Sep. 10, 2006

Modern Greek 101

by Rachel Hadas

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Modern Greek 101" by Rachel Hadas from The River of Forgetfulness. © David Robert Books. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Modern Greek 101

These phrases, once lodged in your memory,
Will help you find your way, I guarantee,
Through any social circumstance in Greek,
Each Scylla and Charybdis when you speak.
All will work in any situation,
Plug up gaps in any conversation,
Politely answer any salutation.
It's surely no coincidence all four
In different ways purport to reassure.
So get your notebooks out, for here they are.

Siga-siga first: take it easy, slow
Down. Ti na kanome: what can we do?
Then pirazi: it doesn't matter
(see how our repertory's getting fatter?)
Last but not least en daxi: all right, okay.
These are the crucial ones, and this is why:
Whichever of the four you chance to use
Shrugs with a weary grace you can't refuse,
An attitude for which there is no name
In English, though we try it all the same,
Not understanding what we imitate,
Mild acquiescence in the face of Fate,
Not dialectical and not dramatic,
But unassuming, formulaic, phatic.

One boiling morning I remarked, "It's hot."
The aproned landlord shrugged: "It matters not."
"What a pretty evening," I once said.
"What can we do?" a black-clad crone replied.
Reverse these scraps of dialogue: you too
Can answer anything that's said to you—
Though said is not the word so much as sung:
A whole philosophy rolls off the tongue.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of naturalist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould, (books by this author) born in New York City (1941). When he was a boy, he was fascinated by garbage trucks and decided that he wanted to be a garbage collector so he could examine all of the strange things that people throw away. He collected everything from sea shells to cigarette packages. But when he was five years old, his father took him to the Museum of Natural History, and he saw his first dinosaur skeleton, a twenty-foot high tyrannosaurus. He later wrote, "As we stood in front of the beast a man sneezed; I gulped and prepared to say my Shema Yisrael [last prayer]. But the great animal stood immobile in all its bony grandeur, and as we left, I announced that I would be a paleontologist when I grew up."

He hoped to study biology in school, but at the time most high schools shied away from teaching Darwin's theories of evolution, and so Gould read Darwin on his own, and his parents took him on amateur fossil hunting expeditions. He went on to study geology and paleontology and wrote his dissertation on an extinct land snail native to the Bahamas. He once said that his research on the taxonomy of the snail was of interest to about eight people in the world, but, he said, "Those eight people really care."

He might have remained a little-known snail scholar, but in 1974, he was offered a job writing a monthly column for Natural History magazine. He decided that his guiding focus in the column would be the theory of evolution, but aside from that he would write about whatever he was interested in, from the history of Mickey Mouse to the unreliability of IQ tests. He often wrote about baseball, having been a baseball fan ever since he caught a foul ball hit by Joe DiMaggio.

Gould even wrote about his own battle with cancer. He loved the fact that when he was diagnosed with cancer, the average life expectancy for his condition was eight months, and yet he lived for twenty more years. He wrote an article about it, exploring the many meanings of the word "average."

His essays were collected in books such as The Panda's Thumb (1980) and The Flamingo's Smile (1985). He died in 2003. He once said, "[Evolutionary theory] attempts, insofar as science can, to answer the questions of what our life means, and why we are here, and where we come from, and who we are related to, and what has happened through time, and what has been the history of this planet. These are questions that all thinking people have to ponder."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show