“His Heart Barked”: Sex, Slaves, and Transgression in the Odyssey

Earlier I posted a passage from the Odyssey where the narrator tells us that Penelope raised the slave Melanthô and gave her toys. This detail is paired with the slave woman’s sexual behavior—she is now a bad slave because she is having sex with one of the suitors.

Odyssey, 18.321–5

“Then fine-cheeked Melanthô reproached him shamefully. Dolios fathered her and Penelope raised her, she treated her like her own child and used to give her delights for her heart. But she did not have grief in her thoughts for Penelope. Instead she was having sex with and feeling affection for Eurymakhos.”

τὸν δ’ αἰσχρῶς ἐνένιπε Μελανθὼ καλλιπάρῃος,
τὴν Δολίος μὲν ἔτικτε, κόμισσε δὲ Πηνελόπεια,
παῖδα δὲ ὣς ἀτίταλλε, δίδου δ’ ἄρ’ ἀθύρματα θυμῷ·
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς ἔχε πένθος ἐνὶ φρεσὶ Πηνελοπείης,
ἀλλ’ ἥ γ’ Εὐρυμάχῳ μισγέσκετο καὶ φιλέεσκεν.

The meaning of this behavior might not be clear to modern audiences. Ancient audiences might have needed clarification too. The epic shows Odysseus witnessing this later.

20.5–24

“Odysseus was lying there, still awake, devising evils in his heart
For the suitors. And the women went from the hall
The ones who were having sex with the suitors before
Greeting one another with a welcome and a laugh.
And Odysseus’ heart rose in his dear chest.
He debated much in his thoughts and through his heart
Whether after leaping up he should deal out death to each woman
Or he should allow them to have sex with the arrogant suitors
a last and final time. The heart inside his chest barked.
And as a mother dog who stands over her young pups
When she sees an unknown man barks and waits to fight,
So his heart growled within him as he was enraged at the evil deeds.
Then he struck his chest and reproached the heart inside him.
Endure this my heart, you endured a more harrowing thing on that day
When the savage Cyclops, insanely daring, ate
My strong companions. You were enduring this and your intelligence
Led you from that cave even though you thought you were going to die.”

ἔνθ’ ᾿Οδυσεὺς μνηστῆρσι κακὰ φρονέων ἐνὶ θυμῷ
κεῖτ’ ἐγρηγορόων· ταὶ δ’ ἐκ μεγάροιο γυναῖκες
ἤϊσαν, αἳ μνηστῆρσιν ἐμισγέσκοντο πάρος περ,
ἀλλήλῃσι γέλω τε καὶ εὐφροσύνην παρέχουσαι.
τοῦ δ’ ὠρίνετο θυμὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσι φίλοισι·
πολλὰ δὲ μερμήριζε κατὰ φρένα καὶ κατὰ θυμόν,
ἠὲ μεταΐξας θάνατον τεύξειεν ἑκάστῃ,
ἦ ἔτ’ ἐῷ μνηστῆρσιν ὑπερφιάλοισι μιγῆναι
ὕστατα καὶ πύματα· κραδίη δέ οἱ ἔνδον ὑλάκτει.
ὡς δὲ κύων ἀμαλῇσι περὶ σκυλάκεσσι βεβῶσα
ἄνδρ’ ἀγνοιήσασ’ ὑλάει μέμονέν τε μάχεσθαι,
ὥς ῥα τοῦ ἔνδον ὑλάκτει ἀγαιομένου κακὰ ἔργα.
στῆθος δὲ πλήξας κραδίην ἠνίπαπε μύθῳ·
“τέτλαθι δή, κραδίη· καὶ κύντερον ἄλλο ποτ’ ἔτλης,
ἤματι τῷ, ὅτε μοι μένος ἄσχετος ἤσθιε Κύκλωψ
ἰφθίμους ἑτάρους· σὺ δ’ ἐτόλμας, ὄφρα σε μῆτις
ἐξάγαγ’ ἐξ ἄντροιο ὀϊόμενον θανέεσθαι.”

Beyond whether or not the liaison was a good wooing strategy for Eurymachus, these closely paired statements show that despite being integrated into the family structure, Melantho has not internalized her position and has instead exercised agency in pursuing sexuality. (Or, perhaps more accurately, exercising control over her own body to choose a different master.) When the epic returns to the issue, it takes pains to depict the women as in control and to ensure that Odysseus witnesses it. When he reveals himself to the suitors in book 22, he accuses them of forcefully sleeping with the women.

22.35-38

“Dogs, you were expecting that out of the way I would not come
home from the land of the Trojans and you ruined my home,
Took the slave women in my house to bed by force
And wooed the wife of a man who was still alive…”

“ὦ κύνες, οὔ μ’ ἔτ’ ἐφάσκεθ’ ὑπότροπον οἴκαδε νεῖσθαι
δήμου ἄπο Τρώων, ὅτι μοι κατεκείρετε οἶκον
δμῳῇσίν τε γυναιξὶ παρευνάζεσθε βιαίως
αὐτοῦ τε ζώοντος ὑπεμνάασθε γυναῖκα…

The difference in tone is in part due to the level of narrative—in the first two scenes mentioned above, the sexual acts are observed through the narrator. When Odysseus talks about it, he characterizes the acts differently because he sees the sexual acts as transgressing his control of the household. If the women—who are animate objects, not people—have sex, then they are the sexual objects of aggressors against Odysseus’ control. This transgressive behavior on their part helps to explain why Odysseus decides to slaughter them.

Who should have sex with the slave women is implied by a narrative passage from the beginning of the epic (1.428–33)

“And with him Eurykleia carried the burning torches. She knew proper things, the daughter of Ops, the son of Peisênor whom Laertes bought to be among his possessions when she was just a girl and he paid a price worth 20 oxen. And he used to honor her equal to his dear wife in his home but he never had sex with her and he was avoiding his wife’s anger.”

τῷ δ’ ἄρ’ ἅμ’ αἰθομένας δαΐδας φέρε κεδνὰ ἰδυῖα
Εὐρύκλει’, ῏Ωπος θυγάτηρ Πεισηνορίδαο,
τήν ποτε Λαέρτης πρίατο κτεάτεσσιν ἑοῖσι,
πρωθήβην ἔτ’ ἐοῦσαν, ἐεικοσάβοια δ’ ἔδωκεν,
ἶσα δέ μιν κεδνῇ ἀλόχῳ τίεν ἐν μεγάροισιν,
εὐνῇ δ’ οὔ ποτ’ ἔμικτο, χόλον δ’ ἀλέεινε γυναικός·

It is exceptional here that Laertes does not have sex with Eurykleia. This indicates an economy of sexual slavery in which the slave women are the objects to be used by those who own them. If they are used without permission or act on their own, they represent perversions.

See:

Doherty, Lillian. 2001. “The Snares of the Odyssey: A Feminist Narratological Reading.” 117-133.
Thalmann, William G. 1998. “Female Slaves in the Odyssey.” 22–34

Related image
Red-figure Kylix, c. 490 BCE

 

High Noon Homer *or* Western Lit

One would not expect Homer to figure importantly in an early 20th century realist novel about the struggle of Californian ranchers against the evils of the railroad, but his influence is felt throughout Frank Norris’ novel The Octopus. While the novel features an expansive cast, with frequent frictionless transitions from one character to another, Norris spends the most time and attention on the aspiring poet Presley, whom we follow from the very opening of the book until its depressing and unsatisfying conclusion. This is understandable enough, given that Presley seems to represent the figure of Norris himself.

Presley is not a rancher, but is closely involved with the social circle of the ranch community set in a fictionalized southern California at the end of the 19th century. His two chief friends in the community are Annixter, a brilliant but wildly churlish owner of a mid-sized ranch who hopes to cash in on the improvements he has made to the land once the railroad offers it for sale, and Vanamee, a wandering mystic who, endowed with a naturally poetic spirit, filters in and out of the community as he struggles to cope with his lover’s death. Presley admires Vanamee in large part due to his natural poetic sensibility, no doubt refined by his frequent solitary perambulations through the southwest.

