The Greek Anthology, marvellous salvage from the vast shipwreck of the Ancient World, is a collection of around 4500 poems composed over more than 1500 years by about 300 authors, a colossal continuity and variety from pre-classical times through Roman into Byzantine.
For A Bird Called Elaeus – his small anthology of the vast original – David Constantine has gone particularly not just to the renowned love poems but also to poems that treat man’s dealings with the earth, his work and trades there, the creatures other than himself who inhabit it and the divinities whose care it is.
He has quite often taken the liberty of bringing already urgent poems closer to home and our drift towards the Sixth Extinction. Several times he expanded a Greek text; once or twice combined two poems into one; or wrote a poem of his own which he could not have written had he not read and translated the ancient words first. But most often he kept close, doing his level best to bring into his English what was so livingly there in the Greek.
The Ancient World was not populated by humans harmless to Mother Earth, not at all: often they, like us, did the worst their means enabled them to do. Still there were laws. These things you must not do. Doing them nevertheless was understood as transgression of laws beyond the human laws. You offended Demeter at your peril. Understand that how we like, it’s the same now. And the peril is infinitely greater, threatens to be final, consuming the innocent with the guilty.
A Bird Called Elaeus is David Constantine’s seventh translation from Bloodaxe, following three editions of Friedrich Hölderlin, and collections by Henri Michaux, Philippe Jaccottet and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, including two books for which he received the European Poetry Translation Prize and the Corneliu M. Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation. His translation of Goethe’s Faust is published in Penguin Classics and his co-translation (with Tom Kuhn) of The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht is published by Norton. His own poetry is published by Bloodaxe and his fiction by Comma Press. He was co-editor of Modern Poetry in Translation from 2004 to 2013.
David Constantine reads from A Bird Called Elaeus
David Constantine introduces and reads from A Bird Called Elaeus, his selection of poems from The Greek Anthology. Neil Astley filmed him at his home in Oxford in May 2023 ahead of the book's publication in 2024.
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