Category Archives: Women Writers

Transverse threads; two women poets and Homer


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?

‘…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.

On ‘Two Songs of War and a Lyric’

This year I wrote a cycle of poems relating to war and to women. I titled part of it Two Songs of War and a Lyric for the SouthWord Journal, although it is intimately related to an earlier sequence of art poems, and to the 75th anniversary of Guernica which was marked in 2012. 

The second poem in the art series , Gernika, was written for Euskal PEN and was read during the 75th anniversary commemoration of Guernica this summer of 2012. The first and last poem of the sequence, A Lament, was written some time ago and had been put in a folder. A Lament is too awkward a piece to submit to most journals as it is written for three voices and does not slip easily into the submission guidelines of many reviews. A Lament was written firstly as a poem and then as a chorus. It was conceived to weave in and out of the sequence which was published initially in SouthWord Magazine. Lament is an inherent part of the sequence because it involves the voices of the women who inhabit the poems in Two Songs of War and a Lyric.

As if, Sabine, Gernika , A Lament, and Through the Blossom-Gate are meant to work together, and are about loss and recovery. Here is what has happened to the original cycle, the Lament, and the unpublished cycle of seven poems since I sent them out.


A Lament

The 7 cycle is provisionally entitled Eamon Ceannt Park Cycle , after the park that the dream-sequence was written in. I had planned to send it out, as it is ready. However, in all the entire sequence including the lament amounts to thirteen inter-related poems written over the period of a year or two. They inherently form one piece. There is also an emergent coda for the entire. (Completed)

I am glad the poems have found homes and that they resonate with people. I hope to publish the  thirteen poems  together at some point, but I see that I will have to make my own arrangement for them, as they hardly fall into a traditional submission-shape. The most important thing for me is that they maintain their integral unity and coherence. I am editing them into a folder and deciding how I will eventually publish them in their integrity as a whole piece.

I included the list where the poems appear separately beneath this post.

‘Effluence’ by Ruth Vanita

‘After the ups and downs of the day
Manufactured alone in this small room,
Aching in more than one way, I press
Seven buttons, and am at last in heaven.
Who is to be praised like Graham Bell
For the greatest, kindest imagining,
For knowing that no song can please so well,
So heal , as one voice saying two syllables
in a tone not reproducible ?
Thanks to an era that may blow us both
Up any minute, my heart is lifted,
I see the stars again , bless a world
That has you in it, and that makes you mine
Along a line so tenuous, vibrant, fine.’

Effluence, by Ruth Vanita, from The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets , ed Jeet Thayil, 2008. Reviewed at , Post III 

Congratulations to Jeet who made the 2012 Man Booker list with Narcopolis

The International Marguerite Porete Society

I visited De Groot Begijnhof (the Great Beguinage) in Leuven quite recently, and whilst the site is integral, its atmosphere is contemporary. The Great Beguinage is used by the Catholic University as a type of student village, with accommodation for visiting professors and students of the university.

There is little evidence that Marguerite of Porete (d. 1310) lived in a Beguinage, although the houses were common in Europe. Marguerite’s text, Le miroir des simples ames anienties et qui seulement demeurent en vouloir et desir d’amour was positively ascribed to her authorship in 1946, although it had been well established that she wrote it from the evidence of her trial for heresy. Marguerite of Porete was of course burnt at the stake by the French Inquisition in 1310.

A beguine (Wikipedia)

The International Marguerite Porete Society

I first became aware of Porete’s writing in 2008-2009 whilst reading What the Curlew Said , by John Moriarty. I transcribed a section of Porete for Poethead and added it here. After my intriguing visit to Leuven’s Beguinage, I revisited Porete’s writing and life, finding to my delight  that a new International Society dedicated to her works was instigated in 2011. Both The International Marguerite Porete Society and International Bibliography on Marguerite Porete are located at this link.

There is an amount of scholarship dedicated to Porete, from scientific article journals, through poetic bibliographies and Wikipedia. Comparisons with Eckhart are general  although authors are at pains to point out that Master Eckhart was posthumously rehabilitated from his excommunication by the Catholic Church. Porete has suffered with obscurity. One hopes that the Porete Society will contribute to the recognition of Porete’s great text and of her life and writings. The Society is open and based in a creative commons cc-by-sa licence , which I believe to be very innovative, and I wish that more scholars made use of these licences for cultural purposes.

I am adding here a list of Porete Links and bibliography for readers who may be interested in the Beguines, Porete, and in this era of writing.

Edit : 30/07/2012

Marguerite Porete et son livre dans la littérature & culture moderne 

• Marguerite Porete and her book in modern literature & culture • Margherita Porete e il suo libro nella letteratura e cultura moderna • Marguerite Porete und ihr Buch in der modernen Literatur & Kultur.
Balzac,Honoré de. “Les proscrits (études philosophiques)” in Le colonel Chabert (scènes de la vie privée), Le curé de Tours (scènes de la vie de province), Contes: Les proscrits, El Verdugo. Paris: Jean Gillequin, 1912, p. 143-174, especially p. 147. [Dated 1831. Fiction set in Paris in 1308, just after [sic] the burning of “la Porrette,” which event, along with fog, contibutes to Romantic-era atmosphericness.]Bédard, Jean. Marguerite Porete, l’inspiration de Maître Eckhart. Montréal: VLB Editeur, 2012. [A novel classified as science-fiction/fantasy.] Bobin, Christian. Le Très-Bas. Paris: Gallimard, 1992.

