What Rhythm Holds


Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus, Nikolai Ge, 1855

From Lana Turner:

In thinking of the innovative lyric, it seems useful to look at archaic lyric, since it too was experimental in its day – maybe even wildly so. To dispense, just a hundred or so years after Homer, with tribal stories, to assert one’s presence in the poem, to express what a person walking through the world saw, heard, felt – all this was part of the speculative, pioneering process of turning words toward the traffic between human interiors and their exteriors. We tend to think about the Greek lyric poets’ radical discovery of subjectivity. Some have noted the possible connection – because they happened very near to each other in time and place – of that abstraction of the one from the many to the abstraction of objects for money. If we take these two inventions to be homologous there are implications. Was incipient self made in the same mill as money? Does the connection leap forward to the environmental mess we’re in today? Even without those implications, we might wonder, How useful is subjectivity to us these days? There is much to be teased out, but most of it is beyond the scope of these notes or my powers.

For now, let us agree that those early lyric poems provide us with some data about the early development (in language anyway) of subjectivity.  But they are also evidence of a music (now lost) that accompanied it. They were made for either monadic (one person singing) or choral singing – thus, the individual is woven into the community, by either performing the lyric before others, or performing the lyric with others. What I have been thinking about of late is how those first lyric poets were trying to invent ways to express human life in the various beats, pops, and hums of language (the part of the music we still have some scraps of).

Archilochos, one of the very first lyric poets, puts it this way:

“Know what rhythm holds human beings.”

Archilochos and his compatriots were creating, in part, rhythmic allegories, to show what rhythms hold us together as individuals, as groups.

What does it mean to be held by rhythm?

“Notes on The Innovative Lyric”, Eleni Sikelianos, Lana Turner