The Iliad – Book 1: The Rage of Achilles

July 31, 2009

So, my project of reading The World of Odysseus, The Iliad, The Odyssey, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake is moving slowly. So far I’ve only read Moses Finley’s The World of Odysseus. But I have started The Iliad. I’ve read a lengthy 60-page intro by Bernard Knox (who also wrote the intro for the Finley book). This translation is by Robert Fagles.

Would it sound like I’m trivializing a great epic if I say that the so-called “heroes” of this work sound like spoiled brats?

Finley’s book and Knox’s intro really help to contextualize both the time in which this poem was written, and the time its author(s) tried to convey. Without having read those, I think I would be very off-put by this opening book. (Though I’ve already read the first few books of The Odyssey, and am much more sympathetic towards the protagonists of that work, Odysseus & his son, Telemachus.)

First, the Achaeans are being picked off by Apollo because Agamemnon refuses to give back the daughter of one of Apollo’s priests. The priest appeals to him and the Achaeans in general in what sounds like a very standard, ritualized form. Finley and Knox speak at great length about the rigid rules of the ancient Grecean world. Honor and authority were very important. Plunder and conflict were not only common, they were basically a way of life. But because of all this, certain standards were necessary; you may plunder, but if you abduct someone important to a king or holy person, and they make the expected appeals of gifts and deference, you are to heed them.

But though all others say it is right to give the girl back, Agamemnon refuses out of sheer stubbornness, greed, and what I would say is immature petulance. When the most respected seer explains that it’s Agamemnon’s fault, and Achilles says they give the girl back, he refuses. “No, you’ll not take my prize away from me!” he basically says, despite his men dying all around him.

Then he and Achilles get into a shouting match, hurling insults at each other. Neither of them seems really concerned that people are dying; they’re mad because of being insulted. The exultation of honor and status that existed in that society make this understandable, but it really delineates how different their moral code was from ours (at least in word, if not always in practice).

Only King Nestor, who seems like the Achaean diplomat, sounds a voice of reason, telling Achilles to respect Agamemnon’s authority, and Agamemnon to remember his duty to his subjects. He also humbles them a bit by saying he has been with better men who never behaved so badly. So, even with the Greek notion of honor, they have outstepped their bounds. Even with the Finley & Knox readings, I’m a little perplexed at why they are regarded as such exalted figures, when their behavior is noted to be troubling explicitly by the poem itself. Knox, I think, brought up the point that Achilles is “godlike,” in that he does whatever he wants, even if it means the destruction of all those around him, even if it means his own destruction. So maybe that’s it; he is unshakable in his self-centeredness. I get it, I guess, but it’s still hard to fathom.

So, Agamemnon sees that something needs to be done. But what’s his solution? Remorsefully give the girl back? Even if he showed no remorse to her father, it might make sense to show remorse for letting his people die. But no, he says, “Well, if you’re gonna take my plaything, I’m gonna take one of yours! Achilles, I’m gonna take your favorite, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it!”

Achilles gets murderously pissed, almost draws his sword, and is only stopped by Athena, who has to physically hold him back. He goes off to his tent to sulk, and refuses to participate in the fighting anymore unless he gets the girl Agamemnon takes back. His mother, the goddess Thetis, visits him, and comforts him, in a way that sounds much like a mother would do to a child whose toy got lost or broken.

Now, if Agamemnon sounds bad, check out what Achilles does. He asks his mother to implore Zeus to set his power against the Achaeans, so that the Trojans slaughter them. Whoa! If anything can be imagined as a more gross act of petulance and betrayal of one’s community, I can hardly imagine it. At least the deaths Agamemnon caused were unintentional, if no less blameworthy; here, Achilles actually calls down death upon his companions, from what is considered the greatest power in the world, Zeus himself.

Achilles threw a good point in Agamemnon’s face: Achilles and the others are out fighting constantly, yet Agamemnon does not fight and yet gets more of the spoils. This might make sense because of Agamemnon’s greater authority; but it’s not clear to me why Agamemnon should be exempt from fighting. Being a king did not exempt one from battle; Achilles is a king, too. I’m not sure how old he’s supposed to be, but Nestor says that he’s older than him.

However, what Achilles doesn’t acknowledge, nor does the poem seem to acknowledge this, is that he is almost invulnerable. So who is he to judge others for not putting themselves in danger? In fact, his “short life” is mentioned several times; there seems to be some prophecy about his not far off death. But how hard are these battles on someone who can only be wounded in one particular part of his body?

