World Poetry Project: Hipponax
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.