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Reflections on a lost poem and its rediscovery by contemporary poets
Gilgamesh is the most ancient long poem known to exist. It is also the newest classic in the canon of world literature. Lost for centuries to the sands of the Middle East but found again in the 1850s, it tells the story of a great king, his heroism, and his eventual defeat. It is a story of monsters, gods, and cataclysms, and of intimate friendship and love. Acclaimed literary historian Michael Schmidt provides a unique meditation on the rediscovery of Gilgamesh and its profound influence on poets today.
Schmidt describes how the poem is a work in progress even now, an undertaking that has drawn on the talents and obsessions of an unlikely cast of characters, from archaeologists and museum curators to tomb raiders and jihadis. Fragments of the poem, incised on clay tablets, were scattered across a huge expanse of desert when it was recovered in the nineteenth century. The poem had to be reassembled, its languages deciphered. The discovery of a pre-Noah flood story was front-page news on both sides of the Atlantic, and the poem's allure only continues to grow as additional cuneiform tablets come to light. Its translation, interpretation, and integration are ongoing.
In this illuminating book, Schmidt discusses the special fascination Gilgamesh holds for contemporary poets, arguing that part of its appeal is its captivating otherness. He reflects on the work of leading poets such as Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, and Yusef Komunyakaa, whose own encounters with the poem are revelatory, and he reads its many translations and editions to bring it vividly to life for readers.
Schmidt (The Novel: A Biography), a critic and poet, outlines the circuitous, millennia-old path by which the epic of a young Sumerian king came to light and continues to fire literary imaginations. The ancient poem"Gilgamesh," dating back to 700 B.C.E., comes from 12 clay tablets, unearthed in the 1850s during excavations in what is now Iraq. Subsequent fragments continue to surface, inscribed in different ancient languages. Because of this, "the poem remains provisional, shifting like dunes." The book's first half summarizes and analyzes each tablet, together encompassing the story of King Gilgamesh's wild early years and eventual maturation, his friendship with the wild man Enkidu, and his search for the secret to eternal life after Enkidu's death. The second half broadens out to encompass the poem's many implications, such as how the discovery of its pre Noah's Ark account of an annihilating deluge reshaped views about the composition of the Bible. Comparing different translations, Schmidt finds that each version, "while taking us on roughly the same road, negotiates the steeper gradients and the numerous pot-holes in different ways." Thanks to these and other striking turns of phrase, Schmidt leavens what could be ponderous textual analysis with his own poetic skills, creating an insightful, stimulating book sure to breathe new life into the would-be immortal king.