Presley’s ambition is to write an epic of the American West:

Vanamee understood him perfectly. He nodded gravely.

“Yes, it is there. It is Life, the primitive, simple, direct Life, passionate, tumultuous. Yes, there is an epic there.”

Presley caught at the word. It had never before occurred to him.

“Epic, yes, that’s it. It is the epic I’m searching for. And HOW I search for it. You don’t know. It is sometimes almost an agony. Often and often I can feel it right there, there, at my finger-tips, but I never quite catch it. It always eludes me. I was born too late. Ah, to get back to that first clear-eyed view of things, to see as Homer saw, as Beowulf saw, as the Nibelungen poets saw. The life is here, the same as then; the Poem is here; my West is here; the primeval, epic life is here, here under our hands, in the desert, in the mountain, on the ranch, all over here, from Winnipeg to Guadalupe. It is the man who is lacking, the poet; we have been educated away from it all. We are out of touch. We are out of tune.”

Presley’s fondness for Homer was well known to the other ranchers. Annixter is regularly found reading David Copperfield. Mrs. Derrick, the wife of Magnus Derrick (the most prominent and respected of the ranchers), is an eager enthusiast for literature, but is troubled both by Presley’s fondness for Homer and his own literary efforts:

The monotony of the ranch ate into her heart hour by hour, year by year. And with it all, when was she to see Rome, Italy, and the Bay of Naples? It was a different prospect truly. Magnus had given her his promise that once the ranch was well established, they two should travel. But continually he had been obliged to put her off, now for one reason, now for another; the machine would not as yet run of itself, he must still feel his hand upon the lever; next year, perhaps, when wheat should go to ninety, or the rains were good. She did not insist. She obliterated herself, only allowing, from time to time, her pretty, questioning eyes to meet his. In the meantime she retired within herself. She surrounded herself with books. Her taste was of the delicacy of point lace. She knew her Austin Dobson by heart. She read poems, essays, the ideas of the seminary at Marysville persisting in her mind. “Marius the Epicurean,” “The Essays of Elia,” “Sesame and Lilies,” “The Stones of Venice,” and the little toy magazines, full of the flaccid banalities of the “Minor Poets,” were continually in her hands.

When Presley had appeared on Los Muertos, she had welcomed his arrival with delight. Here at last was a congenial spirit. She looked forward to long conversations with the young man on literature, art, and ethics. But Presley had disappointed her. That he—outside of his few chosen deities—should care little for literature, shocked her beyond words. His indifference to “style,” to elegant English, was a positive affront. His savage abuse and open ridicule of the neatly phrased rondeaux and sestinas and chansonettes of the little magazines was to her mind a wanton and uncalled-for cruelty. She found his Homer, with its slaughters and hecatombs and barbaric feastings and headstrong passions, violent and coarse. She could not see with him any romance, any poetry in the life around her; she looked to Italy for that. His “Song of the West,” which only once, incoherent and fierce, he had tried to explain to her, its swift, tumultous life, its truth, its nobility and savagery, its heroism and obscenity had revolted her.

“But, Presley,” she had murmured, “that is not literature.”

“No,” he had cried between his teeth, “no, thank God, it is not.”

We can understand readily enough that Mrs. Derrick found Homer violent. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are replete with scenes of appalling and horrific violence. But the impression that Homer is coarse is owing to a curious admixture of upper class snobbery and a rarefied notion of literary polish. (Indeed, one could argue that Pope’s Homer was so poorly received because Pope tamed Homer by rounding off all of the jagged edges and polishing him into rolling, monotonous, and correct Augustan insipidity.) The idea that there is something wild, primal, or untamed about Homer’s poetry had long been a cliché. John Dryden, in his preface to Fables, Ancient and Modern, compared Homer’s free and wild genius to the more restrained intellectual virtues of Vergil:

For the Grecian is more according to my genius than the Latin poet. In the works of the two authors we may read their manners and natural inclinations, which are wholly different. Virgil was of a quiet, sedate temper; Homer was violent, impetuous, and full of fire. The chief talent of Virgil was propriety of thoughts, and ornament of words; Homer was rapid in his thoughts, and took all the liberties, both of numbers and of expressions, which his language, and the age in which he liv’d, allow’d him. Homer’s invention was more copious, Virgil’s more confin’d.

Indeed, it was the wild, violent, or heroic aspect of Homer which made him such choice reading for the manly man in search of poetry. Thus, in his essay, Reading, Thoreau notes that we need not worry that Homer could have an enervating effect on us as readers:

The student may read Homer or Æschylus in the Greek without danger of dissipation or luxuriousness, for it implies that he in some measure emulate their heroes, and consecrate morning hours to their pages. The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have. The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity.

Thus, there is some precedent for Mrs. Derrick’s aversion to Homer, and Presley’s own reception of Homer as something peculiarly endowed with a raw, vital, and unbridled energy perfectly at home in the rugged American West. Even at a social event among the ranchers, he filters life through the Homeric lens:

Presley was delighted with it all. It was Homeric, this feasting, this vast consuming of meat and bread and wine, followed now by games of strength.

As The Octopus progresses, Presley continues to struggle with the development of a Western epic. Though he writes a poem addressing the injustices which the railroad visits upon the ranchers who work the land intersected by the tracks, the grand story of the frontier remains unwritten. Here we see Presley as the stand-in for Norris himself most clearly. In his essay, A Neglected Epic, Norris laments that a story as violent, exciting, and important as the conquest of the frontier had produced no Homeric literature of America:

But when at last one comes to look for the literature that sprang from and has grown up around the last great epic event in the history of civilization, the event which in spite of stupendous difficulties was consummated more swiftly, more completely, more satisfactorily than any like event since the westward migration began — I mean the conquering of the West, the subduing of the wilderness beyond the Mississippi — what has this produced in the way of literature ? The dime novel ! The dime novel and nothing else. The dime novel and nothing better.

The Trojan War left to posterity the character of Hector; the wars with the Saracens gave us Roland; the folklore of Iceland produced Grettir; the Scotch border poetry brought forth the Douglas; the Spanish epic the Cid. But the American epic, just as heroic, just as elemental, just as important and as picturesque, will fade into history, leaving behind no finer type, no nobler hero than Buffalo Bill.

The young Greeks sat on marble terraces overlooking the Aegean Sea and listened to the thunderous roll of Homer’s hexameter. In the feudal castles the minstrel sang to the young boys of Roland. The farm folk of Iceland to this very day treasure up and read to their little ones hand-written copies of the Gretla Saga chronicling the deeds and death of Grettir the Strong. But the youth of the United States learn of their epic by paying a dollar to see the “Wild West Show.”

One senses here that, despite all of the apparently demotic appeal which Homer (or other epics) are supposed to possess, that Norris acknowledges the fundamentally aristocratic origin of epic by contrasting it with vile and tawdry popular entertainments.

Rather than spend all of his energy lamenting the lack of Western epic, Norris bent his mind to an ambitious project: a novelistic triptych, The Epic of the Wheat, which was to chronicle the production of wheat in southern California (The Octopus), the processing of wheat in Chicago, (The Pit), and the consumption of wheat in Europe (The Wolf). Due to his early death at the age of 32, Norris never even began the last book of his trilogy. There is some irony in attempting to replicate the organic and non-teleological development of more authentic epics with a systematized plan for a trilogy. Perhaps the reason that Vergil satisfies so much less than Homer, and Milton seems so lacking in vitality compared to Beowulf, is just this: Vergil and Milton are too methodical, too self-consciously artistic, and too literary. But Norris compensates for this with a violent and primal literary energy of his own. Indeed, though The Octopus is a novel, he manages to capture some of the verbal effects most prominent in Homer, through the use of repetitive phrasing/imagery, and a kind of paratactic pile-on that refuses to deal too much with the lifeless niceties of subordinate clauses. (The Octopus was also apparently written in one go, with minimal editing. While some critics found fault with Norris’ scriptorial quirks, seeing in them little more than sloppiness or lack of attention, I think that they have neglected the parallel between Presley and Norris himself, and thus, overlooked the Homeric program on display in the book.)

