Many years ago I attended a poetry reading by my friend Cynthia LeClaire. This was the pen name for a woman who had a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, who taught philosophy at a college here in New York, and who was pursuing another degree in Classics at the C.U.N.Y. Graduate Center. Cynthia and I had become acquainted during a Greek poetry seminar at the latter school.
A great many of Cynthia’s poems had mythological themes and allusions. She loved the old stories and made free use of them in varied ways. When the reading was over, she fielded a few questions from the audience.
One came from a hostile listener. He was a hulking oaf in a plaid shirt, dungarees, work boots, and a SANE button. He identified himself as “Jerry,” and as the director of a poetry workshop at some community college.
“Why are you writing about these old myths?” Jerry snarled. “Couldn’t you find something more relevant to our times?” He emphasized the word relevant in that accusatory way that a lot of faux radicals did back then. “I mean,” Jerry added, “it’s not as if this stuff was contemporary.” He then folded his arms and smirked, Oxford-Debating-Union style.
Cynthia looked at him and sniffed. She was from the University of Chicago, and a disciple of Allan Bloom. She had nothing but contempt for left-liberal morons. “The myths are relevant to me,” she enunciated with precision, “and I happen to be a contemporary.” I immediately clapped loudly, and continued until a wave of applause was generated from the audience. Jerry in his plaid shirt kept quiet for the rest of the session.
This little incident is meaningful because the attitude expressed by Jerry has, in my experience, only become more widespread and virulent over the years. Among many poets and editors there is a visceral loathing of any reference in a poem not just to myth but to anything historical, learned, literary, or arcane—in short, to anything that is not part of the immediate personal experience of the poet. Some of this is due to the long-standing hegemony of the confessional lyric, with its fixation on the authentic and the first-hand. And some of it is due to despair—nobody learns this stuff anymore, say poets, so why the hell should we mention it? However, some of it is also due to a kneejerk American populism that fiercely resents intellectual achievement and aesthetic intricacy as elitist and undemocratic.
Just recently a poet and editor for whom I have great respect wrote to me saying that he had eliminated a number of poems from his forthcoming book, on the grounds that they contained references that many readers would probably not understand. I was appalled at this decision, and wrote back that it was absurd for him to immolate the products of his art on the altar of our failed educational system. But he was adamant. He wrote to me “The audiences of tomorrow will know who Jesus Christ was. They will know who Hercules, Ulysses and Achilles were. But to pretend that they will know or care about the more esoteric subjects of Greek mythology is sheer folly.”
After reading his words, I realized what a terrible thing is was to be obsessed with audience and reader-response, and how damaging to one’s art such an obsession can be. Imagine discarding an intrinsically good poem on the hypothetical grounds that Joe Blow or Doris Dumbcunt might not understand it fully. Is a poem like an Alka-Seltzer commercial? Does it have to appeal to “the Wad,” as TV advertisers call the lowest common denominator of viewers?
Besides populism, the Barbaric Yawp, and a generalized sense of futility, another enemy that poets literate in mythology must face is the notion that the old myths are “played out” or “dead” or “sterile.” The argument goes something like this: The myths may have been valid and meaningful in the past, but they have long since become fossilized relics, useless to any poet seeking to express the tenor of our times.
This argument is predicated on the notion that inherited mythology is somehow canonically fixed, like the text of Petrarch or the Declaration of Independence. But that is simply untrue. Mythology was always a living thing in the ancient world. The old stories were retold so many times that it was pretty much expected every poet utilizing a myth would vary it in some idiosyncratic way, either to suit the work at hand or to satisfy his personal preferences. No classical writer tells the exact same story as it appears in Hesiod or the other early mythographers. Pindar sometimes rewrote an inherited myth in accordance with his own sense of propriety; and Ovid refashioned stories in whatever manner he pleased. That isn’t a sign of sterility or hidebound conservatism. That’s a sign of vigor and fruitfulness.
In fact, in late antiquity Graeco-Roman mythology had become so complex and protean that even educated persons needed handbooks like the Pseudo-Apollodorus in Greek or Hyginus in Latin to keep up with the bewildering number of stories and their variants. These handbooks or enchiridia were the Cliff’s Notes of the time, allowing readers to get some kind of a handle on what had become a jungle of intertwined and conflicting narratives.
