The Allusion and the Canonical

To add a bit to the recent discussion between Rose and myself… Given that this is a literary blog, certain truths we may hold to be self-evident. Most of us read a lot. Most of us read a lot of literature. Most of us read a lot of literature by authors who were born before 1900. The same can be said if I specify 1800, 1700, etc. That is, we are, relative to the general run of humanity, a pretty canon-savvy bunch. We can rattle off a few lines of Shakespeare, know the name of Petrarch’s unrequited love, and so forth.

But the point really isn’t how smart everyone is (you’re welcome, though). No, it’s that American formalists often don’t show much imagination when interacting with the great works of imagination from the past. As T. S. Eliot put it in “The Sacred Wood,” “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Too often, when reading the formalist journals, one feels the need to add something to the “bad poets” norm, the “unimaginative poets”–or, to be a bit more precise, the unimaginative poem. That is to say, the frequent “update” poem, in which, say, the Furies become rather stereotypically shallow and vindictive mall rats mocking the (poet-surrogate at a younger age) four-eyed narrator, is probably a bad poem, draining the Furies of their terror while the remaining mythical residue around them prevents the story being told to resonate in its own right. But then there’s the unimaginative poem, where the myth is not complicated or really explored, save for filling what the Spinal Tap album cover sleeve refers to as a “much-needed void.” If you’re Tom Stoppard, you can look at Hamlet from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, even as they remain very much Stoppard’s characters. but do we need a sonnet to tell us what Ophelia was thinking, when Shakespeare does a damn fine job of it himself?

The canon, in contemporary metrical poetry, is far too often simply inert, with authors appreciated, myths revered or burlesquely bowdlerized, and blah, blah, blah. Boring. One lacks a sense of the dialectic of allusion, the way in which, done properly, the past and present communicate with one another, the way that Agamemnon comments on the tawdriness of Sweeney’s dinner companions, how Athenian history is harnessed to Mauberley’s lament about the devolution of modern life, the way Shakespeare hovers around Berryman. We need to be more subtle with this stuff, more imaginative than we are now. Far too often, the canon is used as a substitute for the actual alchemy of inspiration.


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.

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.