I will never know exactly why the American West suggested itself to readers and writers as something especially Homeric. Perhaps it is the brutality, the harshness of life and the constant threat of death, and the general sense that most of that suffering is utterly tragic because it is brought on by human folly and in the last estimate is all for naught. In antiquity, the reception of the Trojan War typically featured the lament that it didn’t have to be that way. The eradication of an entire civilization, and the destruction which was in turn visited upon the eradicators, could have been prevented if humans were slightly less prone to error:

And Troy would still stand, and you, o lofty citadel of Priam, would still remain!

Troiaque nunc staret, Priamique arx alta maneres. [Aeneid, 2.56]

What if Troy still stood? What if the history of the American West were something other than one of genocide, plunder, and brutality? The cultural logic of human civilization made both of those counterfactuals impossible. Similarly, in The Octopus, the greed of the railroad and the unwillingness of the ranchers to yield to its depredations resulted in the murder of almost all of the ranchers; the arch-capitalist railroad agent S. Behrman dies after falling into a shipping hold of wheat, ruined by his greed; and Presley leaves America in disgust. But the railroad continues on as a malevolent but inescapable, impersonal force in human life. Frank Norris may not be Homer; but in The Octopus, he gave America the epic of senseless suffering and brutality it deserves.

The_Curse_of_California
G. Frederick Keller, The Curse of California

First-Wives’ Club: Oinone and Her Son

Here’s some mythical-grade misogyny, with a variation on the Potiphar’s wife motif, and some infanticide.

Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 3.155

“Hektor married Andromache, Êetiôn’s daughter, and Alexandros [Paris] married Oinônê the daughter of Kebren the river. She learned the power of prophecy from Rhea and warned Alexander not to sail to Helen. Because she did not persuade him, she said that if he was wounded, he should come to her because she alone would be able to heal him.

But he did steal Helen from Sparta and, while Troy was attacked, he was struck by Herakles’ arrows from Philoktêtes. He went to Oinône in Ida. She, because she took delight in his suffering, said she would not heal him. Alexandros returned to Troy and was dying, but Oinônê changed her mind and was bringing medicine to heal him only to find him dead. She hanged herself.”

῞Εκτωρ μὲν οὖν ᾿Ανδρομάχην τὴν ᾿Ηετίωνος γαμεῖ, ᾿Αλέξανδρος δὲ Οἰνώνην τὴν Κεβρῆνος τοῦ ποταμοῦ θυγατέρα. αὕτη παρὰ ῾Ρέας τὴν μαντικὴν μαθοῦσα προέλεγεν ᾿Αλεξάνδρῳ μὴ πλεῖν ἐπὶ ῾Ελένην. μὴ πείθουσα δὲ εἶπεν, ἐὰν τρωθῇ, παραγενέσθαι πρὸς αὐτήν· μόνην γὰρ θεραπεῦσαι δύνασθαι. τὸν δὲ ῾Ελένην ἐκ Σπάρτης ἁρπάσαι, πολεμουμένης δὲ Τροίας τοξευθέντα ὑπὸ Φιλοκτήτου τόξοις ῾Ηρακλείοις πρὸς Οἰνώνην ἐπανελθεῖν εἰς ῎Ιδην. ἡ δὲ μνησικακοῦσα θεραπεύσειν οὐκ ἔφη. ᾿Αλέξανδρος μὲν οὖν εἰς Τροίαν κομιζόμενος ἐτελεύτα, Οἰνώνη δὲ μετανοήσασα τὰ πρὸς θεραπείαν φάρμακα ἔφερε, καὶ καταλαβοῦσα αὐτὸν νεκρὸν ἑαυτὴν ἀνήρτησεν.

This story is the one basically told in Parthenius (Love Tales, 4.7). Another version of the tale is preserved in Photios but is attributed to the historian and mythographer Konon (BNJ 26 F1 = Photios, Bibliotheka 186). A few notes of caution: Konon is dated to the 1st century CE; Photios to the 9th Century CE

 Konon BNJ 26 F1 = Photios, Bibliotheka 186

[This section] is about how a child Koruthos, who surpassed his father in beauty, was born from Alexander/Paris and Oinône, the woman he married before he kidnapped Helen. His mother sent him to Helen to make Alexandros jealous and devise some evil for Helen. When Koruthos got to ‘know’ Helen, Alexandros arrived in the bedroom, and saw Koruthos sitting near her, and, already enraged out of suspicion, he killed him.

Because of the outrage against herself and the killing of her child, she cursed Alexandros a lot and predicted—for she had the inspiration of prophecy and was skilled in preparing medicines—that he would be wounded by one of the Achaeans some day and because he could not find treatment, he would need her and come home.

Later on, Alexander was wounded in the battle against the Achaeans in front of Troy by Philoktetes and he was suffering terribly. He was brought in a wagon to Idea and sent a herald to ask for Oinône. She arrogantly reproached him, saying that he should go back to Helen. Then Alexander died along the road because of the wound.

A powerful change of mind over took her at the time of his death before she heard of it, and once she gathered some medicine, she rushed to overtake him. Once she learned from the herald that he was dead and that she had killed him, she killed the herald for his arrogance by smashing a stone on his head. She threw herself over Alexander’s corpse and, after repeatedly blaming their shared fate, she hanged herself with her belt.”

 

[23] Οἰνώνη. ἡ κ̄γ̄· ὡς ᾽Αλεξάνδρου τοῦ Πάριδος καὶ Οἰνώνης, ἣν ἐγήματο πρὶν ἢ τὴν ῾Ελένην ἁρπάσαι, παῖς Κόρυθος γίνεται, κάλλει νικῶν τὸν πατέρα. τοῦτον ἡ μήτηρ ῾Ελένηι προσέπεμψε, ζηλοτυπίαν τε κινοῦσα ᾽Αλεξάνδρωι καὶ κακόν τι διαμηχανωμένη ῾Ελένηι. ὡς δὲ συνήθης ὁ Κόρυθος πρὸς ῾Ελένην ἐγένετο, ᾽Αλέξανδρός ποτε παρελθὼν εἰς τὸν θάλαμον καὶ θεασάμενος τὸν Κόρυθον τῆι ῾Ελένηι παρεζόμενον καὶ ἀναφλεχθεὶς ἐξ ὑποψίας εὐθὺς ἀναιρεῖ.

