Byron’s wreath, today’s poets

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byronwreathLord Byron died in Greece, 1824.  His body was returned to England by sea on the brig Florida. Mourners lined the streets of London as the black-draped coffin and catafalque went to Great George Street, where it lay in state for a week.

The Greeks of Missolonghi had this laurel wreath (left) made for the coffin — he had been something of a freedom fighter in Greece. The laurel wreath of Byron was eventually returned to the people of Greece.

160  years later, archaeologist and author Patrick Hunt held it in his hands:  “In its old box, all dusty, faded and dried out, yet still intact and said to date from 1824, was this incredible treasure, poetic but real. I will never forget that this box was then placed in my hands.”

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Ken Fields, earlier wreathed

So much so that he has reinstated the custom of laurels for his colleagues.  Weaving European laurels from his “Homeric” garden, he wreathed Al Young, then poet laureate of California, in 2007. He followed with British poet and Persian translator Dick Davis, poet Ken Fields, and Pulitzer prizewinning poets W.S. Merwin and  Ted Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate.

Earlier this month,  he bewreathed John Felstiner (right), author of Can Poetry Save the Earth? (NPR discussed the book last April — podcast and story here.)

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Dick Davis, another wreathed poet (Photo: Linda Cicero)

“I’ve been reading John’s work for decades, from his Neruda translations and essays on poetry to his articles in the American Poetry Review and many other achievements, so he’s formative to my own growth as a poet,” said Patrick. “He either knows personally or has worked with every other poet who has been recently wreathed in this revival of the classical tradition. Last but not least, he’s been a great encouragement to many poets who hold him in highest esteem.”

Hunt wreathes Felstiner earlier this month

Hunt wreathes Felstiner earlier this month

“John is not only a muse but a kind man,” he concluded.

John looked “historically right” for the occasion, which took place before a joint meeting of two of John’s current Stanford poetry classes, Patrick told a brief history of ancient laureates with laurel wreaths, also about having held Byron’s wreath in Greece in 1984 and how life-changing that event was. “Then I mentioned how this ancient tradition was being revived in some way with modern poets by using the laurel tree in our Homeric garden. Then John was wreathed…”


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