Pindar, the original Greek poet of praise

Pindar, by D. S. Carne-Ross. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 195 pp. $25 cloth, $7.95 paper. The importance of Pindar is easy enough to state: He is the great poet of praise.

After that, it's all uphill. Pindar has frustrated readers since the 3rd century BC. Hence the significance of this little book. It's by far the best book on Pindar, and the only book on Pindar for the general reader. It's part of the new Hermes series from Yale University Press. John Herington, general editor of the series, promises first-rate books ``in clear, lively, and graceful English,'' so that we can benefit from recent scholarship without becoming scholars. ``Pindar'' is an auspicious beginning.

Pindar was the beginning, the first and perhaps greatest lyric poet. This large claim is not argued by Carne-Ross but dawns on the reader, as he gets to know Pindar.

Pindar, poet of praise! Commissioned as part of the festivity surrounding the athletic games in early 5th-century Greece, he wrote poems to celebrate -- ``with intricately patterned words to be danced and sung to the music of flute or lyre'' -- the victor and his family or city. When, in 3rd-century Alexandria, his poems were collected and studied, they were stripped of whatever directions he had given the chorus master and musician. We no longer know how to perform Pindar.

There are other, intrinsic difficulties. The victory ode is a genre in search of an occasion, the victory celebration for which it was orginally composed having died out. But Pindar has continued to attract readers, regardless of the obstacles to interpretation. Our distance from the original intention has freed us to enjoy the odes as we can. They invite criticism, indeed, misunderstanding. From Horace to the English Romantics, Pindar has been thought of as a wild dashing river! Otherwise, he has been captive to the scholar's narrow focus.

Step back, urges Carne-Ross, who has written well on other poets, ancient and modern. Behold the poetry! Notice, the Greeks did not play games, they fought them. The elaborate splendor of the poetry is a curious foil for what was, in fact, a brutal business, winning a wrestling match, for instance, Greek style.

The intensity of the desire to win -- victory brought glory to the city as well as the winning athlete (I write this in Boston as the Celtics travel to Los Angeles) -- is matched, in Pindar, by the intensity of the poetry. Writing of victory, Pindar shows us again and again that ``In that radiant moment a man stands on the edge of the absolute, narrow line separating mortal from god.''

That's just the problem. Pindar's poetry is built on the tension between striving for victory and recognizing the undeniable limits of human achievement. ``Heed the here-at-hand,'' he counsels the heady victor.

Like the world of the victor (which is essentially a moral one, for all its brute energy), the world of Pindar's poem has its limits, its rules. Carne-Ross explains these, with the help of the recent scholarship of Elroy Bundy and others. The poetry is not in the rules, though they are indispensable. Carne-Ross plucks out the heart of Pindar's mystery by revealing, in superb discussions of individual poems, how ``The act seeks the word, the word seeks the act and, finally, the complete consort dancing together, they are joined to each other.''

The conventions and rules that in our culture are perceived as restrictive are seen by Pindar and his reader as ``constructive, a grace of containment providing man's energetic nature with the space within which it can flourish in the manner that is proper to it.''

Pindar's use of Greek myth works to the same end. To read a poem by Pindar is to bring that eternal world of story into contact with a single, transient moment in the history of one athlete, one city. Add to the stories Pindar's talent for pithy generalization -- ``Speak in season, Keep your discourse tight with much in little, Avoid the praise that stirs up envy'' -- and you have a text rich enough for the fans of Yeats and Eliot.

Long after the dust has settled at Olympia, we are reading Pindar with understanding and even urgency. In a time when we have almost forgotten how to praise -- we are a nation of lawyers, as Edmund Burke observed on the eve of revolution -- we have this book on the art of praise. Without celebration, victory ceases to be a compelling end, as the tragic war in Vietnam has shown us.

So we should learn to love Pindar. Perhaps beyond the pleasure of reading this superb poet, what we can carry away from reading ``Pindar'' is how to answer this hard question: ``What sort of hero is it who comes to the dangerous edge of things and then simply turns back?''

We need to learn how to praise such a hero.

Tom D'Evelyn edits the Monitor's book pages.

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