(2) καὶ Οἰνώνη τῆς τε εἰς αὐτὴν ὕβρεως καὶ τῆς τοῦ παιδὸς ἀναιρέσεως πολλὰ ᾽Αλέξανδρον ἀρασαμένη καὶ ἐπειποῦσα (καὶ γὰρ ἦν ἐπίπνους μαντείας καὶ τομῆς φαρμάκων ἐπιστήμων) ὡς τρωθείς ποτε ὑπ᾽ ᾽Αχαιῶν καὶ μὴ τυγχάνων θεραπείας δεήσεται αὐτῆς, οἴκαδε ἤιει. (3) ὕστερον δ᾽ ᾽Αλέξανδρος ἐν τῆι πρὸς ᾽Αχαιοὺς ὑπὲρ Τροίας μάχηι τρωθεὶς ὑπὸ Φιλοκτήτου καὶ δεινῶς ἔχων δι᾽ ἀπήνης ἐκομίζετο πρὸς τὴν ῎Ιδην· καὶ προεκπέμψας κήρυκα ἐδεῖτο Οἰνώνης· ἡ δὲ ὑβριστικῶς μάλα τὸν κήρυκα διωσαμένη πρὸς ῾Ελένην ἰέναι ᾽Αλέξανδρον ἐξωνείδιζε. καὶ ᾽Αλέξανδρος μὲν κατὰ τὴν ὁδὸν ὑπὸ τοῦ τραύματος τελευτᾶι. τὴν δὲ μήπω πεπυσμένην τὴν τελευτὴν μειάμελος ὅμως δεινὸς εἶχε, καὶ δρεψαμένη τῆς πόας ἔθει φθάσαι ἐπειγομένη. ὡς δ᾽ ἔμαθε παρὰ τοῦ κήρυκος ὅτι τεθνήκοι καὶ ὅτι αὐτὴ αὐτὸν ἀνήιρηκεν, ἐκεῖνον μὲν ἀντὶ τῆς ὕβρεως λίθωι τὴν κεφαλὴν πατάξασα ἀναιρεῖ, τῶι δ᾽ ᾽Αλεξάνδρου νεκρῶι περιχυθεῖσα καὶ πολλὰ τὸν κοινὸν ἀμφοῖν καταμεμψαμένη δαίμονα ἑαυτὴν ἀνήρτησε τῆι ζώνηι.

A couple of takeaways from this one. First, it seems that Oinône knew about Paris’ lust for Helen before he departed for Sparta and remained behind on Mt. Ida once he returned to Troy. Second, it is entirely unclear when the child returns to Troy to tempt Helen. This story is a variation on the same story told about Phoinix in book 9 (his mother had him seduce his father’s lover; his father exiled him). No one in this story looks great (except for Koruthos, he looks real great). Paris is, well, a jerk. Poor Oinône is depicted as a witch-prophetess who, despite all the abuse, still loves her terrible husband.

Like Apollodorus’ version above, Ovid’s Heroides (5) do not mention the son. The earliest extant reference to Oinône seems to be Hellanicus, but some speculation links her to Bacchylides fr. 20d (where three letters OIN[….] seem to refer to a wife of Paris. See Gantz Early Greek Myth, 1993 n. 67 on page 839

Image result for Ancient Greek vase paris
This guy? Helen and Paris. Side A from an Apulian (Tarentum?) red-figure bell-krater, 380–370 BC.

A Penis on the Screen: Playing a Bard During a Plague

Homer, Odyssey 11.333-334

“So he spoke and they were all completely silent:
they were in the grip of a spell in their shadowy rooms”

ὣς ἔφαθ’, οἱ δ’ ἄρα πάντες ἀκὴν ἐγένοντο σιωπῇ,
κηληθμῷ δ’ ἔσχοντο κατὰ μέγαρα σκιόεντα.

Aristophanes, Peace 870

“Everything else is complete—but we need a penis.”

καὶ τἄλλ᾿ ἁπαξάπαντα· τοῦ πέους δὲ δεῖ.

 

Halfway through my 306th performance of my one-man folk opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey in song, something happened that had never happened in the previous 305 performances. 

An audience member drew a penis on the screen.

That’s right. An audience member drew a penis on the screen and that penis was visible to the 75 other people who had logged in to Zoom to watch my very first ever virtual Odyssey performance.

Perhaps I should backtrack a bit and contextualize this particular penis because there is a clear hazard in leaving an uncontextualized penis out there.

A (not so) quick summary of how we got here: I graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 90’s with a Bachelor’s Degree in Classics. Not long after I graduated I composed a 35 minute continuous one-man musical folk opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey consisting of 24 first-person songs inspired by the characters and events of the epic poem.  

After years of development and long periods of hiatus, I built the program up to where by the mid-2010’s I was performing it at high schools and universities across the country.  In 2016, I wrote about my experiences as a “modern bard” for Eidolon.

Since writing that article, my reputation and calendar have grown and earlier this year I celebrated my 300th performance (which occurred in Arlington, Texas, at UTA) and performances in my 40th (Hawaii) and 41st (Wyoming) states. 

Some places to read and hear about my Odyssey performances are here, here, here, and here, and you can find a studio recording of the entire piece on YouTube.

2020 was supposed to be a banner year for me and my Classics-related music. By working really hard on booking, I started the year within shouting distance of getting shows scheduled in the remaining 9 states I needed to complete my goal of performing in all 50 states.  A month-long Odyssey tour of Europe in October and November was confirmed with dates in the UK, Ireland, Sweden, The Netherlands, Italy, and Greece.

And there was also new Classics-related music to start sharing in addition to my Odyssey.

The first week of March, just before the full-on coronavirus crisis began manifesting, I premiered a new cycle of songs called “The Blues of Achilles”, a reframing of Homer’s Iliad, as part of a wonderful program called Conversations with Homer at San Francisco State University.  Samples of this performance can be viewed here, here, and here.

The rest of the spring was to include three weeks of shows in Ohio, New York, Vermont, New Jersey, Michigan, Maryland, and Illinois, some Odyssey shows, some Blues of Achilles shows, an artist-in-residence opportunity, and a chance to perform Blues of Achilles songs as part of a program that brings classics to the incarcerated population. 

But of course by the second week of March I could see none of these shows were going to happen.  Campuses began to shut down and move online, travel became unwise, and by the third week of March my entire spring schedule, some 20 gigs, was gone, and the rest of my year’s touring (including Europe) was in doubt. 

I should interject here that I feel extremely lucky that I do not rely entirely upon performing music for my living.  These cancellations have resulted in a sizable loss of income, but I also have a guitar teaching practice (not to mention a partner with a job) to fall back on, so while these losses hurt (many of which I do hope to reschedule and all of which were done with compassion and understanding by understandably freaked and stressed out teachers and administrators), the pain was more from a standpoint of planning and momentum than the dire financial situation that many performing musicians have suddenly found themselves in.

Then last week something interesting happened: I got a DM on Twitter from a high school Latin teacher in Pennsylvania who wondered if I might try performing my Odyssey online through Zoom for some of her students. The sudden shift to online learning had left teachers scrambling to find activities and material with which to engage students. This teacher had seen me perform at the PAJCL convention in 2017 and thought my program would make for a good online event.  

I initially recoiled: so much of what I love about my Odyssey performances is wrapped up in the magic of the interaction between me and an in-person audience.  How would this online thing work? How could I truly encounter my audience if they were hundreds of miles away watching not me but 1s and 0s that represent me, listening not to my actual voice but to my voice as compressed through their computer speakers or earbuds, taking it in not as a group in the same room but in separate isolated spaces? 

But as I gave it more thought, I saw reasons to give it a shot. 

Some were practical, as in “this is the way the world is working now so you might as well try to adapt if you want gigs” and “if this format does work what kind of additional markets and opportunities might it open up for you.”

Some were artistic and intellectual as in “can I make these songs work in a new medium?” and “what might it illuminate for me as a classicist/Homerist about oral performance?” 

So I decided to go forward with it.  My contact and I had a conference call with a very patient and generous tech support guru from her district and we settled on using Zoom as the best platform to both accommodate both my performance needs and also comply with some of the privacy issues associated with educational institutions. 

We gave Zoom a trial run with a couple of students and teachers and it seemed to work well. We could mute all the cameras and microphones of the attendees and I could share my screen which would contain a powerpoint of the lyrics of my songs so the audience could follow along as I sang (I do this in every in-person show as well). 

I was nervous as I sat in my office with my wife sitting just out of the webcam shot to advance the powerpoint. I could see the online audience grow to 75 and after an introduction from the teacher, I was off and singing.  

It began well enough. My voice felt good and the teacher was texting my wife some feedback on the sound which seemed to be coming through fine.  I was just starting to settle in when suddenly some lines started popping up on my screen. Scribbled lines as if someone was able to draw on his or her iPad. 

