World Poetry Project: Hipponax

Hipponax's part of the world
Hipponax's part of the world
Anselm Hollo, poet and translator
Anselm Hollo, poet and translator
Satire: weapon of the powerful against the powerful in a culture of excess
Satire: weapon of the powerful against the powerful in a culture of excess
Hermes, the multi-talented young god of messengers, herds, and thieves
Hermes, the multi-talented young god of messengers, herds, and thieves
Lithograph by Milo Manara based on the film, Fellini's Satyricon, itself loosely based on Petronius's satire of Rome during the reign of Nero
Lithograph by Milo Manara based on the film, Fellini's Satyricon, itself loosely based on Petronius's satire of Rome during the reign of Nero

Why So Serious?

As we have seen in previous postings, the ancient Greek world was unsettled. Optimistic people would define it as 'dynamic', while those not so optimistic would say that it verged on the chaotic. Poets, upper class men and women with the wherewithal to gain an education and the leisure to compose carefully structured poetry out of their lives, were subject to exile, falls from wealth to less wealth, and other risks of living in the ancient world. Most were serious men, consciously taking for their subject serious matters, either personal or social. Not so the fellow we are discussing today.

Hipponax of Ephesus was, according to ancient legends, a deformed man with a deformed sense of humor. He was forced out of Ephesus in 540 BCE and took up residence in Clazomenae, where he addressed himself to local figures and local issues, especially the issue of a real or fictional poverty suffered by himself, with a wit that was not so much a rapier as a brutally wielded club. The Greeks identified him as the originator of parody and of satire, of great influence on the Old Comedy of Aristophanes and others. Continuing in the tradition of invective and abuse Semonides followed in his Genealogy of Women , Hipponax brought the invective and abuse to the local, personal level in his own performances, focusing on the themes of eating, excreting, and f__ing. His language is coarse, as are his images and the scenes he sets. The selections included in World Poetry are his most tame, many other possible selections verging on the pornographic. Think Bukowski with a modicum of talent, or Petronius without the recipes.

What Anselm Hollo does in World Poetry is create a single tale of scattered quotes centered around Hipponax's desire for a winter coat. This is a creative way to deal with the reality of what survives of Hipponax's work. Although popular in ancient Greece and Rome, Hipponax fell into disfavor during the Christian period for immorality and vulgarity. Even Julian the Apostate frowned on Hipponax's deformed personality and perversity. Thus, very little of Hipponax survives today, and all of it in fragments. Anselm Hollo's selection of surviving Hipponax concentrates on his complaints on his poverty, not his scurrilous descriptions of contemporaries or his sexual fantasies.

Much of Hipponax's complaints on poverty are addressed to the gods, especially Hermes, god of thieves, for aid and to Zeus in bitterness. He writes of the cold, of lost teeth, and of the feast Zeus enjoys while he starves. Herein lies the importance of Hipponax in the ancient world: Thersites is given a voice. In Homer's Iliad , Thersites, a common soldier, not a king or a hero, dares to speak. He is attacked by Odysseus, who denies him the right to speak; Odysseus does not debate him, he threatens him with physical violence. Hipponax resurrects Thersites in the alleys of the Greek city, and enters wholly into this gutter persona, dragging members of the elite down into the gutter with him. We cannot state with any certainty that Hipponax was a member of the underclass. It is likely given his chosen profession, that of a writer, he was not. However, he wore the masque of the underclass, allowing him to speak from the gutter and present a sardonic, cynical, and satirical view not found in the work of his contemporaries.

Hipponax is credited with originating the parody and the satire in ancient Greece. He also developed his own form, the scazon , or 'halting iambic', an arhythmic line that supported in structure his attacks. Beautiful sentiments should be expressed in a beautiful line, but Hipponax was not concerned with beauty. He was one of those very rare artists concerned with ugliness, with conveying ugliness effectively. Finding no form ready to his purpose, he created one by laming the iambs of his predecessors. It is possible that there was nothing physically wrong with Hipponax at all, but his deformation of the lyric form was applied by the ancient Greeks to his body. The Greeks, in common with many people in many eras, often equated beauty with morality: not all beautiful men were virtuous men, but all virtuous men were beautiful. This aesthetic of ethics can be turned in a different fashion as well: not all ugly men are vicious men, but all vicious men are ugly.

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Comments 7 comments

David T. Pudelwitts-St.Albans 4 years ago

Nice to see such an interesting article. Hipponaz seems to have been the progenitor of men like Ambrose Bierce and maybe Don Rickles. Although I disagree with you that Charles Bukowski DIDN'T have a modicum of talent. He truly was the voice of the gutter. And one has to have lived in that gutter for a time (as I did) to truly understand it. Perhaps Hipponax had seen that gutter as well...Like Flastaff with Shakespeare's words coming out of his brutish, soldier's mouth, it belies Shakespeare's own ties with the Common Man yet thought ans written down by an uncommon genius. By the way, what's your take on the Shakespeare controversy?


