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This item is taken from PN Review 206, Volume 38 Number 6, July - August 2012.

With the London Olympics upon us, it is well to celebrate the role of the poet in the ancient Games. That we remember the names, provenances and stories of many ancient horses and he-men is due to poets. Their epinicean odes or victory poems are the peculiar art-form of the Games. Pindar is the most celebrated Ode poet, but he is not the first.

The earliest epinicean poetry is ascribed to Simonides of Kos. But recently discovered papyruses suggest that Ibycus of Rhegion, 'who prayed to the birds' and flourished around 560 BC, showed Simonides the way. Ibycus had an eventful, charmed life and lived to be old, when the charm failed. There was a statue of him, perhaps by Praxiteles, now lost, showing an elderly, bent and bearded poet, smiling. Plato's Parmenides remembers a passage of Ibycus, also lost, about how, like an old horse put into the traces to run a chariot race, he trembles and shudders, remembering what it was like before: against his will he is falling in love again.

Excitement and fear are the ingredients of love. Spring comes, in Cydonia the quinces and the vines flower in the maidens' garden; for the poet at such times love never sleeps but bursts upon him like a north wind alive with lightning and turbulence. Ibycus' passion breathes, it takes a conceit and draws it deep into the body, until the poetry runs like sap in the veins of a tree.

Rugged sportsmen are an inevitable convention of the epinicean ode: certain kinds of beauty are integral to prowess. We know more than can be true of Ibycus. He came of a well-established family. His father was Phytius, or the historian Polyzelus of Messene, or Cerdas, or Eelides. Too much information... The Suda tells us something else that sounds more plausible: he was 'most ardent in ephebic love'. Philodemus reports with distaste how 'Ibycus, Anacreon and the like debauched young men not by their songs but by their ideas'. When he addresses Euryalus,

          sprung from the grey-eyed Graces,
     Beloved of the lovely-coifed Seasons, you were
Nursed by her of Cyprus and by
     Persuasion among abundant rose-buds,

it is not only Venus' persuasions and rose-buds that abound in this Keatsian lushness: 'myrtle, violet, goldenrod, apple-blossom, roses and tender bay-leaves' are there, too. Among foliage and blossom, high up, 'sit variegated dapple-throated wild drakes and hidden birds of purple hue and the wide-winged halcyons'.

Ibycus was the first poet to mention the name of 'famous Orpheus': the phrase survives uniquely and without context in the Roman grammarian Priscian's Grammar, dating from the early sixth century AD, 1200 years after Ibycus lived.

Ibycus suffered an ignominious death but an immortal revenge. His name may derive, the Suda tells us, from the Greek word for crane, and cranes play a crucial role in the storytold by Antipater of Sidon and others. As an old man Ibycus was on an epinicean mission to Corinth, to mark a chariot race and enter a song contest. Successful poets were not poor: they were presented with substantial awards in public for their performances. The poet carried these awards about his person. Bandits and pirates preyed on such poets (remember young Dionysus, kidnapped in the Homeric Hymns, and Arion thrown overboard by pirates). Ibycus' fate was grim like theirs, the aftermath similarly miraculous.

When he came ashore at Corinth, venerable and vulnerable, he passed through a lonely sacred grove of Neptune. A flock of cranes flew overhead and he blessed them. Suddenly two robbers surprised him. He could play a lyre but not wield a sword. He was overpowered. Only the cranes, screaming in the sky, saw the poet murdered and despoiled. As he fell he called on the birds to avenge him. Later a friend discovered his mangled body.

The festival went ahead, and in the amphitheatre at Corinth a huge crowd that included the bandits assembled to hear the recital. There was grief and anger at news of Ibycus' death, and calls for vengeance. As the poets performed, a flock of cranes flew over the theatre. The bandits cried out, 'Look! The cranes of Ibycus!' Having given themselves away, they were apprehended and dealt the justice they deserved. It is not certain what that justice was. Having fulfilled their mission, the cranes flew on to Africa.

In the Palatine anthology Ibycus enjoys an anonymous epitaph:

Of Rhegion I sing, at the toe of Italy, and its shallows,
A city for ever savouring the currents of Sicily;
Of Rhegion I sing: it fostered, beneath a leafy elm,
Ibycus, lover of the lyre, of boys; after he'd
Enjoyed sufficient pleasures, Rhegion banked
Much ivy and laid a bed of white reeds on his tomb.

This item is taken from PN Review 206, Volume 38 Number 6, July - August 2012.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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