Clearly we hadn’t quite gotten the settings right and the audience members had the capability to write things on the shared screen for all to see.

It was a little distracting to me and (I assumed) the audience but I pushed on.  I was on song 6 of my 24 when the scribbling became written words. I stopped singing and announced that if the scribbling continued, I’d have to stop the performance.  

This seemed to work for another 6 songs but just as I finished singing the song in which Odysseus finally lands on Ithaka in book 13, there is was:

That hastily drawn penis on the screen right next to my lyrics.

Image result for ancient greek phallus

Some quick observations: First, though in the moment I was not particularly thrilled with the phantom penis, it should be noted that the Greeks and Romans loved penises and were happy to have them in their art and theatre. One need look no further than the #phallusthursday hashtag on Twitter for ample evidence of this.

Second, I feel fairly confident that this penis was drawn by an adolescent male and the reason I feel fairly confident in this conclusion is that I myself was once (and sometimes still am) an adolescent male in whose life and psyche penis-related jokes and pranks figured prominently. To wit (and I believe the statute of limitations on this crime has expired), my senior year of high school the entire bass and tenor sections of our choir conspired to, in our performance of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, replace the word “truth” with the word “penis.” 

How disruptive could this be? you ask. Well, at one point in the arrangement the basses and tenors sing the phrase “truth is marching” over and over, something like 12 times in a row.  Perhaps now you can imagine our confused choir director searching around the room for why things didn’t sound quite right (sorry Mr. Hayes) as a group of 15 adolescent males melodically chanted the phrase “penis is marching” over and over.

So as I promised I would, I stopped the performance.  The teacher had determined the only way to fix the problem was by ending the Zoom session, creating a new one with the correct (non-screen writing) settings, and letting everyone log back in.

So that’s what we did: for the first time in 306 performances, I took an intermission.  Almost everyone came back online to the new session and I finished the performance without further incident, singing the remaining 12 songs that chronicle Odysseus’ reintegration into his home on Ithaka. 

Afterwards, I read and responded to audience questions from a Google docs as well as questions texted to me by the teacher. And then it was over.

Very suddenly, it was over.

In a regular performance, I’m used to a much more gradual ending.  Members of the audience often make their way to the stage to chat with me while I pack up my guitar. Faculty introduce themselves. There’s almost always a meal or a drink with a host or a group to get feedback and continue discussion.

But with my virtual performance, none of that.

Until I looked at my phone and saw social media messages and emails from some of the audience members.  Videos and pictures showing students glued to their computer screens watching me perform. Notes from teachers thanking me for giving them and their students something to break up the days stuck at home. 

Suddenly the penis didn’t matter so much and I saw a number of truths about this unique moment both in history and for me as a modern bard. 

First, everyone is trying really hard to do their best in a tough situation. Teachers are trying to teach, parents are trying to parent, students are trying to be students, all in a largely new environment. There are going to be bumps and difficult moments and it’s going to take some time to figure out what works and what doesn’t but in general folks are trying so hard and succeeding.

Second, this quick change to fully virtual learning is putting incredible forced stress on the people involved but from incredible forced stress sometimes comes innovation.  I would never have even attempted a virtual performance without these extenuating circumstances and outside pressures, but now because I have I am excited to develop it as a complement to what I do with in person performances and ultimately as a chance to reach more people with my music and the experience of hearing Odysseus’ story sung by a bard. I’m thinking in particular of places and schools that don’t have the budget to bring me in for an in-person performance but might be able to facilitate an online performance.  

Third, for all my preciousness about my in-person Odyssey performances and how they recreate the original oral environment, this virtual performance embodies all the same concepts I detailed in my Eidolon article with some unique and beautiful twists.  I’m always fascinated with how performance space impacts audience perception and therefore meaning, and in this case there were actually 75 different performance spaces, all acting upon the listeners and resulting in different experiences and meanings. The teacher who initially reached out to me said that while she enjoyed my performance at PAJCL (which was for an audience of 400), she liked the online performance even more because it felt like I was singing directly to her.  For all my misgivings about the technological distance, there was actually something more intimate about my online performance.

Fourth, my online performance is yet another example of how enduring, adaptable, and resilient myths and oral tradition are.  For as different as my performance looked from Phemios’ in book 1 or Demodokos’ in book 8, it was essentially the same as what bards have been doing for three millennia or more: singing stories to groups of people.  My guess is that if you offered a Homeric bard the chance to do a performance from the comfort of his home, he would have jumped at it before you finished telling him he might have to endure interruption by phantom penis drawing. 

As Joel added in the comments when he so graciously edited this piece: “Antinoos would totally have drawn a penis on his screen if he had a screen.”

In the end, perhaps it’s best to think that my virtual performance relates to my in-person performances in the way that the text we have today relates to a Homeric performance. They are related, connected at some point, but ultimately different ways to communicate and pass on stories.  It’s not a choice of either but rather an embrace of both, and this embrace ensures that the names and stories will continue to echo through history for new audiences in new times.

You might even say that “time is marching” but that is dangerously close to the phrase “truth is marching” and… well, you remember where that road leads.

Joe Goodkin is a modern bard who performs original music based on epic poetry and other subjects.  He can by seen and heard at http://www.joesodyssey.com http://www.thebluesofachilles.coom or http://www.joegoodkin.com and emailed at joe@joesodyssey.com about bookings or anything else.

 

Alternative Facts in Myth: Penelope’s (In)Fidelity

Earlier I posted a bit from Pausanias that discuses Penelope’s gravesite in Arcadia. It also mentions a Mantinean tradition that Penelope was expelled from Ithaca on a suspicion of infidelity. This story is in part reported by Apollodorus, (Ep. 7.38-39)

“Some say that Penelope was corrupted by Antinoos and that Odysseus sent her back to her father Ikarios. When she came to Mantinea in Arcadia she had Pan with Hermes. Others allege that she was killed by Odysseus because of Amphinomos, who seduced her. There are also those who say that Odysseus was charged by the relatives of those he had killed who took Neoptolemos as judge, then king of the islands near Epirus. He handed down a judgment of exile and Odysseus went to Thoas the son of Andraimôn who married him to his daughter. When he died from old age, he left a son Leontophonos.

τινὲς δὲ Πηνελόπην ὑπὸ Ἀντινόου φθαρεῖσαν λέγουσιν ὑπὸ Ὀδυσσέως πρὸς τὸν πατέρα Ἰκάριον ἀποσταλῆναι, γενομένην δὲ τῆς Ἀρκαδίας κατὰ Μαντίνειαν ἐξ Ἑρμοῦ τεκεῖν Πᾶνα: [39] ἄλλοι δὲ δι᾽ Ἀμφίνομον ὑπὸ Ὀδυσσέως αὐτοῦ τελευτῆσαι: διαφθαρῆναι γὰρ αὐτὴν ὑπὸ τούτου λέγουσιν. [40] εἰσὶ δὲ οἱ λέγοντες ἐγκαλούμενον Ὀδυσσέα ὑπὸ τῶν οἰκείων ὑπὲρ τῶν ἀπολωλότων δικαστὴν Νεοπτόλεμον λαβεῖν τὸν βασιλεύοντα τῶν κατὰ τὴν Ἤπειρον νήσων, τοῦτον δέ, νομίσαντα ἐκποδὼν Ὀδυσσέως γενομένου Κεφαλληνίαν καθέξειν, κατακρῖναι φυγὴν αὐτοῦ, Ὀδυσσέα δὲ εἰς Αἰτωλίαν πρὸς Θόαντα τὸν Ἀνδραίμονος παραγενόμενον τὴν τούτου θυγατέρα γῆμαι, καὶ καταλιπόντα παῖδα Λεοντοφόνον ἐκ ταύτης γηραιὸν τελευτῆσαι.

