Keynote Speech Given to the WABCJCL Convention, April of 2017
It is an incredible honor to be here today to give the keynote address for your 2017 convention! Thanks to Rick Winterstein and the entire JCL organization for the invitation and support in making my way here from Chicago to speak to you and perform my version of Homer’s Odyssey.
I came to Classics in college and never got a chance to experience junior classical league events as a high school student so I feel particularly lucky to have built a great relationship with state chapters and the JCL national organization. This is the 7th state convention at which I’ve been a guest and I’ve also attended the last five national conventions. At each and every one I’ve been amazed by your enthusiasm for and intelligence around the Classics. It’s heartening and encouraging to know that the future of the Classical discipline is in such good hands with students and teachers like you.
As I mentioned, I didn’t start studying the Classics until on a whim I registered for Ancient Greek as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. By my junior year at Wisconsin I was also learning Latin but the later start meant that my Greek was always stronger. I will admit to a certain amount of envy at how well you know Latin already. I wish I would have taken advantage of JCL when I was your age.
I’m going to make a suggestion: regardless of what you pursue as a major if you attend college, take Ancient Greek. I can assure you that being already accomplished in and familiar with Latin will give you an immediate comfort with the grammar and syntax of Greek.
And it might change your life.
Because Ancient Greek changed my life.
I know the theme of your convention is “All art is an imitation of nature,” a sentiment first expressed by Greek and Roman philosophers and then, as happens which much Classical thought, debated fiercely throughout history, down to thousands of years later when Oscar Wilde famously contended that this was backwards and life actually imitates art.
I’m not sure who, if anyone, is right about this.
But I do know that my life is inextricably linked with the art of Homer, in particular what I believe is the greatest story ever told, The Odyssey, and I’d like to tell you a little bit about how that came to be the case and how it might relate to you in your current and future pursuits around the Classics.
My first semester freshman year foray into Ancient Greek led me to a second semester of Ancient Greek and also classes in Classical Myth and Classical Archaeology. By the end of my freshman year I became what I call an “accidental classicist,” switching my major from Psychology to Classics.
Then, in my sophomore year, I read Homer for the first time in Greek. And it is only a small exaggeration to say that my head exploded. Homeric Greek is like a living breathing organism that surrounds you even as you take it in. It is as fluid as water and strong as stone. Capable of expressing the tiniest detail or the biggest infinity, often both at the same time. A perfect synthesis of form and function.
So I guess I would modify my initial advice to say: take enough ancient Greek to be able to read Homer. (Which is usually three semesters.)
As I read The Odyssey in Greek, I also got the chance to study it in translation in other classes. These perspectives mixed to reveal the depth and breadth of The Odyssey for its Classical genius and also its just plain human genius. The story moved me on intellectual and emotional levels with equal strength. I couldn’t get enough of Homer and really all of my Classics classes.
But of course, all good things must come to an end, and I had to graduate college.
And enter the “real world.”
The skills I built with my Classics degree, discipline, research, and analytical writing, among others, got me a good job as a paralegal in a big law firm in Chicago.
Two years after I graduated college, in 2001, the Muse came to me with an idea: combine my study of Classics and passion for The Odyssey with my other love, music, and compose my own bardic performance of the story. I envisioned that it would incorporate both the original experience of hearing the story sung with the opportunity to make the core of the tale more accessible to modern audiences.
Over the course of a couple of months, I wrote almost all of what you will hear me sing tomorrow: a 24 song, 30 minute, continuous retelling of Homer’s Odyssey for acoustic guitar and voice. I was surprised to find that as closely as I had studied it in college, I had only begun to tap the depths of the story and its characters. In the course of writing my version I found a wealth of new and moving aspects of the story that I still look to develop in each performance.
I hope that you all will come and listen to me sing tomorrow and continue the search for new meanings in The Odyssey together. Some of my most poignant revelations about the story have come as a result of engaging students like you in discussion.
Suffice to say my journey from composition in 2001 to performing for you here in 2017 has not been a straight line: through numerous ups and downs I’ve performed my Odyssey over 200 times and, now with my performance here in Washington, in 33 US states and even Canada. 7 years ago I quit that job as a paralegal to pursue a career as a full-time musician and my Odyssey is an increasingly larger part of that career and my life.
So here’s where we come back to the question of the relationship between art and life: my life today looks a lot like both Homer and his hero Odysseus. I am a guy who travels around telling a story that a guy who traveled around telling stories told about a guy who traveled around telling stories.
Who is imitating whom?
I can tell you the kinship and connection I feel with Homer and his story is poignant, real, and has opened my mind and heart to the human condition on a level I have never experienced.
I would add one final thought to the question of how life and art are related, and of course it comes from The Odyssey: King Alcinoos says that the Gods brought about the ruin of Troy just so poets would have something to sing about for future generations. Think about the ramifications of that as you consider the relationship between life and art.
I hope in my story you can see that the small act of taking Ancient Greek my freshman year of college had wide ranging impacts on the course of my life and I think it could do that for all of you, too.
There is another very real and important reason to take Greek and Latin in college: you have probably noticed that there is currently (to be charitable) “less emphasis” on college humanities and this of course includes Classics. I’ve been lucky enough to perform at a wide range of universities and colleges including places like Stanford and next week Harvard, from the most well funded private schools to state schools with tighter and tighter budgets.
I see on a day-to-day basis how hard professors and teachers are working to keep the study of the Classics alive and funded in a climate in which it is increasingly challenging to do so.
And here’s the thing: every student that signs up for a Greek or Latin class is a huge victory for these people working to keep Classics alive. In some schools, one or two students signing up for Greek can be the difference between the language being offered going forward and it being canceled. This is not an exaggeration. I have had long-tenured professors tell me that if they could only get a couple more students to take Greek 101 it would go a long way towards continued funding and resources.
So while I don’t anticipate every person in this room will major in Classics (though of course it would be nice), I hope you’ll build off your great experience in JCL and high school by at least exploring college level Classics classes. You can and do make a difference, both in a general way for the discipline and in a practical sense of using your enthusiasm to command and even DE-mand resources be committed to its study and teaching.
A final thought: as you can see from my life, pursuing Classics in college does not limit your career choices. In fact, the very opposite. It has numerous applications across numerous careers, both directly related to the Classics and otherwise.
For instance, I am represented by The Paideia Institute, a humanities education non-profit out of New York started by several Princeton Classics Ph.D.’s with a particular passion for spoken Latin. Paideia has grown from a tiny little operation to one with an operating budget in the millions which creates incredible programs both in the US and abroad to encourage the study of Greek and Latin in creative and dynamic ways. It has spawned a great journal, Eidolon, to which I’ve been lucky enough to contribute an article entitled Being a Modern Bard.
Being able to call myself a “modern bard” is not something I thought I would be able to say even just a couple of years ago, but it is the truth. There is a millennia-long thread that connects me, Joe Goodkin, today’s modern bard, to Joe Goodkin, the college freshman signing up for Ancient Greek, and then all the way back to Homer and Odysseus.
I was lucky enough to find that thread through Classics and I hope you all will keep pursuing your own threads here this weekend and well beyond.
Thanks again for having me here to speak and perform and looking forward to singing for you tomorrow.