New York.- By Vicki J. Yiannias
Girded with copies of the Iliad, an army of interested parties of all nationalities, ages, descriptions, and talents hunkered down in the auditorium of the Dahesh Museum at 57th and Madison Avenue in New York on January 14. With water and coffee, and swathed in fresh plaid blankets supplied by Olympic Airways, some dozed, others were alert, as they listened to descriptions of war. Was this a beautiful bivouac?
Not really. It was an all-day reading of one of the most enduring poems of all time, Homer’s Iliad, about the depths of human experience in that most ancient war in Troy that was triggered by the abduction of a gorgeous queen.
From 10 am to 10 pm two hundred participants took turns reading pre-assigned passages of the Iliad from Robert Fagle’s translation and in ancient and Modern Greek. The reading, held by The Readers of Homer, was an adjunct program to the exhibition The Legacy of Homer: Four Centuries of Art from the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux Arts, Paris, which ran at the Dahesh Museum from October 8, 2005 through January 22, 2006.
Punctuated by lunch and coffee breaks with live Greek music, the marathon reading had a festival-like atmosphere of community. Further relaxation was encouraged by the unique invitation from Kathryn Hohlwein, the founder of The Readers of Homer, to grab a bit of shut-eye during the continuous reading. “I encourage the readers to sleep if they are tired. Sleep and wake up and you hear poetry going on and it’s a wonderful continuity, which is a communal thing.”
Ms. Hohlwein retired after three decades of teaching a course titled The Homeric Imagination at California State University in Sacramento and in 1998 established the non-profit organization with her daughter Laura, giving the public an opportunity to share her passion for Homer in a new way, worthy of the ancient bard.
Ms. Hohlwein told The Greek News that she has that what excites people “is when they get to read . . . even if they don’t think they know poetry, don’t like poetry, or if they’re afraid, or nervous because they don’t know what they’re doing, participating in this way is exciting, and it challenges them,” she told The Greek News.
Yiannis Simonides, actor, writer, producer, (former director of Hellenic Public Radio – COSMOS FM) and director of the Greek Theater of New and of Mythic Media International, a performance lab, corroborated Ms. Hohlwein’s observation on the wide variety of personalities Involved in the event.
“I think that what attracts us to the readings aside from the great story and how relevant it still is, is that we can all participate; you don’t have to be an actor, an academic, or anything like that . . . we can come together and listen to this story, listen to each other; our only obligation is to be heard.
Simonides paraphrased the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, saying that the Iliad is the most just and impartial of all human inventions. “You read the Iliad and you think Iraq, Afghanistan, and you think terror and anything you want . . . it’s all RIGHT THERE. But more than anything is how impartially Homer gives it. The Greeks and the Trojans, the simple man and the hero, they’re all there in all their folly, greatness, wisdom, courage, and cowardice. A reading like this brings us all together in one room and we hear one of the greatest works of human society . . . it’s very moving.”
Listening to Mr. Simonides and his thirteen year-old son Ion, Mr. Theodossis Demetracopoulos, the Greek Press Counsellor to the UN, and others among the approximate thirty-person Greek contingent that read in ancient and modern Greek, it seemed from their deliveries that Homer is bred-in-the-bone. And there is nothing to compare with the poignant nuance of the Greek language; even non-Greek listeners felt its poetic power.
For Mr. Demetracopoulos, “The Iliad is diachronic, it has had relevance through the ages. How do you resist an indignity like the kidnapping of Helen, and gain back your honor and self-respect? And it’s about how several Greek nations got together an army to fight an enemy. Perhaps sometimes nations place too great an emphasis on their importance in the field of war; we have those things happening today as well.” For Mr. Demetracopoulos, who was required to memorize whole passages of the Iliad and the Odyssey in ancient Greek in high school, the reading was second nature.
Thirteen-year old Ion Simonides, who read in Modern Greek as well as in English and has always liked the Iliad, gave a comment on Homer’s skill. “My dad taught me that reading poetry is different than reading text; learning how to read it so that it’s clear and not boring . . . that took a little while. He’s a really good teacher because he was the head of the Yale Drama Department, so he knows what he’s talking about.” What were his father’s hints? To enunciate every word, have fun with it, and take your time. What impressed Ion particularly is that an entire paragraph, instead of just a couple of sentences, can be used to describe one thing. “In the part I read Homer is describing the hearts of the Achaeans as torn in their chests, and how they’re so lonely. It was just so interesting seeing how well one thing can be described.”
Peter Trippi, Director of the Dahesh Museum, said that it was important to remind visitors that the stories depicted in the paintings of the Legacy of Homer show were “first communicated through speaking, that Homer was singing poems that were ultimately written down. The spoken word gives a sense of the sweep of the story from beginning to end, so we’re thrilled about it and want to do this again and again when it’s appropriate to the exhibition.”