Image result for Penelope ancient greek

The detail about Amphinomos might be drawn from a passage in the Odyssey where the narrative provides some insight into Penelope’s mind (16.394-398):

Amphinomos rose and spoke among them,
The dashing son of Nisos, the son of lord Arêtiades,
Who joined the suitors from grain-rich and grassy
Doulikhos. He was especially pleasing to Penelope
For he made good use of his brains.”

τοῖσιν δ’ ᾿Αμφίνομος ἀγορήσατο καὶ μετέειπε,
Νίσου φαίδιμος υἱός, ᾿Αρητιάδαο ἄνακτος,
ὅς ῥ’ ἐκ Δουλιχίου πολυπύρου ποιήεντος
ἡγεῖτο μνηστῆρσι, μάλιστα δὲ Πηνελοπείῃ
ἥνδανε μύθοισι· φρεσὶ γὰρ κέχρητ’ ἀγαθῇσιν·

It is somewhat amusing to compare this to what Telemachus says earlier when he describes the suitors.

Homer, Odyssey 15.518-524

“But I will tell you of another man you might encounter,
Eurymakhos, the shining son of sharp-minded Polyboios,
Whom the Ithakans now look upon the way they would a god.
He is by far the best man remaining and the best
To marry my mother and receive my father’s geras.
But Zeus is the one who knows these things as he rules on high”
Whether or not he will bring about a deadly day for them before a marriage.”

ἀλλά τοι ἄλλον φῶτα πιφαύσκομαι, ὅν κεν ἵκοιο,
Εὐρύμαχον, Πολύβοιο δαΐφρονος ἀγλαὸν υἱόν,
τὸν νῦν ἶσα θεῷ ᾿Ιθακήσιοι εἰσορόωσι·
καὶ γὰρ πολλὸν ἄριστος ἀνὴρ μέμονέν τε μάλιστα
μητέρ’ ἐμὴν γαμέειν καὶ ᾿Οδυσσῆος γέρας ἕξειν.

What to make of this difference? Telemachus’ evaluation appears to be based on Eurymakhos’ standing among the Ithakans. Penelope seems to favor someone who is not Ithakan and whose traits are like her own and her absent husband.

Lykophron in his Alexandra takes the view that Penelope was not faithful (768-773)

“For he will come, he will come to the harbor shelter of Reithron
And the cliffs of Nêritos. And he will see
His whole house upturned from its foundations
By wife-stealing adulterers. And that vixen
Will hollow out his home with shameless whoring,
Pouring out the wretch’s fortune feast by feast”.

ἥξει γάρ, ἥξει ναύλοχον ῾Ρείθρου σκέπας
καὶ Νηρίτου πρηῶνας. ὄψεται δὲ πᾶν
μέλαθρον ἄρδην ἐκ βάθρων ἀνάστατον
μύκλοις γυναικόκλωψιν. ἡ δὲ βασσάρα
σεμνῶς κασωρεύουσα κοιλανεῖ δόμους,
θοίναισιν ὄλβον ἐκχέασα τλήμονος.

Lykophron is positively chaste compared to the account provided in the Scholia:

“And Douris writes in his work on the lewdness of Agathokleos that Penelope had sex with all of the suitors and then gave birth to the goat-shaped Pan whom they took up to be one of the gods.  He is talking nonsense about Pan, for Pan is the child of Hermes and a different Penelope. Another story is that Pan is the child of Zeus and Hubris.”

Καὶ Δοῦρις δὲ ἐν τῷ περὶ ᾿Αγαθοκλέους μάχλον φησὶ τὴν Πηνελόπην καὶ συνελθοῦσαν πᾶσι τοῖς μνηστῆρσι γεννῆσαι τὸν τραγοσκελῆ Πᾶνα ὃν εἰς θεοὺς ἔχουσιν (FHG II 47942). φλυαρεῖ δὲ περὶ τοῦ Πανός· ὁ Πὰν γὰρ ῾Ερμοῦ καὶ Πηνελόπης ἄλλης †T. καὶ ἕτερος δὲ Πὰν Διὸς καὶ ῞Υβρεως.

Reading Poems at the End of the World

I have been taking the end of the world seriously, but not really that seriously, for a while now. Last fall, I wrote an essay on Nicola Gardini’s Long Live Latin, called “Loving Latin at the End of the World“. Last Spring, I tried to think about the fate of Classical Studies in some kind of an apocalypse, sketching out ideas for “The Future of the Past.” Eidolon has had the market cornered on Classics and the end of the world, with Nandini Pandey’s article “Classics in a time of Quarantine” hard on the heels of their End of the World Edition. But, then things jumped off the screen into the real.

For the past few weeks the best adjective I can use to describe my general feelings is “elegiac”—and  I mean this in the rather modern reception of the word which emphasizes its funereal tone, its use in epitaphs, rather than its metrical/generic use. Being part of a slow-motion disaster, a horrendous and at times horrifying transformation of our human communities, is in some ways indescribable, ineffable. In emails and with others I find myself trying to calm with the same phrases we all use about being in “unchartered territory” and how we need to be patient and reserve judgment for later.

But the refrain in my head is this:

T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

As I have talked about on Scott Lepisto’s Itinera podcast, my formative years were spent reading, in the isolation that living in a rural area before the dawn of the internet can bring you. I started graduate school at NYU a few weeks before 9/11 and my primary coping strategy—apart from drinking too much—was throwing myself into Homer.  And for this disaster, I am a professor. 

So, in a way, I should be really well-prepared emotionally for COVID-19’s brand of slow-motion destruction. I think this is probably true, on an intellectual level; on an emotional one, however, I am probably a wreck. And part of my particular brand of being a wreck is (1) I sleep even less well than usual and (2) fragments of poems fill my waking hours and sleep.

These are not fragments of my own, but poems ancient and modern that have been part of my life, either in education or from reading. I have engaged with the world through written words for nearly as long as I can remember—they are comfort, paradigms for guidance, distraction, etc. But poetry has a special place in my heart. Long before I poorly translated Latin and Greek for twitter, I spent time trying to write poetry (and was quite limited at it). These years gave me practice reading, memorizing, and keeping poetry close to heart.

And in the heart, there’s no timeline, there’s no catalog to separate things. So, when Langston Hughes jumps to mind with his Advice:

Folks, I’m telling you,
birthing is hard
and dying is mean-
so get yourself
a little loving
in between.

I can’t help but thinking of Catullus’ Vivamus mea Lesbia (Carm. 5) and his “We must sleep a lonely endless night” (nox est perpetua una dormienda) summoning to mind 11th grade’s Andrew Marvell’s great beginning, from To His Coy Mistress “Had we but world enough and time” eventually receding into what I still find ridiculous in his “vegetable love should grow.” Poems join me when, like Billy Pilgrim, I come unstuck in time.

There’s no shortage of poems exhorting us to live. There’s Ashurbanipal’s famous epitaph, dishing out the wisdom straight: “Know well that you are mortal: fill your heart / By delighting in the feasts: nothing is useful to you when you’re dead.” (εὖ εἰδὼς ὅτι θνητὸς ἔφυς σὸν θυμὸν ἄεξε,/ τερπόμενος θαλίῃσι· θανόντι σοι οὔτις ὄνησις). For every serious injunction to memento mori or carpe diem with Horace there are humorous ones too, like Martial’s poem 5.58 which ends, “Postumus, even living today is too late; / he is the wise man, who lived yesterday” (Cras uiues? Hodie iam uiuere, Postume, serum est: / ille sapit quisquis, Postume, uixit heri.)