Camp, Kate. The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press, 2010. [Poetry.]

Carson, Anne. Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera. (“An Opera in Three Parts”). New York: Knopf, 2005; Vintage Contemporaries, 2006.

Carson, Anne. The Mirror of Simple Souls: An Opera Installation Libretto. The Kenyon Review, New Series 24.1 (Winter 2002): 58-69. On JSTOR.

Coverley, M. D. [Marjorie Luesebrink]. “The White Wall: Reframing the Mirror.” Currents in Electronic Literacy 5 (Fall 2001). University of Texas at Austin. Online.

Crespy Le Prince, Charles Edouard de. Chroniques sur les cours de France dédiées à M. le vicomte de Chateaubriand par le baron de Crespy-Le-Prince. Paris: Roux et Cassanet, 1843. On Gallica. [Qualifions ces “chroniques” de fiction.]

Dalglish, Cass. Nin. Duluth, MN: Spinsters Ink, 2000.

Daly, Catherine. “In Medias Res: Five poems, freely adapted from Marguerite Porete / Porette of Hainault [sic] / de Hannonia,” in DaDaDa. London: Salt Publications, 2003. Table of contents and sample.

Del dominio umanitario e della civile barbarie. Paderno Dugnano: Colibri, 1999. [Symbolically attributed to “Margherita Porete” and Jonathan W. Loguen.]

Dörge-Heller, W. “Der Spiegel der einfachen Seelen. Requiem für Marguerite Porete. Sprechstück mit Tanzchoreographien & musikalischen Interpretationen.” [“The Mirror of Simple Souls: Requiem for Marguerite Porete. Spoken Word Performance with Dance Choreography and Musical Interpretation.”] Choreography by Tuja Heller. Karlsruhe, February 28, 2002. Online.

Dube, Christopher. “Marguerite Porete’s House of Fire.” Mystics Quarterly 28 Part 3 (2002): 154. [Poem.]

Follett, Ken. World Without End. New York: Penguin, 2010. [Sequel to The Pillars of the Earth.]

Huysmans, Joris-Karl. Sainte Lydwine de Schiedam. 10th ed. Paris: Stock, 1901. Online. [Cette représentation de Marguerite Porete est fantaisiste à tel point qu’il vaut mieux classer ce texte parmi les œuvres de création littéraire.]

Luesebrink, Marjorie → Coverley, M. D.

Maillet, Caroline. Le roman athlétique de Enlila Apkalu. Paris?: Publibook, 2011.

Lupus, P. Sufenas Virius. All-Soul, All-Body, All-Love, All-Power: A TransMythology. Anacortes, WA: Red Lotus Library, 2012. Section 3, p. 48. [Poetry.]

Lupus, P. Sufenas Virius. Devotio Antinoo: The Doctor’s Notes, vol 1. Anacortes, WA: Red Lotus Library, 2011. Section 3, p. 49, 137-38, 168. [Spirituality/poetry.]

Maitland, Karen. The Owl Killers: A Novel. Delacorte Press, 2009; Bantam Books, 2010.

Moriarty, John. What the Curlew Said: Nostos Continued. Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2007. p. 65, 335, 365… [Autobiography/ spirituality.]
Perez, Pedro Julio. Vientos de Olvido: Peregrinaje entre crónicas y leyendas. 2008.

The addition of What the Curlew Said by John Moriarty to the Bibliography of , with thanks to Zan Kocher

Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of ‘The Divine Comedy’

Herein follows an incomplete list of book-links related to Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of  The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri.

Readers of the poethead blog will note that I dedicate Saturday mornings to the work of women writers, editors and translators. The translation of The Divine Comedy undertaken by  Dorothy L. Sayers  was completed in part by Barbara Reynolds.

Dorothy L. Sayers considered her translation of The Commedia to be her most important work,  and yet only one copy of the book was available through the Dublin Library Service last week. The Guardian Newspaper devoted just a single line to the fact that this work of translation was undertaken by Sayers. In the same instance both The Guardian and the Dublin library service suffer a surfeit of Sayers’ genre or detective stories.

The Divine Comedy translated by Dorothy L. Sayers ( some useful links)

Bibliography for Barbara Reynolds (Wikipedia)

Alegorical portrait of Dante, Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1530 The book he holds is a copy of the Divine Comedy, open to Canto XXV of the Paradiso.
Allegorical portrait of Dante, Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1530 The book he holds is a copy of the Divine Comedy, open to Canto XXV of the Paradiso.

Dorothy L. Sayers produced a classic translation of Dante’s Hell and Purgatorio which is still read. The problem with media and literary journals not citing Sayers or Glasscoeappears to be based in an institutionalised sexism which is a contributory factor in the invisibility of women editors. Evidently, The Guardian Newspaper and the Dublin library service give more attention to Sayers’ genre works than they do to her translation and other works.

It does not seem to pose great difficulty for male editors and writers to consistently cite what they feel are the definitive texts when the writer happens to be a dude. I believe that women editors and writers must begin to cite the works of women when quoting classical works of literature. If nothing else it may help those women journalists who seem incapable of taking women’s literature seriously.

Note : Recent attacks on Dante’s Commedia delineated  in this article show a lack of critical discernment and appreciation by those who would chose what anyone may read.

Some related texts

Further Papers on Dante

The Lost Tools of Learning

Are Women Human ?

A.N Wilson Dante in Love