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Good Hub. I like the contrast you draw between "dynamic" and "chaotic" -- that could be applied a a number of modern institutions, as well as individuals.

And I really like the final paragraph where you discuss the Greek ( and sometimes modern) assumptions about the co-equivalence of aesthetic and ethical qualities. Nice work.


Ed Michaels profile image

Ed Michaels 4 years ago from Texas, USA Author

Thank you for your comments.

Some people really dig Bukowski. I just do not get him. And I do not find in him an aesthetic I am able to appreciate, beyond not finding him interesting as a writer. All comments on who is a good/bad writer are no more than a personal opinion. I guess you find something in him that I just do not.

As to the Shakespeare controversy, I do not believe it is a real controversy. There has long been a hunt for the "real" Shakespeare, beginning with the assumption that the man described by contemporaries, the man of the will and 'my second best bed', just could not be the author of the plays. I think that these searches for the 'real' Shakespeare reflect a certain elitism and classism in intellectual circles. They begin with the assumption that Shakespeare the playwright exhibits a depth of knowledge that was unavailable to a middle class man of his time, which both over-estimates the knowledge of history, philosophy, and literature that he does exhibit in his work and under-estimates the resources available in his time of a particular kind of 'cheat' literature--similar to Cliff and Sparks notes. Ben Jonson, for example, exhibits a much better education, although a contemporary of Shakespeare's, moving in the same social circle. I am also suspicious of attempts to give this presumed "real" Shakespeare a name. Unless you find the original plays written in another hand, and are able to connect that hand to a specific other person, I am afraid that playing with a real Shakespeare & a false one is merely an intellectual parlor game, not of much historical validity and of questionable value in the realm of literature.

I believe Shakespeare in his plays presents a great variety of voices and apparent competences--fairly erudite to bar-room fart jokes--in an attempt to remain popular with, and please, an audience that had a similar range of educational and class tendencies. He was a businessman, producing a product he thought would sell, and in the interest of selling his product he aimed for the widest possible audience. He intended to suit the tastes of the gutter, and the tastes of the upper class, at the same time. The lives of the poet-playwrights, including Ben Jonson and Shakespeare, at this period in England are fascinating even if we accept the Shakespeare we were taught existed in high school. They were men of great appetites, vulgar and refined at one and the same time, artists and salesmen, and Shakespeare at least was very involved in developing the public discourse of what it meant to be English.


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Ed- Sometimes when I have written a really long comment in response to someone else's question or comment, I turn it into another Hub. With a little tweaking here and there, and of course giving credit to the other Hubber/writer whenever I quote them it can be done.

Just a thought...sometimes they have turned out to be successful Hubs. If you do this, you need to give it an eye-catching, almost sexy title. :)

Speaking of titles, I recently read that it is really not a good idea to use the same title over and over. Of course I have a 3 part and a 4 part series with virtually identical titles. I also read that it is good to start with an easily recognizable word or term.

At first I was irritated. Then I accepted the fact that most people have very limited time, they are not academics, they are flying through titles of published Hubs and they don't stop to see if "American Soldiers" is part 1 or 2 or 3. They just assume they have read it.

Here is what I would do if I were you. Using the title above as a starting point, I would flip it around "The Greek Satirist Hipponax - World Poetry Project"

You want to put a word at the beginning, or near the front of your title to help people find tour work. I am not suggesting that everyone will read it, anymore than I think most Hubbers want to read about the liberation of concentration camps. But careful word choice can help those who will be interested in what you write to find you.

Don't forget you can go in and fiddle with the title of your Hubs any time you like. Might not be a bad idea. I know you have been on HP longer than me, so I am not trying to be bossy, just trying to be helpful. I think your work is very good and I would like you to have as wide a reading audience as possible. :)


Ed Michaels profile image

Ed Michaels 4 years ago from Texas, USA Author

phdast, Thank you for the advice. I had not really thought about the way people look for things to read. Filing various related articles under a single heading makes sense to me, but I can see how looking at material from the outside it would not be as important. As for finding an audience, I really started this to help me think through things. Writing and thinking tend to work together with me, so my first thought wasn't looking to build an audience. As I have found a few people actually enjoy reading what I have written, that element, engaging an audience, has risen in importance.


Deborah Brooks profile image

Deborah Brooks 4 years ago from Brownsville,TX

this is very interesting. I love anything Greek. especially the poets and authors. I am book marking this.. so i can read later,

I voted up and awesome

debbie


Ed Michaels profile image

Ed Michaels 4 years ago from Texas, USA Author

I am glad you are enjoying the experience. In this project, I will be continuing with the Greeks until the end of the month, and then it is on to Rome.

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