God(dess) Talk–Rose Kelleher Weighs In

First, a bit from Rose Kelleher:

A response to Quincy’s constant ranting about Greek goddesses

First of all, a question: do the Greek gods piss you off as much as the goddesses do? Elsewhere you’ve even mentioned their diaphanous robes. What about horsehair-crested helmets?

Those Greek goddesses were pretty tough gals, for the most part. I’d be especially wary of badmouthing Athena if I were you.

Seriously, though, I used to grumble about classical allusions, but I had the excuse that I wasn’t familiar with them. I was a slacker in high school, then went to UMass Boston, which is (or was, at that time) just a notch above “Batshit Community College” — the college you use in “Selling Your Book” as an example of the kind we-poets-in-the-know did not attend. I mention this because, for a change, it’s actually a qualification to say what I’m about to say. If A. E. Stallings were to say it, she’d undoubtedly say it better, but you could dismiss her as a scholar who’s out of touch with the common folk. I, on the other hand, may be weird, but I’m still common.

The myths are not some secret handshake for Ivy Leaguers. They’re out there on Wikipedia for anyone to read. After a few years of grumbling, one day I decided to see what all the fuss was about, and bought a book: “Classical Mythology” (Oxford Univ. Press). The book is nice to have because everything’s all together, and there are lots of pictures.

What really did it for me, though, was reading the Iliad. I had been assigned to read a few chapters of it in high school, and hated it. It was probably a bad translation (the Fagles translation is the one I enjoyed) but mostly I just wasn’t ready then. I think you have to have lived a little to appreciate Homer: lost a few loved ones, been in love, been dumped, been married and divorced once or twice, been to a strange country, been poor, been well off, been poor again, been conceited, been taken down a peg, seen a few really bad car wrecks, and seen men go off to war, beautiful men who, at your age, look awfully, awfully young.

After that it was the Odyssey – which, believe it or not, I didn’t like as much as the Iliad, though everyone’s always saying the opposite. Monsters are nice and all, but what really killed me were scenes like the one where Hector says goodbye to his wife and baby before going off to fight, and the baby starts crying because he doesn’t recognize his father in that big scary helmet, so Hector takes it off. Whew. Ouch. Way to humanize a character before you kill him off! Or the way Homer would write a paragraph about each soldier — a hunter, a shipwright, a priest — telling us how skilled the man was at his trade, how brave he was in battle, giving us a little of his family history, making him seem real to us, just before telling us exactly how he was killed:

“The famous spearman struck behind his skull, just at the neck-cord, the razor spear slicing straight up through the jaws, cutting away the tongue– he sank in the dust, teeth clenching the cold bronze.”

That’s much more real and immediate than those high-school-yearbook-style photo layouts you see in the Washington Post, where they tell you the soldier’s name, age, and rank, and nothing more. When a soldier is killed in Iraq, who appreciates his suffering? Or take that scene where Achilles finds out Patroclus is dead, and he’s so overcome with grief that he ends up rolling around on the ground, bawling his eyes out and rubbing dirt on his face. Wow. There’s nothing esoteric about this stuff. On the contrary, it’s way more visceral than the detached, oblique poetry you read in magazines today. Love, loss, grief, jealousy, vengeance. Maybe people today don’t roll around on the ground bawling their eyes out; maybe we should. God knows we’ve all wanted to at some point. These are timeless scenes that anyone can identify with.

After re-discovering Homer I re-discovered Euripedes, and Sophocles, and the Aeneid… that’s as far as I’ve gotten. The point is, these “2,000-year-old stories” you’re so quick to dismiss are not so far removed from our lives, if you look past the particulars. (And you’re a poet, Quincy, you should be able to do that!) They’re like contemporary stories, but submerged in a pool. All you have to do is look down through the water. There are some ripples, and some weeds waving around that get in the way, but at the bottom you can see your own life. Everybody’s life. It’s all in there.

In fact, the ripples and the weeds may make it clearer, in a way. When a poet like Stallings, for example, uses a Greek myth, the fact that the emotions are able to come through, despite the antiquity of the story, calls attention to the timelessness and universality of what’s underneath. Using an ancient myth can help you go straight to the heart of things. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that you write poems that are firmly grounded in contemporary urban life. But if it’s true, as you seem to be saying, that readers can only relate to poetry that’s set in their own time and place, then your own poetry is irrelevant to anyone who lives in the suburbs or the country or even a different city from you, or anyone who reads your poetry twenty years from now. If we can’t look past the superficial trappings off culture and idiom, then we might as well just screw poetry altogether and watch TV.

Finally, it is my firm conviction that a poet should write about whatever he or she is moved to write about. You may think writing about Greek goddesses makes for bad poetry. But what could be worse than selfconsciously trying to be hip and contemporary? Is that what poetry is all about – a high school popularity contest? Can you imagine the bad poetry that would result if we all started competing to see who’s the most tapped in to popular culture? Think of the cringingly embarrassing poems you’ve read by aging nerds who tried to use slang that didn’t come naturally? Think of the exploitative poems you’ve read by well-to-do, highly-educated poets who’ve thoughtlessly used other people’s poverty or misfortune just so they could score another poem, and stick another feather in their cap.

It’s far better for those of us who are nerds to accept, even embrace, our nerdiness. I say be true to yourself, and write about Greek goddesses if that’s what moves you to write, and write about Petrarch and Laura if you want to (I personally find Petrarch rather hot, the way he was so obsessed with Laura and never stopped loving her even though she didn’t love him; remember, just as breasts can be a turnon for men, fidelity can be a turnon for women) and if some people don’t like that, well, they don’t have to read it. In fact, most of what’s available, not just in poetry, but TV, movies, novels, etc., caters to people who don’t give a damn about Homer or Petrarch – so for those who do, why begrudge them their little crumb? You don’t have to like it, but you don’t have to eradicate it from the face of the earth, either. Live and let live.

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