Is that toilet paper or a manuscript in his hand? Smiling skeleton, from Ars bene moriendi, France, 1470-1480

Ending the World in a Poem

The problem is that I don’t know many poems about the end of the world. There is not too much about the world ending in the modern sense in ancient Greek and Roman texts that I know of prior to the period that gives us the Biblical Revelation. Greek and Roman Cosmogony tends towards the cyclical and not the epoch-ending stuff we see in Norse Ragnarok. There are certainly a lot of disasters and they tend to reflect natural disasters like the flood which appears inset in the Gilgamesh Narrative, as part of the Sumerian Atrahasis, in the Biblical Genesis, or in the tales we have of the Greek Deucalion who survived a flood too. 

Ovid’s version of this flood in the Metamorphoses is an unmaking of the creation that begins his poem. In the creation, everything which before was all mixed together and “compressed because of its own weight” (et pressa est gravitate sua, 1.30) is reorganized when ‘some god’ “separated the mass and apportioned the portion into parts” (congeriem secuit sectamque in membra redegit, 1.33). In anger over Lykaon’s sacrifice of human flesh, Zeus attacks the land until “the land and sea were showing no difference” (Iamque mare et tellus nullum discrimen habebant, 1.291). Of course, humans and their cities rise again, under the threat/promise that destruction is always imminent for hubristic and impious souls.

It is not that ancient authors are not concerned with death, but rather not with species death, with the eradication of humans as we know them. Perhaps this is because such an act prior to our anthropocene era of extinction was unthinkable, beyond the ken of the ancients. Perhaps, it is really too big for most of us to handle. (Which helps to explain our rapid, even if wildly imperfect, response to COVID-19 and our absurd denial about climate change.)

The end of a single life functions as easily as a metaphor for the end of humankind as the end of humankind does for the end of an individual life. (And this later function, I think, is important in popular, modern eschatology which uses civilization ending narratives to force us to think about mortality.) Mediterranean thought does show some evidence of the metaphor of one life as all of humankind, Philo sees the death of the individual as of no consequence to art “unless unless we believe that the death of one individual person in turn visits ruin upon humankind” (εἰ μὴ καὶ ἀνθρώπου τινὸς τῶν ἐν μέρει θάνατον φθορὰν ἐργάσασθαι φήσομεν ἀνθρωπότητι, The Worse Attack the Better 206). In this, he echoes lines in the Qu’ran and the Talmud making similar interrelational claims.

 

Living and Dying in Poems

My point is that while the ancients do not talk about civilization-ending plagues, they do talk a lot about death, and that is, for better or worse, part of what has drawn me to ancient poetry. In modern poetry on death, we get ruminations like Hektor’s in the Iliad: just as he says “may I not die ingloriously,” so too Mary Oliver writes (in When Death Comes):

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world

I first read Oliver with the poet Olga Broumas when I was an undergraduate at Brandeis. Olga encouraged us to read a book of poetry a week and I kept that up through my first semester of graduate school until Hektor took over completely.

Is there any reason for poetry to exist beyond the contemplation of life and death? I am sure there is, but many days I might be unable to hear it, searching instead in its words for that reflection of what I fear and seek myself. Modern poetry can differ from the major themes of ancient death in contemplating in how it communicates its stark simplicity: poets like Ibykos and Mimnermus acknowledge death is all around us while a modern talent like Gwendolyn Brooks turns our ear to the deaths of the unknown in The Boy Died in my Alley:

Without my having known.
Policeman said, next morning,
“Apparently died alone.”
“You heard a shot?” Policeman said.
Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the dead.

Greek poetry often celebrates the infamous and the famous alike, leaving forgotten the passing of most. (Although there are memorials of even minor figures if you look hard enough.) Brooks remarks on the momentous deaths that fail even to bring us pause. (And in this I shudder to think of the humanitarian disaster being prepared in our American prisons and on the streets for the homeless and unknown.) 

But many poems home in on our personal relationship with death. Death’s coming is unexpected, as Pablo Neruda writes in Nothing But Death  “Death arrives among all that sound / like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it.” Yet, of all things in life it should be fully expected, fully anticipated. We know it is coming: we can prepare.

Perhaps we cannot. Perhaps the end of the life of an individual is ultimately unthinkable. We cannot see our way out of our bodies because they are all we have and no matter how many times we read Plato’s Phaedo the basic assertion—that because we think and exist now we must always have existed and just don’t remember it—does not square with the intuitive knowledge that I did not exist before so I will not exist again. Sometimes, we can embrace this, or at least make it more concrete as F. G. Lorca does in Gacela of the Dark Death, when expanding on the image of death as sleep:

  I want to sleep the sleep of the apples,
I want to get far away from the busyness of the cemeteries.
I want to sleep the sleep of that child
who longed to cut his heart open far out at sea.

But this peace, this sense of surrender is beyond me. When wading into the news these days, I am too often reminded of the words Dylan Thomas wrote for his father in is final years:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Rage in/Against Poems

Can a Homerist think of rage without thinking of Achilles? If I think back to the notion of the death of the individual as a metaphor for humankind (and the reverse), the Iliad itself is something different for me Everyone knows that Achilles has two choices: he can live a long life, without fame; or he can die young with glory.  But the choice he does not have at all is about whether or not he has to die.

The Rage the poem sings from line 1 is variously anger over Agamemnon’s slight to his honor or his anger at Patroklos’ death. This second cause is his more famous rage, that which kills Hektor and drives much of the action of the poem. On the other side of that rage, as my friend Emily Austin emphasizes in her work, is longing, a desire for what is lost in the form of Patroklos. And Patroklos, like Enkidu for Gilgamesh, is a stand in for the hero himself.

There are 16 books of the Iliad before Patroklos dies. Perhaps a unifying feature of Achilles’ rage is anger over death and life itself? When we find Achilles in book 9, contemplating his own life, he insists “The coward and the noble man are held in the same honor / the lazy man and the one who does a lot die the same.” (ἐν δὲ ἰῇ τιμῇ ἠμὲν κακὸς ἠδὲ καὶ ἐσθλός· / κάτθαν’ ὁμῶς ὅ τ’ ἀεργὸς ἀνὴρ ὅ τε πολλὰ ἐοργώς, Il. 9.320-321). This is typically taken as indicating Achilles’ existential issue with the “heroic code” or Achaean society. But if we take the Achilles from the Odyssey more seriously, the one who tells Odysseus not to  “sweet-talk me about death” (μὴ δή μοι θάνατόν γε παραύδα, 11.488), Achilles’ rage is more like Thomas’. It is that deep, fundamental incredulity that I who am now alive must one day be dead.

And in giving in to rage, Achilles lost much of the time he would have had to be alive—this, is, perhaps one of the lessons of the Odyssey. Perhaps Achilles would have benefited from reading Audre Lorde’s A Litany for Survival:

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.

 

Creating Something with Poems

One of the more amusing memes to circulate over the past few weeks has been about the accomplishment of some famous people during plagues. Newton invented Gravity! Shakespeare wrote King Lear! The least we can do is put on pants!

The call to use this time of isolation well is predictably met by the objection that such expectations are a little bit unreasonable. (And also conditioned by some of the very dysfunctional aspects of capitalism central to our problems.) The desire to read something long and complex is understandable, but the reality is that our attention spans are fragmented. Why not start small? Why not read a poem?

Now, for me, a ‘poem’ is an expansive term: a song is a poem.  This is especially true in Ancient Greece where song culture was a pervasive part of all life. No one ‘read’ Homer and Sappho in early Greece: they listened, they recited, they returned to it. (So listening is equal to if not better than reading in some ways). Modern high and low culture distinctions have obscured this; they too often deny the title “poem” to creations that do what poems do.

A poem should be defined not by some external aesthetics but by the internally sensed impact of what a poem does in the world: it creates. Our word poem comes from Greek poiêma, related to the verb poieô, “to make”. The Greek noun poiêtês, then, can be seen as “maker, creator”. This is an important meaning to me because poetry creates space, it creates worlds. A poem’s space is that of communion between its audience and others; it helps us see ourselves in humanity through that Aristotelian “identification” and it helps us develop humanity in ourselves, by seeing the world through other perspectives. Poetry should invite us, challenge us, and encourage us to see more than ourselves. And this, for me, is the goal of all reading, to bridge the gaps between our subjective consciousnesses, to help us see others as real and worthy of our attention, worthy of our regard, and worthy of our love.

