-prohibition ‘I’m-determined-to-enjoy-myself’ attitude.


My only reservations are about the poems that use modern equivalents without any sense of the ancient context, a balance which Hamilton usually sustains to perfection. Anacreon was unfortunately not a Glaswegian whisky drinker!


The pamphlet is rather functional in appearance but its cover is distinguished by a superb bust from the Acropolis, the poet’s head slightly tilted as if weighing up some amusing contradiction.



Emma Lee:

Anacreon was considered by Plato to be one of the finest love poets of his time. These translations are provided without the original text and are not just translations but also an updating too; there’s a very contemporary feel to, for example, ‘Fragment 388’:


Once he’d go round in a scabby cap with a

peaked visor, and wrap his skinny ribs

In a combat jacket scavenged from Oxfam.

That was Artemon—you’d see him with

The bag-ladies and cheap whores,

fixing his latest con. In and out

Of prison, on probation more often than not—

and beaten up when his tricks turned sour.

Nowadays, his wrist is strapped by a Gucci watch,

taxis are called for him, into which

He steps, swinging his handbag.


This is rather ordinary in tone with awkward line-breaks (I can’t see a rhyme or syllabic pattern to justify that “a” or “which” occurring at line ends) and it’s not particularly poetic—no internal rhyme, no assonance, and alliteration is more incidental than deliberate. (Some of the initial capitals are awkward too, particularly when they pop up mid-sentence.)

Let’s try a love poem, ‘Fragment 359)’:


I love Cleobulus,

I’m crazy about Cleobulus,

I stare fascinated at Cleobulus.


Granted it’s only a fragment but it feels more like a schoolboy crush than love. It does improve when he’s mourning the loss of youth, ‘Fragment 25’:


Light-winged I fly off to Mount Olympus

to fetch young Eros,

But he won’t play with me anymore

now that my hair is grey:

I’m tossed aside in the slipstream

from his glittering wings.


All the poems feel tongue-in-cheek, a light updating and modernising of early lyrics. I don’t have the original text to compare but do feel that somehow the poetry went missing in translation. They work as throwaway pieces of humour but once I’d read them, I didn’t feel I had to read them again and subsequent re-readings didn’t change this impression.



Hilary Menos:

Under any other circumstances I wouldn’t pick this pamphlet up. It has an unprepossessing yellow cover with a rather blurry photo of a marble bust, the title oddly offset from the picture, and it announces poetry in translation. Not my cup of tea.


But what is that about not judging a book by its cover? It was probably some ancient Greek or Roman who said that too. And how right he/she was. Once I settled down to it, I got more joy from this small pamphlet that I sometimes get from a full collection. Anacreon was all Greek to me (sorry) but I loved these poems.


Anacreon (here translated by Robin Hamilton) was a Greek lyric poet who lived between 570 BC and about 488 BC. He wrote in ancient Ionic dialect, and his poems were composed to be sung or recited to a musical accompaniment usually played on the lyre. They were formal, elegant lyrics about love, drinking, and general revelry, and later about ageing. His self-deprecating humour and verbal wit was extremely popular, and his poetry was very much imitated, both in terms of style and theme.


So far so good. But while I can ask for an ouzo and souvlaki and engage in a little backchat with the waiters in my local taverna, I am no Greek scholar, and I have no idea whether Robin Hamilton’s translations are true to the original. All I can do is see if they stand as poems in themselves, and whether they catch what is said to be the style of Anacreon himself.


Which I think they do. From the poem dedicated to Dionysus in which he unconventionally implores the god to advise a particular boy to accept his overtures, to the poem where a girl from Lesbos turns him down supposedly because his hair is grey, a dry wit and ironic charm come through clear and strong. Some of the poems show a wistful yearning for past youth, some are carousing songs, and others show lessons hard learnt. ‘Fragment 356’ reads:


Hey man, bring me a large scotch

I can down in one, but for once

Add ice and water to it—

I’ll play the booze with some discretion.


Robin Hamilton makes Anacreon a modern man, with reference to games machines in arcades, American Express Cards, acoustic guitars, Gucci watches and Oxfam, but he also brings a very particular Scottish idiom to Anacreon’s poetry. In ‘Fragment 356(2)’ he says


Hey man, no more whisky and chasers;

let’s give up Glasgow drinking,

no more rammy and stramash.


The brevity of most of these poems is a bit of a tease—they are, of course, only fragments—but in some cases it acts in the poem’s favour. I came to love ‘Fragment 359’ which is, in its entirety:


I love Cleobulus,

I’m crazy about Cleobulus,

I stare fascinated at Cleobulus.


I could have done with a bit more back-story to start with, but maybe that’s what these pamphlets are for—to whet our appetites and get us reading stuff we otherwise wouldn’t. I feel suitably chastened and thoroughly entertained. I have added Anacreon to my fantasy dinner party guest list.