The Iliad

2 posts

Of Groundhogs, Super Bowls, and Sappho

groundhog

Thank-God-It’s-Friday Musings…

  • It’s Groundhog Day! Only I wonder, is Groundhog Day only an American event? I suspect yes, though anyone in any nation can enjoy the movie, which is Buddhist in nature, though there’s not a monk or mantra in sight. If you haven’t seen it, do. If you have, see it again. And again. And again.
  • Issue Two of The Well Review (just rhymin’, folks), out of Ireland, just released this week and is available for purchase. Check this line-up of poets out! That’s right–that’s me in the alphabetical C’s, keeping company with Sappho (in the alphabetical S’s), Dorianne Laux, Gregory Orr, and Anne Carson. I always wanted to appear somewhere with Sappho, so I guess I can pluck that from my bucket list. As for you, I hope you click “Add to Cart” and enjoy the art (of poetry).
  • Let’s see. Sappho. Fragmentary poems. Themes of love. Isle of Lesbos. Yep. That’s all I’d be good for on  Jeopardy!
  • Just finished Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic. In it, Professor Daniel regales us with the story of his 80-something-old dad sitting in on one of  his Bard College classes on The Odyssey. It’s a memoir and an analysis of The Odyssey combined, but what strikes me is how different Homer’s epics are (read on).
  • How many witty sayings start with this line: “There are two kinds of people in the world…”? I’ll add one: “There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who love The Iliad and those who prefer The Odyssey. Which are you? Me, I’m an Odyssey guy. Unlike The Iliad, it moves. And unlike the The Iliad, it’s less violent. Uh. Until the massacre of the suitors, anyway, at which point a mini-Iliad breaks out in Ithaca.
  • There are two kinds of poetry lovers in the world: Those who love rhyming poems and those who don’t.
  • Foxes and hedgehogs.
  • Chocolate lovers and vanilla sorts.
  • Ginger and Mary Ann (Gilligan’s Island), Betty and Veronica (Archie comics).
  • Those who like “There are two kinds of…” statements, those who tire of them.
  • Ever have trouble when someone asks who your favorite poet is? Why is that such a task? Robert Frost is a safe bet, but many of the poetically-inclined abhor “safe.” It’s just not cool to like what a lot of other people like. Ask any hipster.
  • Super Bowl weekend! Another drinking holiday! (Oh, yeah. And some football.)
  • Which, as was true with Groundhog Day, leads one to wonder: Do any other countries really care?
  • Extension of favorite poet exercise: Who is the greatest poet of each country in the world? Making the list should take you until Valentine’s Day at least.
  • Ugh. Valentine’s Day. Why prove your love one day a year when you’re proving it the other 364 days a year? (By the way, that line does not work with my wife.)
  • Chocolates and flowers = overrated. I would add diamonds, but the ladies in the audience would laugh.
  • Have any Twitter people ever wanted to use the hashtag “Who Cares?” to about a million tweets they read? How about Facebook posts?  Thank God this blog isn’t on Twitter (#whocares) or Facebook (#whocares).
  • My pick for the Super Bowl? Being a Green Bay fan living in New England, I have no horse in the race. I’m also not the biggest fan of Tom Brady the Self-Marketer, though he’s earned his keep as Tom Brady the Quarterback. My pick is whoever wins. The over-under is a number. Take it to the bank and…
  • Happy Friday, friends.

Contrasts: Making Juxtaposition Work for You

phaethon

But two days ago I sat in front of the heat vent, a habit from childhood, reading a collection of Charles Simic poems. At the time, I missed the contrast of a nostalgic pastime (the heat passing between shirt and back) and a more modern, tongue-in-cheek experience (Simic’s cool, savvy verse), but now the weather itself has brought the point home.

Mid-May, and Wednesday the temperature was in the high 80s Fahrenheit. Thursday did one better, topping the 90s, setting records around New England’s little towns and its big city of Boston, which hit 95 degrees, breaking a 1936 record of 91.

One minute the gods consist of manufactured warmth rising from a heat register, the next they’re the wheels of Phaethon throwing sparks of heat and humidity that reach the ground, burning between skin and collar. Phaethon, as you’ll recall, took the keys to Daddy’s chariot before he was ready to drive. Kind of like July weather carjacking May — with dire results.

This extraordinary heat brought on more contrasts still: The same people at work who complained just last week about the unseasonably cool weather now started complaining just as vociferously about unseasonable warmth.

Meaning: The house furnace is churning one moment, the house air conditioning is churning but a few days later. Contrasts. As a catalyst, they make it happen.

In writing and poetry, contrasts always make stronger points than they ever could were only one side of the odd couple being described. I found a perfect example of this in the collected poems of Simic I was reading in front of the heat vent:

My Weariness of Epic Proportions

I like it when
Achilles
Gets killed
And even his buddy Patroclus–
And that hothead Hector–
And the whole Greek and Trojan
Jeunesse dorée
Is more or less
Expertly slaughtered
So there’s finally
Peace and quiet
(The gods having momentarily
Shut up)
One can hear
A bird sing
And a daughter ask her mother
Whether she can go to the well
And of course she can
By that lovely little path
That winds through
The olive orchard

Nota bene: jeunesse dorée (literally: “gilded youth”) is French for “wealthy, stylish, sophisticated young people”

Here Simic gives us an effective juxtaposition between Greek gods and heroes and the everyday lives of ordinary people like you and me. Enough already with Homer and his hotheaded heroes slashing and slaying, conquering and crowing! A little girl wants to go to the well. When her mother grants permission (how sweet of the girl to ask first!), the daughter chooses a lovely path that winds through an olive orchard. Can you inhale the lovely, warm smell of olives right now? Can you hear the leaves moving softly to the wind?

And pardon my hubris, but isn’t that what it’s all about? Isn’t that what matters in life–the little things? If you want such simplicity to loom large, park it next to something epic. Epically tiresome. See if your weariness doesn’t get more bang for its buck.

Of course a modern reader of this poem cannot help but compare Greek and Trojan heroes to headline-hogging politicians. Don’t they incite your weariness to epic proportions? Don’t you take refuge by turning off news sources and focusing on the simple, everyday things and people you love?

What a contrast the songs of the spring-morning mockingbird make with presidents and Congressmen, for instance. As Wordsworth once said: “Come, hear the woodland linnet… There’s more of wisdom in it.”

Moral of the story: As a writer and a poet, look to contrasts early and often. Singly, they may be strong, but side-by-side, they are much, much stronger.