It’s also kind of disgusting how people are regarded as “things,” property rather than human beings with their own wills, desires, and personalities. It’s all about status, not compassion or empathy. Agamemnon & Achilles don’t get upset because they are so attached to their slave girls as people; they don’t want to be deprived of their “prizes,” as they’re called.

The gods, of course, are not much better, but we already knew that. When Zeus agrees to heed Thetis’ prayer and bolster the Trojans against the Achaeans, Hera confronts him and berates him (she sides with the Achaeans). The scene comes off as comic, reminiscent of The Honeymooners. Is it just me, or was this scene created the make the audience laugh (I can especially imagine it being performed orally, with dramatic gestures from the performer).

Hera: So, you’re up to your scheming again? You can’t ever tell me what you’re up to?

Zeus: If I want you to know, I’ll tell you. Otherwise, I’ll do what I damn well please!

Hera: You pig, do you always have to do the opposite of what I want?

Zeus: Shut up, woman! Even if you got all the gods together, they wouldn’t stop me from strangling you if I have a mind to! [This, in particular, reminds me of Jackie Gleason’s, “One of these days, Alice, one of these days…POW, right in the kisser!”] I do what I want and I’ll destroy anyone who opposes me!

It’s interesting to me, though, despite the overtly patriarchal overtones of this, that Hera talks back at all – even if she’s cowed at the end. No human woman seems to do this from what I know of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Greek myth. And Achilles bends to the will of Athena and Hera; though he makes sure it is known he still has fury in his heart, he says he can’t oppose the two goddesses.

Some may find this annoying, but I find the repeated epithets amusing. Here are ones for the gods in Book 1:

Zeus = whose shield is thunder
Hera = white-armed
Thetis = of the glistening feet
Apollo = golden-haired, The Archer
Poseidon = the Old Man of the Sea

I’m so glad I don’t have any notion of “heroes”….



May 7, 2009

Sometimes I’m wrong. I try to admit it as often as possible, because I think people are often too scared or arrogant to admit being wrong.

I was wrong about the Columbine school killings. Deeply wrong. I probably had a more thoughtful, nuanced view than the average person, but still I was wrong on many things. I am 150 pages into David Cullen’s book, Columbine, which just came out this year (I guess for the 10th anniversary of the killings – April 20, 1999).

The killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were outcasts. Wrong. They had plenty of friends, who they hung out with frequently. They were involved with a lot of social activities, such as school plays, producing videos for the school’s TV channels, and sports teams.

They were bullied, and acted out of rage at being excluded and harassed. Wrong. At least according to the book so far, they (or at least, Eric) were more like the bullies. They weren’t excluded; in fact, they had quite a circle of admirers, and Eric was quite a schmoozer, picking up chicks easily. They also had no vendetta against jocks – as already mentioned, they were quite fond of sports themselves, and had some jock friends. But they tended to look down on the “dumb jock” types, that much is true. They took pride in being smart. But that had nothing to do with what happened.

They were part of the Trench Coat Mafia. Surely that was true – they wore trench coats, didn’t they??? Wrong. The whole TCM thing had kind of faded away by then, and although they were friends with some of those people, they weren’t really part of what was really just a circle of friends who wanted to look cool anyway. And other than the black trench coats, there wasn’t much that was “Goth” about them.

Their parents were negligent and uninvolved. Wrong. I wasn’t certain on this one; I didn’t want to pass judgment without knowing about their actual parents, but I thought there was more truth to this than there actually is. The book has only touched on the parents briefly, but from what I’ve seen, they were caring parents who spent plenty of time with their sons, and did their best to provide order in their homes, providing thought-out punishment (Eric’s father would take a few days to decide the penalty, discussing the decision, which could range from grounding to taking away his computer, with Eric and making sure he understood why and admitted responsibility.) Dylan’s parents may have spoiled him some, though.

Their minds were warped by neo-Nazi, racist beliefs. Wrong, at least partially. Dylan’s mother was Jewish, and their family incorporated some Jewish practices into their lives, if not in a regular, organized way. (They also incorporated elements of his father’s Lutheranism.) Eric admired German bands and authors and would spike his high-fives with “Seig Hail.” But they had close friends who were Asian- and African-American. I’m not entirely clear on the extent of Eric’s fascination with Nazism and/or German culture; the book hasn’t touched much on this. But again, this had little to do with the actual events.

