Review: Michael Schmidt’s Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem

LET’S start with a confession: I am a historian and I have never read Gilgamesh. I didn’t read it in graduate school. I didn’t read it in college. I didn’t even read an excerpt in high school. I am a Gilgamesh virgin. But, perhaps this apparent lapse in my education was all for the best since I could approach Michael Schmidt’s Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem from an… untouched perspective. I ended up reading the book thanks to a conversation with a good friend who was teaching the poem to his undergraduate students and a serendipitous encounter with a review in The New Yorker.

In his latest book, Schmidt asks contemporary English-language poets a series of questions about their experiences reading Gilgamesh – an interesting approach in order to ‘get at’ the world’s oldest known poem. He asked them to comment on their “first remembered encounter” with the poem, which “might have come not by textual means but via the collages of Anselm Kiefer, or a surprising episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation” (…you had me at “Star Trek”). The answers he received to his questions, along with poetry inspired by Gilgamesh, are interposed throughout, providing jumping-off points to the literary scholarship. I enjoyed the more personal touch provided by these voices and I think for a general audience it will serve to make the subject more accessible.

The first half of the book provides us an introduction to the semi-divine king, Gilgamesh and his friend, the “wild man,” Enkidu, along with other characters. Using plenty of excerpts from various translations, Schmidt takes us through a summary of the main action in the poem. In addition to this detailed overview, we start to get a sense of the fluid nature of Gilgamesh: as recently as 2006 a new tablet was discovered which filled in missing parts from the opening lines.

The Flood Tablet, from Gilgamesh, 7th cen. BCE, British Museum

We play a primary role in the poem, we occupy it as we might a great sculpture: a broken form we – in reading – mend, a space we fill out, in which we find things we did not know, that change us.

Michael Schmidt, Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem

The second half of the book delves further into historical and literary criticism of the poem itself as well as of the various translations and interpretations. Schmidt argues convincingly that Gilgamesh, being such a fragmentary piece of writing, “invites, indeed requires, construction” from modern readers. The physical state of the clay tablets create very real gaps which are either carried over to modern versions “verbatim,” with dashes and ellipses, or are filled through educated guesswork or more imaginative insertions. He draws a fascinating line between translations created by scholars with knowledge of the ancient languages in which Gilgamesh was written, and interpretations by artists who rely on scholarly translations to create their work.

Scholarly translations keep the uncomfortable, always instructive difference of the original in constant view. They aren’t threatened by modern versions in English prose and verse.

Michael Schmidt, Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem

Gilgamesh, because it was written in such a far distant past and doesn’t strictly adhere to any particular literary form, becomes open for almost any kind of (re)interpretation. There are numerous re-imaginings of the poem, from picture books and comics to dramatic adaptations, rap, and dance, among others. Although “the poem comes to be read with an appropriative, anachronising, modern eye” this in no way detracts from it. One of the main arguments of Schmidt’s book is that these modern interpretations help Gilgamesh – they provide an “in” for modern readers (as the poets answering his questions attest to). That is, modern artistic interpretations often provide us our first introduction to the king.

The final chapter was perhaps my favorite and functions as a case study for the application of the historical and literary theories introduced earlier. The chapter leaves us with thoughts on some of the many translations and interpretations of the “taming” of Enkidu by Shamhat, the temple prostitute. Schmidt guides us through several modern versions from the earliest and “relatively chaste” (“[Shamhat] shew’d him her comeliness, (yea)…”), to a two-line condensed version (“Strongest sent, his harlot went,\ One Kid[Enkidu] exulted until unmanned”), to versions where Shamhat takes a definitive lead role in the action. We are treated to an extended excerpt from Philip Terry’s “wayward” Globish translation of Gilgamesh. With lines such as “Open | you leg | show WILD | MAN you | love box” it is a seemingly forced translation, but it ends up conveying both the humor and the heartache of the situation.

Although a bit verbose at times, Schmidt’s book is well-written and reads like having a chat with a down-to-earth friend who happens to be a literary scholar. Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem approaches the world’s oldest known poem in a unique and quite fun way. While I still haven’t read Gilgamesh (a PDF of Andrew George’s 1999 translation is waiting on my computer), I now have a passable understanding of the story and structure as well as the pitfalls inherent to the translation of such an ancient and fragmentary piece. I think the reviewer in The New Yorker had it right when she said that perhaps, rather than trying to choose which translation to read, one should start by reading Schmidt’s book. It offers an intelligent but relatable introduction to Gilgamesh as well as to the scholarship and modern artistry which swirls around the nearly 4000 year old poem.

Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem
by Michael Schmidt

165 pages
(including bibliography and index)

One thought on “Review: Michael Schmidt’s Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem

  1. Great review, Kelly. As any historian who has done ancient history (or social history for that matter) interpretations of sources are often ambiguous and historians often take liberties in constructing their own narrative of events. The book The Diligent by Robert Harms is a great example of the latter, as he followed slave trips between ports yet created dialogue and events based on limited source material, pushing the boundaries of non-fiction.

    One of my favorite projects was studying the Iroquois Five Nations. Their foundational myth was centered around the same subjects and creatures, yet each of the nations had their own respective version of the tale that people would recite down from generation to generation. The people entrusted with passing down the Iroquoian legends had to go through a rigorous process of memorization and recitation – similar to academic peer review for written work today.

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