God(dess) Talk–My Response

First off, if I go on about the Goddesses more than their male counterparts, it is because I just tend to see more of Persephone than Hephaestus in poems nowadays. But him, too.

Secondly, I am by no means saying that mythological material is inappropriate, nor direct engagement with authors of earlier eras. And I thought the myths were cool when I was a kid. I still do. It’s just that… with very few exceptions, the poems I see retelling them are terrible. It’s not that they’re obscure. It’s that they’re bad canon poem crap that makes one long for the source material fiercely. And it’s not the fault of the myths. Because they can be used brilliantly in contemporary poetry. Eliot’s “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” is a fantastic example of this. Dig:

APENECK SWEENEY spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,
The zebra stripes along his jaw
Swelling to maculate giraffe.

The circles of the stormy moon
Slide westward toward the River Plate,
Death and the Raven drift above
And Sweeney guards the hornèd gate.

Gloomy Orion and the Dog
Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas;
The person in the Spanish cape
Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees

Slips and pulls the table cloth
Overturns a coffee-cup,
Reorganised upon the floor
She yawns and draws a stocking up;

The silent man in mocha brown
Sprawls at the window-sill and gapes;
The waiter brings in oranges
Bananas figs and hothouse grapes;

The silent vertebrate in brown
Contracts and concentrates, withdraws;
Rachel née Rabinovitch
Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;

She and the lady in the cape
Are suspect, thought to be in league;
Therefore the man with heavy eyes
Declines the gambit, shows fatigue,

Leaves the room and reappears
Outside the window, leaning in,
Branches of wistaria
Circumscribe a golden grin;

The host with someone indistinct
Converses at the door apart,
The nightingales are singing near
The Convent of the Sacred Heart,

And sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud,
And let their liquid siftings fall
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.

That last quatrain just sends the poem into a whole different level. I have read this poem so many times that I should be bored with it, but am not. Agamemnon’s death becomes an ironic comment on what came before, and… well, there’s plenty of criticism already.

What gets me about the way most contemporary formalist poems dealing with Greco-Roman myth is this–it’s not their use of Classical themes, but that they come across, generally, either as rather pale homages to cracking source material or, worse, as something that someone wrote down when he/she had no ideas of his/her own. And the pieces are flat, unrevealing, and just dull as hell, in contradistinction to the source material. There are, naturally, exceptions, but it is my general impression.

But, by God, I hope I did not give the impression that I dislike the use of mythological source material per se or poems set in other historical eras or the like. Such is not the case, and, to my recollection, has never been the case. And you’re misreading me a bit more broadly, Rose. I do not propose what I do as a template for anyone else, and a fair bit of my work, indeed, is implicitly set in the Oklahoman, yes, suburb where I grew up. The comments you are thinking of (presumably from the Evans review) were a reference to the lifestyle of a given poet rather than to a particular subject of poetry. And they were, moreover, semi-jocular, a bit of a jab at a sort of Baudelairean notion of what “the Poet” should be like.

Hope this clarifies a few things.

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3 Comments »

  1. Rose said

    Actually, I guess I kind of knew what you really meant before, but more recently in reviews or elsewhere, you’ve made cracks that seemed directed not so much at a particular kind of bad “canon poem,” but at classical allusions in general. So it’s good that I gave you the opportunity to clarify, because now everyone will know what you really mean.

    Also, I have noticed a tendency among badass poets, when they put down weak, ineffectual poetry, to use female terminology. I know they don’t mean it in a misogynistic way, but it’s worth thinking about where that comes from. Why is it always “blue-haired little old ladies” and “Greek goddesses”? Why is it always Patience Strong and Sharon Olds and Maya Angelou and Jorie Graham who get ragged on, and not the untold thousands of overrated male poets?

    Anyway, you know I love ya, I’m just giving you a hard time. Someone has to do it.

  2. Quincy Lehr said

    Well, of the seventeen poems in my book, eight make at least glancing references to Classical mythology or Bible stories (and extended references to Lutheranism in one poem), and those tend to be the longer pieces, so condemning the practice in toto would be rank hypocrisy on my part. Three also have a fair bit of astrophysics in them. Whole portions of “Continental Drift”, “In an Eyelid’s Flicker”, and “The Joke” depend on allusion. And my recent poem in The Dark Horse actually has two Proserpina stanzas–though that poem actually owes its existence in part to frustration with canon poems.

    But by all means, allude!

  3. Mary Meriam said

    Glad to see this cleared up. Very enjoyable reading, you two.

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