The biggest misconception about those killings is that they are not really comparable to other school shootings. Their plan behind that day was much bloodier and more elaborate: bombs that would kill hundreds of people inside the school. The shooting would only come in as the people tried to escape. They expected to die, but if they didn’t, they planned to joyride around, blowing more stuff (and people) up.

In short, they didn’t target minorities, jocks, or Christians. They killed whoever they could.

I am really embarrassed at my thoughts of the killers. I felt more sympathetic towards them than their victims, because I felt I could identify with them, with their pain and feelings of frustration. Now I am appalled to find how off my ideas were.

Eric Harris seems like he was a megalomaniac sociopath. According to video tapes and witnesses, he shouted things like “This is so cool! Freaking awesome!” Before that day, he would talk about how he would like people to be dead very matter-of-factly (without necessarily showing signs he would actually act on those ideas). His utopia seems to be a Beckettian land in which he is the last person alive and the landscape is a near void:

“…he was suspended inside a small dank room, like the interior hull of a ship. Futuristic yet decaying old computer screens lined the walls, covered with dust and mold and vines. The moon provided the only light, trickling dimly in through the portals, shadows creeping all around. A vast sea rose and fell monotonously. Nothing happened. Eric was overjoyed.” (p.135)

Now, I like my solitude, but that to be sounds more like a nightmare than a dream come true.

Dylan, on the other hand, was very quiet and passive, and non-confrontational. He was given to unpredictable outbursts whenever criticized or frustrated, but for the most part avoided trouble. He can be clearly seen on video watching students fleeing while he had clean shots at them, not shooting, and turning away. He was by himself when that happened. He only fired his guns five times. Eric fired his forty-seven times.

Saturday’s Poem 4/25/09

April 25, 2009

Howard Nemerov – “Dandelions”

These golden heads, these common suns
Only less multitudinous
Than grass itself that gluts
The market of the world with green,
They shine as lovely as they’re mean,
Fine as the daughters of the poor
Who go proudly in spangles of brass;
Light-headed, then headless, stalked for a salad.
Inside a week they will be seen
Stricken and old, ghosts in the field
To be picked up at the lightest breath,
With brazen tops all shrunken in
And swollen green gone withered white.
You’ll say it’s nature’s price for beauty
That goes cheap; that being light
Is justly what makes girls grow heavy;
And that the wind, bearing their death,
Whispers the second kingdom come.
—You’ll say, the fool of piety,
By resignations hanging on
Until, still justified, you drop.
But surely the thing is sorrowful,
At evening, when the light goes out
Slowly, to see those ruined spinsters,
All down the field their ghostly hair,
Dry sinners waiting in the valley
For the last word and the next life
And the liberation from the lion’s mouth.

From Collected Poems. © Collected Poems University of Chicago, 1977. Reprinted with permission.

What strikes me about this poem is how Nemerov has made something as simple and uninteresting as the dandelion seem so beautiful and powerful. I like his phrasing, too: “grass itself that gluts / The market of the world with green”; “Inside a week they will be seen / Stricken and old, ghosts in the field”; and those last 7 lines. They make me see the things described in unusual ways.

He makes these little flowers, that are so common and unremarkable that we usually think of them as insignificant, seem to have a part in a cosmic plan, even in the revitalization of the world (“the second kingdom come” – interestingly avoiding any kind of destructive element usually associated with the Christian Apocalypse, focusing instead on the remaking of earth into God’s heavenly kingdom). Of course, that part is supposed to be a “you” that the speaker somewhat rebuffs, and paints them with a more melancholy brush. The “liberation from the lion’s mouth” is essentially death. But doesn’t it also transcend death to know that the decay of dandelions can be transformed through the power of poetry?

Despite it making perfect sense, I never would have thought of the withering of dandelions as “liberation from the lion’s mouth.” Maybe that’s what good poetry should do – say things that make sense to us, and yet startle us. I feel like that’s what this poem does. Its images and metaphors are unusual, but fit the dandelions perfectly.

Jane Kenyon – The First Eight Days of the Beard

April 5, 2009

Jane Kenyon – “The First Eight Days of the Beard”

1. A page of exclamation points.
2. A class of cadets at attention.
3. A school of eels.
4. Standing commuters.
5. A bed of nails for the swami.
6. Flagpoles of unknown countries.
7. Centipedes resting on their laurels.
8. The toenails of the face.

