Transverse threads; two women poets and Homer

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The weft of  Margaret Atwoods The Penelopiad is contained in and revealed through the chorus voiced by the twelve maids  hung by Telemachus (on Odysseus’ orders) just after the men returned from their manly adventures. Margaret Atwood runs the chorus line throughout her Penelopiad, the executed maids sing their songs at ten intervals in the book. I was struck by a comment that Atwood makes in her notes about the maids. She stated that:

‘The Chorus of Maids is a tribute to such uses of choruses in Greek Drama. The convention of burlesquing the main action was present in the satyr plays before the main drama.’ (Margaret Atwood, Author Notes for The Penelopiad pp. 197-198)

I am always interested in how women writers burlesque the heroic perception of the classics through use of device and structural underpinning. In this instance I have been reading Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Alice Oswald‘s Memorial. Both Atwood and Oswald approach Homeric themes in a sidelong fashion to get to the meat of the oral tradition, their poetic focus is decidedly on the lament. Atwood gives voice to the subversive and unquiet maids of The Odyssey. Oswald creates a dirge through interweaving the names of  fallen warriors of The Iliad. Both Atwood and Oswald use the lament as the kernel for their thematic variations from and approaches to Homeric mythos. The poets use repetition to add texture to their laments thereby shaping and focusing the small forgotten voice  toward expressing a universal grief.  This is a not heroic poetry, it is a poetry of keening and loss.

Oswald’s Memorial has drawn quite divided critique. I mention in particular Jason Guriel‘s  reductionistic approach to the book in which he refers to it as ‘a rose-fingered yawn’. This slighting throwaway remark does little to evoke interest in how women poets actually write, nor does it sufficiently disguise Guriel’s critical ennui. I would point the general poetic-reader to Michael Lista’s critique of Memorial in order to garner a more balanced view of the work.

Atwood’s twelve maids defiantly do not not burlesque the main action of The Penelopiad. They are the main action of the book. Penelope reveals herself to be a tedious bore whose lack of wit and guile are vaguely repellent. I wanted Atwood to get her toe out of the water and focus on the maids who enliven the text with their songs and shanties.  The central pivot of The Penelopiad revolves round the nasty relation between Penelope and Helen rather than on the texturing of the maids burlesquing. In this, Atwood’s approach to Homer is a bit of a missed opportunity. The strength of the book is in its sub-theme which Atwood had not developed into a  fuller rendering. 

Oswald did not make a similar mistake in her approach to Homer’s The Iliad. She has broken down the book and re-made it a powerful dirge. The fact that this has led to an inability by her critics to get to what she is doing only strengthens the work in my view. The index for Memorial comprises an unnumbered litany of names from The Iliad. Oswald weaves their names into the text whilst interspersing their histories with individual laments for the warrior-groupings. These laments vary in length, they are devices to allow the mourning voice through. They are not separate to the main action of the book but are organically interleaved into and caught up in the theme and direction of this epic poem-dirge.

‘Like a man put a wand of olive in the earth
And watered it and that wand became a wave
It became a whip a spine a crown
it became a wind-dictionary
It could speak in tongues
It became a wobbling wagon-load of flowers
And then a storm came spinning by
And it became a broken tree uprooted
It became a wood pile in a lonely field.

Like a man put a wand of olive in the earth
And watered it and that wand became a wave
It became a whip a spine a crown
it became a wind-dictionary
It could speak in tongues
It became a wobbling wagon-load of flowers
And then a storm came spinning by
And it became a broken tree uprooted
It became a wood pile in a lonely field.’Page 31, Memorial, by Alice Oswald

It interests me that contemporary women poets are approaching Homer through the use of the lament. They are voicing the silent mourning that occurs when the glory of battle is over. Atwood is giving voice to the abused girls whose life experiences are of enslavement and of misuse. Oswald does not state that the mourning voice in Memorial is that of a woman, but the cadence of the mourning poems that intersperse her text suggests the chorus, the lament.

In terms of contrast in poetic approaches to direct  engagement with classical literature, one could point to how Ted Hughes re-told the twenty-four Tales From Ovid (Metamorphosis) or look at Heaney’s Beowulf. The fact that critique ignores the poetic engagement of women with the classics of literature only points to critical-disengagement, or at best to a narrow conservatism. It is time that The Chorus (that most pertinent part of Epic) is re-read, and given its place in the overall texturing of great poetic works. What would T.S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral be without the integrity of the women’s voices?

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‘…he took a cable which had seen service on a
blue-bowed ship, made one end fast to a high
column in the portico, and threw the other over the
round-house, high-up, so that their feet would not
touch the ground. As when the long-winged thrushes
or doves get tangled in a snare…so the women’s
heads were held fast in a row, with nooses round
their necks, to bring them to the most pitiable end.
For a little while their feet twitched, but not for very long.’ The Odyssey, Book 22 (470473) 


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Transverse threads, women poets and Homer by C. Murray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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