That sort of complexity is highly useful. It means that myths are a mix of disparate and conflicting things, just as C.G. Jung imagined the collective unconscious to be. Or to use a homelier image, they are like the contents of a catch-all drawer in someone’s kitchen or workshop—a drawer filled with a jumble of tools, utensils, and odds and ends. You can always find something there to serve your purpose.
The same thing can be true today. Myths can be catalysts for a wide range of new ideas and imaginative re-creations. They don’t have to be another strumming of the same old chords. In fact, they can signal a rebirth and reinvigoration of culture, as happens in Pound’s 1913 “The Return,” a magnificent piece on the coming back of the gods:
See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”
Gods of the wingèd shoe!
This is a dazzling poem on the reflowering in European consciousness of its classical roots, and of that consciousness waking up from the stupid dreams of rationalism and Enlightenment pieties. Once again in the West, the primal forces of blood, instinct, history, and sacrifice were rising, and Pound’s poem both records and celebrates this phenomenon.
Frankly, anyone who says that mythology is a dead end for modern writers hasn’t read a lot of modern literature. Jean Anouilh retold the story of Antigone in wartime France, making it intensely relevant to contemporary issues of state authority, tyranny, and the limits of obedience. Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus is indissolubly linked to Greek myth. Paddy Chayefsky in Gideon took the mythical Hebrew hero of that name and subverted his story into a meditation on modern man’s need to assert independence of God. Derek Walcott used Homeric epic to configure a story set in his island home of St. Lucia. John Crowe Ransom’s remarkable poem “Philomela” takes the Procne and Philomela story and makes it a catalyst for a meditation on the failure of modern American poetry. Or consider Archibald MacLeish’s magnificent refashioning of the Job tale in his verse drama J.B. I’ll never forget how powerfully that story affected me as a teenager in high school, when I read the stark scriptural account resurrected with images of juvenile delinquency, drug addiction, street crime, and all the other gritty realities of New York life. Mythology a dead end? Tell that to James Joyce when he was composing the chapter titles for Ulysses.
The crux of the issue, in my opinion, lies not in mythology per se but in the manner in which allusion or reference is handled. And here again, as in so many of the structural problems that plague contemporary poetry, the difficulty is rooted in modernist quirks. When Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, he used Arthurian legend in a straightforward and comprehensible way. The stories that he retold were clear and recognizable. He may have varied them a bit (as all storytellers do) in order to make whatever point or create whatever aesthetic effect he had in mind. But no one could have complained to him that his Idylls were unintelligible or cryptic.
Modernism changed all that. Many modernists turned allusion and reference into an intellectualized version of the old board game “Clue.” You didn’t tell an old myth; you hinted at it. You indirectly pointed at something in a way that might (or might not) be grasped by an intelligent reader. Poetry became circumspect and coy.
There are two genetic factors in modernism that led to this sea change. The first is the “show-don’t-tell” dogma, which is still repeated as a mantra in poetry workshops run by Jerry and his ilk. Originating in a laudable desire to purge poetry of overly-discursive wordiness, this dogma has now become a choke-hold on creative expression. In the case of mythology, it forced poets to dispense with the telling of an old tale, and instead touch upon it obliquely, with a wink at your supposedly knowledgeable reader.
The second genetic factor is the programmatic crypticism of modernism, traceable to its assumption that poetry is something rarefied and quintessential. I discussed this notion at length in my article “Poetry as the Philosophers’ Stone” at the Expansive Poetry On-Line website some years ago. If you believe that poetry is something precious and tiny, like a gram of pure radium, then you’re not going to have the space to do anything with a myth except make a glancing nod towards it.
Let’s look at two twentieth-century poems that make use of myth, and see how they work. There’s enough of a difference between them to give a forensic profile of how modernism has changed our myth-recounting procedures. And to avoid any recriminations, I’ll start by saying that both poems are excellent. I won’t quote them in full here, since they are well known and easily accessible.
The first is Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan.” This sonnet retells the myth of how the princess Leda was raped by Zeus, and how that act led to the hatching forth of Helen and Clytemnestra, and then to the horrors of the Trojan War. The crucial passage is this:
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
The poem is perfectly clear. The rape of Leda will produce the two women who will be the focal points of future tragedy: Helen, whose terrifying beauty will motivate her abduction and the ultimate destruction of Troy; and her sister Clytemnestra, who will murder her husband Agamemnon upon his return from Troy. There isn’t anything vague or cryptic or hieratically aloof about this poem. Like Tennyson, Yeats is simply retelling the old story without tricks, though of course he uses the story to make a very modern point about uncertainty.