I’m psychic. I can tell what you’re thinking. It’s something like, “Wtf???”

At least, that’s what I thought when I first read this, especially after reading a number of her other poems in the aptly titled Collected Poems. Usually Kenyon is very concrete, physical, simple. Even her metaphors are pretty straightforward.

I’m not really sure what I can say about this poem, except that it makes me smile every time I read it. And it certainly gets me thinking of unusual ways to describe things. For some of these, I can get why certain lines might represent a certain number of days of beard growth.

#2 A class of cadets at attention – On day 2, the growth would be still new, like the young cadets; yet they are becoming visible, standing at attention like the facial hair starting to darken the skin.

#5 Perhaps the roughness of the stubble by that day is like a bed of nails; yet, like the swami on the nails, the coarseness could be just fine if rubbed against someone who doesn’t mind the sensation.

But a school eels? Centipedes on their laurels? The toenails of the face??? I’m not sure what you’re saying here, Jane. I read in a memoir by her husband, Donald Hall, that she had written this about him while they were on a plane; I guess that, while traveling, he hadn’t had time to shave. If only we could look as freshly and inventively at those near us as Kenyon does in this poem.

Czeslaw Milosz – “Incantation”

April 5, 2009

Czeslaw Milosz – “Incantation”

Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes the universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.
It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,
Giving us the estate of the world to manage.
It saves austere and transparent phrases
From the filthy discord of tortured words.
It says that everything is new under the sun,
Opens the congealed fist of the past.
Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.
As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,
The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.

translated by Robert Pinsky

Other than the fact that this is translated, you might notice that this poem has a distinctly un-American sound. In fact, I would say Milosz’s poems have characteristics atypical of much mainstream modern poetry. Yet, he has somehow gain widespread acceptance within the academic poetry community.

My best guess in explaining this, and my own love of his work, is there is something very forthright and arresting about his tone. It’s as if he’s a close acquaintance in the room with you, saying, “Look, this is how it is; listen up.” He deals much in abstractions and didactics, which otherwise are no-no’s in the “objective,” detail-obsessed world of writing today. Yet, he remains evocative of ideas and emotions, without sounding sentimental or preachy.

I already believe him by the end of the first line, and any objections I might raise about the goodness of humanity – what of all the cruelty that history and the daily news reveals of us? – is swiftly answered. Because of reason, we strive against lies and oppression, despite the fact that we lie and oppress. He even goes so far as to deny the truth of a cliche about originality (rooted in the Bible – interesting, since Milosz was Christian; perhaps he was an artist first).

He never wavers. In fact, his claims become more grand. Poetry and philosophy (in an odd twist, he re-makes philosophy into “Philo” and “Sophia,” emphasizing the meanings behind the coupling – “love” and “wisdom” – also perhaps references to Philo, a Jewish mystic, and Sophia, the Gnostic deity who represents wisdom) serve goodness, their power so nubile that we are to believe their birth was celebrated yesterday. At this point, I begin to see a note of hyperbole slip in. And when he says their births are heralded to the mountain by a unicorn and an echo, I think of the tale of Jesus’ birth. Could he be saying that angels, like the one who told of Jesus’ birth, are as fantastical as unicorns, their trumpet cries like refracted versions of reality like echoes?

Yet, he is not trying to water-down his ideas; he is putting them in the frame of biblical profundity, while keeping them free of necessary religious association. His line about reason not knowing Jew nor Greek, slave nor master, sounds very New Testament-ish; yet reason is downplayed by the NT, as the “cross to the world is foolishness.” While Milosz was a Christian, his seems a very modern Christianity. He writes with hope and optimism about humanity, even though he saw the horrors of totalitarian regimes; he lived near Warsaw under Nazi occupation, and was a recipient of the “Righteous among the Nations” award for helping Jews escape the Holocaust.

I will freely admit that I do not actually accept the hopefulness about humanity that is presented in this poem. However, I do feel that this poem perhaps lessens my cynicism and misanthropic tendencies. And, finally, as an artistic conceit, I feel it is effective, as effective as despair or pessimism might be in other works of literature. Somehow, all the images and claims made earlier lead me to nod my head when I read the poem close with, “Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.”