Poetry in this sense is an act of creation, a reaffirmation of creation, by constituting and then providing access to the commonwealth of human understanding. My favorite metaphor for this from the ancient world is that passage from Plato’s Ion where Socrates describes poetic inspiration as being like a magnet imbuing successive links of metal with its force. The last link in the chain is the audience, the middle link is the performer/medium, the penultimate is the poet/creator and the source is “god/the muses”. For me, that source, that deity, is the human collective, the grand and sometimes random total sum of our shared memory (the Muses!), the shared wisdom and experience that helps us to define ourselves, to situate ourselves within a larger whole.

So I guess what I’m saying is that you should read a poem. Feel something, remember it. Share it with others. Carry it around in your head, in your heart. In these days of uncertainty and isolation, this is one way to be less alone. Or, in a way, even when alone, to be more together.

Aelian, Fragment 187/190 (from Stobaeus 3.29.58)

“Solon the Athenian, the son of Eksêkestides, when his nephew sang some song of Sappho at a drinking party, took pleasure in it and asked the young man to teach it to him. When someone asked why he was eager to learn it, he responded: “So, once I learn it, I may die.”

Σόλων ὁ ᾿Αθηναῖος ᾿Εξηκεστίδου παρὰ πότον τοῦ ἀδελφιδοῦ αὐτοῦ μέλος τι Σαπφοῦς ᾄσαντος, ἥσθη τῷ μέλει καὶ προσέταξε τῷ μειρακίῳ διδάξει αὐτόν. ἐρωτήσαντος δέ τινος διὰ ποίαν αἰτίαν τοῦτο σπουδάσειεν, ὃ δὲ ἔφη ‘ἵνα μαθὼν αὐτὸ ἀποθάνω.’

We will be putting up a call in the next few days for people to send in their own passages, favorite poems, and even posts for the site during the next few weeks. In the meantime, if you want something posted or would like to write a guest post, email me or Erik.

A random list of poets whose work was in earlier versions of this:

Franz Wright, James Wright, Nikki Giovanni, Mark Strand, Linda Gregg, Jack Gilbert, Maya Angelou, Rainer Maria Rilke, W. S. Merwin, Louise Gluck, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, e. e. cummings, Adrienne Rich. At some point I just started keeping only American poets of the 20th century, ignoring way too much from the rest of the world but, for what it’s worth, keeping true to my own education. Happy to have further suggestions.

Also, Patrick Stewart is reading sonnets online:

Reader Suggested Poems:

William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makaris

 

That Is Not Literature

Frank Norris, The Octopus (Chp. II):

Magnus Derrick’s wife looked hardly old enough to be the mother of two such big fellows as Harran and Lyman Derrick. She was not far into the fifties, and her brown hair still retained much of its brightness. She could yet be called pretty. Her eyes were large and easily assumed a look of inquiry and innocence, such as one might expect to see in a young girl. By disposition she was retiring; she easily obliterated herself. She was not made for the harshness of the world, and yet she had known these harshnesses in her younger days. Magnus had married her when she was twenty-one years old, at a time when she was a graduate of some years’ standing from the State Normal School and was teaching literature, music, and penmanship in a seminary in the town of Marysville. She overworked herself here continually, loathing the strain of teaching, yet clinging to it with a tenacity born of the knowledge that it was her only means of support. Both her parents were dead; she was dependent upon herself. Her one ambition was to see Italy and the Bay of Naples. The “Marble Faun,” Raphael’s “Madonnas” and “Il Trovatore” were her beau ideals of literature and art. She dreamed of Italy, Rome, Naples, and the world’s great “art-centres.” There was no doubt that her affair with Magnus had been a love-match, but Annie Payne would have loved any man who would have taken her out of the droning, heart-breaking routine of the class and music room. She had followed his fortunes unquestioningly. First at Sacramento, during the turmoil of his political career, later on at Placerville in El Dorado County, after Derrick had interested himself in the Corpus Christi group of mines, and finally at Los Muertos, where, after selling out his fourth interest in Corpus Christi, he had turned rancher and had “come in” on the new tracts of wheat land just thrown open by the railroad. She had lived here now for nearly ten years. But never for one moment since the time her glance first lost itself in the unbroken immensity of the ranches had she known a moment’s content. Continually there came into her pretty, wide-open eyes—the eyes of a young doe—a look of uneasiness, of distrust, and aversion. Los Muertos frightened her. She remembered the days of her young girlhood passed on a farm in eastern Ohio—five hundred acres, neatly partitioned into the water lot, the cow pasture, the corn lot, the barley field, and wheat farm; cosey, comfortable, home-like; where the farmers loved their land, caressing it, coaxing it, nourishing it as though it were a thing almost conscious; where the seed was sown by hand, and a single two-horse plough was sufficient for the entire farm; where the scythe sufficed to cut the harvest and the grain was thrashed with flails.

But this new order of things—a ranch bounded only by the horizons, where, as far as one could see, to the north, to the east, to the south and to the west, was all one holding, a principality ruled with iron and steam, bullied into a yield of three hundred and fifty thousand bushels, where even when the land was resting, unploughed, unharrowed, and unsown, the wheat came up—troubled her, and even at times filled her with an undefinable terror. To her mind there was something inordinate about it all; something almost unnatural. The direct brutality of ten thousand acres of wheat, nothing but wheat as far as the eye could see, stunned her a little. The one-time writing-teacher of a young ladies’ seminary, with her pretty deer-like eyes and delicate fingers, shrank from it. She did not want to look at so much wheat. There was something vaguely indecent in the sight, this food of the people, this elemental force, this basic energy, weltering here under the sun in all the unconscious nakedness of a sprawling, primordial Titan.

The monotony of the ranch ate into her heart hour by hour, year by year. And with it all, when was she to see Rome, Italy, and the Bay of Naples? It was a different prospect truly. Magnus had given her his promise that once the ranch was well established, they two should travel. But continually he had been obliged to put her off, now for one reason, now for another; the machine would not as yet run of itself, he must still feel his hand upon the lever; next year, perhaps, when wheat should go to ninety, or the rains were good. She did not insist. She obliterated herself, only allowing, from time to time, her pretty, questioning eyes to meet his. In the meantime she retired within herself. She surrounded herself with books. Her taste was of the delicacy of point lace. She knew her Austin Dobson by heart. She read poems, essays, the ideas of the seminary at Marysville persisting in her mind. “Marius the Epicurean,” “The Essays of Elia,” “Sesame and Lilies,” “The Stones of Venice,” and the little toy magazines, full of the flaccid banalities of the “Minor Poets,” were continually in her hands.

When Presley had appeared on Los Muertos, she had welcomed his arrival with delight. Here at last was a congenial spirit. She looked forward to long conversations with the young man on literature, art, and ethics. But Presley had disappointed her. That he—outside of his few chosen deities—should care little for literature, shocked her beyond words. His indifference to “style,” to elegant English, was a positive affront. His savage abuse and open ridicule of the neatly phrased rondeaux and sestinas and chansonettes of the little magazines was to her mind a wanton and uncalled-for cruelty. She found his Homer, with its slaughters and hecatombs and barbaric feastings and headstrong passions, violent and coarse. She could not see with him any romance, any poetry in the life around her; she looked to Italy for that. His “Song of the West,” which only once, incoherent and fierce, he had tried to explain to her, its swift, tumultous life, its truth, its nobility and savagery, its heroism and obscenity had revolted her.

“But, Presley,” she had murmured, “that is not literature.”

“No,” he had cried between his teeth, “no, thank God, it is not.”

Octopus