Mythology and Modernism

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.

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.