Sylvia Plath – The Moon and the Yew Tree

April 4, 2009

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I was not able to post a poem yesterday, so here is one for Friday. I will post Saturday’s later.

Sylvia Plath – “The Moon and the Yew Tree”

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs at my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky –
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection.
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness –
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
Inside the church, the saints will be all blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness – blackness and silence.

22 October 1961

This is not the kind of poem that, when I’m finished, I say, “Wow, I really liked that poem.” Or think, “Wow, the poet uses those images really well.” No, as with many Plath poems, I just sit there, startled into silence. I guess the first thought that probably comes into my mind is a type of envy: “How the hell does she make every freaking line sound like it could be a profound poem of its own?”

Since Plath is one of my favorite poets, I had trouble selecting which of her poems to use. I didn’t want to do one that is heavily anthologized, nor anything overly obscure. Also, I think her early poems are unfairly ignored, and thought of exploring one of those. While much of them may not have the same “umph” as her later work, her language and vocabulary seems more diverse, more strange in the early poems, as opposed to ones like this, in which the language is fairly simple. Yet that makes the power of “The Moon and the Yew Tree” all the more amazing.

While Plath has vivid descriptions of the physical world – I can clearly see the moon, the yew tree, the night sky, the saints in the church – there is a mythic quality to her writing as well. The moon’s eerie glow isn’t just light, it is “the light of the mind.” It isn’t just white, it is “cold and planetary.” Grasses become humble believers. The speaker becomes godlike, even though we end up learning she has “fallen a long way.” Hers is an earthly, perhaps Pagan divinity, powerful but full of the same flaws and sorrows of humans. She wishes she could believe in tenderness, but cannot escape her essential being: “The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.”

Yet, while there is apparent contrast between the Christian and natural images here, in the last stanza, the saints will be blue, just as the sky. the pews cold. And their virtue isn’t without cost, as their bodies are “stiff with holiness.” The yew tree seems to be a sort of muse, lacking a judgment towards either the Christian or Pagan outlooks, but simply offering a message of “blackness and silence.” This is no nihilism; it is mythic and descriptive rather than judgmental or didactic, and it straddles the line between human and divine where art transforms.

My favorite part of this poem: “It drags the sea after it like a dark crime….” Despite the mythic quality, it is not abstract or removed, but very involved with emotion. Like the speaker, the moon is haunted by its past, pulling the darkness of the sea after it, and “it is quiet / With the O-gape of complete despair.” Plath, knowing when to be blunt, reminds us she’s not just talking about the moon as if it were some distant, epic object: “I live here.” We all have lived in such a place, in the cold, embraceless air of the moon, of the still, black solemnity of the yew. We hear bells signaling resurrection in the distance, but grow stiff with holiness.

Carl Sandburg – Pennsylvania

April 2, 2009

Carl Sandburg – “Pennsylvania”

I have been in Pennsylvania,
In the Monongahela and Hocking Valleys.

In the blue Susquehanna
On a Saturday morning
I saw a mounted constabulary go by,
I saw boys playing marbles.
Spring and the hills laughed.

And in places
Along the Appalachian chain,
I saw steel arms handling coal and iron,
And I saw the white-cauliflower faces
Of miner’s wives waiting for the men to come home from the day’s work.

I made color studies in crimson and violet
Over the dust and domes of culm at sunset.

Many might only know Sandburg for his famous “Chicago” poem, but I think this poem about my home state is quite powerful. As usual, he looks at the working-class landscape with a beauty you wouldn’t necessary associate with coal miners and rural Appalachia. There’s something soothing about the place names – Monogahela, Hocking, Susquehana, Appalachian – that he uses for good effect.

Something happens in the third stanza, though. Not quite jarring, not quite fully addressing the roughness of the type of world he’s describing, but nonetheless it gives me pause. The “steel arms handling coal and iron” and “white cauliflower faces” are not necessary as soothing images as the previous boys playing marble or the blue river. The wives’ faces in particular are oddly thought of as “cauliflower,” which I infer refers both to their roundness, as well as their paleness, compared to their husbands’ faces, dark with coal dust. It’s interesting that he evokes the image of the miners simply by describing the contrast of their wives’ appearance.

The ending combines the sunset’s pretty colors with the dust and slag from the mines, again wedding together images of beauty and roughness. It sounds almost over-romanticized, but not quite. Somehow, Sandburg gets away with it – if only because we long to find the light among the darkness.