Now consider Eliot’s “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” another poem that alludes to the death of Agamemnon. The poem is introduced by an untranslated epigraph from Aeschylus, giving Agamemnon’s last words as he is murdered. Already we are in the murky world of modernist reticence, where something is silently gestured at, as if any further explanation were somehow uncool or clumsy. Can’t handle the Greek? Well, tough luck, according to modernism.
The poem itself, however, doesn’t seem to deal with Agamemnon at all, at least not immediately. It’s a description of someone’s visit to a seedy whorehouse, and of the persons whom he meets there. The Sweeney of the poem’s title, who presumably is the visitor, is Eliot’s name of convenience for the dull, cultureless mass-man of modern times, the ordinary slob, the homme moyen sensuel who lives for nothing but his momentary fleshly pleasures. He goes to the whorehouse, deals with some of the bedraggled girls, and judiciously avoids robbery by those who run the house, since this is clearly a low haunt where clients get pickpocketed or mugged. The poem ends with two absolutely luminous quatrains:
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, dishonored shroud.
Here we have the conflation or telescoping of the whorehouse story with the Agamemnon myth. The “host” (the brothel keeper) speaks with “someone indistinct” (perhaps an arriving client, but more likely a hired thug), while the “nightingales” (prostitutes) are singing near the “Convent of the Sacred Heart,” a symbol of the purity and asceticism that their degradation mocks. These images of sexual corruption and planned crime suggest the plot of Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus to slaughter Agamemnon, and the final vision of birds dropping their excrement on his “dishonored shroud” ties everything together (whores, birds, murder, filth, dishonor, the violation of purity) into a complex nodule of linguistic tightness that the modernists favored—in this case, a nodule that creates an unforgettable poetic expression of the squalor and cheesiness of modern life, and how it betrays a noble and heroic past.
Does it work? Yes, of course—a genius like Eliot could make it work. But notice how much is expected of the reader, from that untranslated Greek epigram to the oblique and almost casual reference in the final quatrain. This is the sort of mythological allusion that can leave readers frustrated and impatient. But then again, apart from his book about cats, Eliot has always been “caviare to the general,” as Hamlet said.
The procedure of Yeats in “Leda and the Swan” is traditional and essentially lucid. But Yeats learned his poetic craft in the nineteenth century. It was only later in life that he tried to create those “nodules of linguistic tightness” characteristic of modernism. Eliot, on the other hand, set the pattern for the oblique and glancing use of mythic allusion, a practice that many readers find exasperating.
Now I’m not blaming Eliot in any way. It’s not a poet’s job to cater to his hypothetical readership. And I wouldn’t trade a masterpiece like “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” for a hundred “accessible” poems in Basic English. But I think it important to see, from the example of these two poems, that readers’ resentment of mythological references is due more to the procedures and stylistic tics of modernism than to anything at fault in mythology itself. If Bullfinch can make mythology accessible to all, then poets can too. It’s simply that modernism had an agenda of hieratic aloofness, elliptical phrasing, and mystery, and this agenda did a lot of what the military calls “collateral damage.” We’ve only begun to clean up the mess.
If poets are to use myth effectively, it might be a good starting point to recognize that myths are above all common property, and not the private domain of a snobbish fraternity of initiates. Modernism has already alienated enough potential readers with its stifled rhetoric and pared-down diction. And here I exclude the great modernists like Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and a few others. I mean the camp-followers of modernism, who are now the Poetry Establishment. Can we at least keep mythology as a patrimony for everyone, and one that we can make easily available to all potential readers, even the ones who are unfamiliar with it? After all, not everyone who read Tennyson’s Idylls of the King knew Malory; and not everyone who read I, Claudius by Robert Graves knew Suetonius. But Tennyson and Graves were generous enough to open the gates for those people.
Will everyone welcome the myth-telling poet? No, of course not. The systematic anti-intellectualism of types like Jerry will always be with us, but then again, when was it ever otherwise? Nevertheless, we don’t have to be complicit with that stance, which is what happens if we write with the undemocratic assumption that myths are for the chosen few. Do that, and Jerry wins.