What is Mythology? (Part 9: The Trouble with Poetry)

I enjoy the anthology I have been assigning for my Mythology course, World Mythology: An Anthology of Great Myths and Epics. It covers myths from across the globe and is filled with wonderfully informative historical glosses and highly readable translations.

This last feature is also a bug.

You see, the entire book is written in prose even though almost all myths were composed in poetry. Prose translations are pretty standard fare for textbooks, and I understand why. It is difficult enough enticing students to read obscure works that are thousands of years old. Poetry adds one more layer of complexity.

However, something critical is lost when myths appear in prose. I first discussed the concept of oral tradition in Part 2, and it is likely to be a recurring theme in these posts. It is, like most academic terms, invented after the fact. No one reciting The Odyssey to a crowd in Athens would have stopped and said, “Thank you for supporting the oral tradition! I’ll be here all week!”

This is exactly the reason we need to keep reintroducing this term. It is foreign to us. Without understanding how the oral tradition informs mythology, a central point is lost, perhaps the central point if we consider how myths were often ritualized. Myths are performances, and poetry is the preferred medium for this. In fact, “song” is probably a better word to use than poetry. (The difference between poetry and song is less defined the farther back you go in history.)

Watch this brief excerpt from a performance of Beowulf, featuring a furiously intense performer with a stringed instrument:

These events would have been nothing like the timid and moribund poetry readings you might have stumbled upon at a local bookstore with the poet meekly reading poems directly from his book.  In the time of Beowulf, the “scop” (pronounced “SHOWp) sang and recited the epic poem accompanied to music. Anglo-Saxon poetry was highly alliterative and based on a set number of accents per line, and in the video you can hear him repeating consonant sounds at the beginning of words.

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The best contemporary translation of this text is by Nobel-Prize-winner Seamus Heaney, who retains much of the alliteration in his English version, which is, of course, sold as a book meant to be read silently. Performances of poetry like the above video are rare in our culture. Perhaps the best contemporary equivalent is a rock concert. This scop would have been performing Beowulf to a large, enthralled crowd hanging on his every word. The music, meter, and alliteration would have helped with this, but also the story itself, its violent action and how it reflected their cultural values.

The world of contemporary poetry and rock-and-roll, however, have little to do with one another at the moment. Poetry is largely confined to classrooms and independent bookstores. There are exceptions. In many ways, poetry slams carry on something of the oral tradition. There are also outliers from the contemporary poetry scene, such as Robert Bly, whose readings often feature music and his trademark didactic style. He is also the one contemporary poet most in touch with Joseph Campbell’s work and the role of mythology in poetry. In fact, his book Iron John is an imaginative (in Karen Armstrong’s sense of the word. See Part 6.) application of mythology to address the psychological journeys of men. It’s a book that would not have existed without Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which, Bly could retort, would not have existed without poetry. Here is Bly reading the work of the Indian poet Kabir:

The tendency to translate mythology into prose makes sense for another reason: unlike most contemporary poetry, myths of the ancient and classical world are narrative-driven, performing more of the function that  novels do today. Probably the epic poem met its demise when Cervantes wrote Don Quioxte. Novels could start telling the long stories. Cervantes published his novel in 1605. Incidentally (or maybe not) the important epic poems begin to trail off at this point. We get Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), several insane William Blake epics in the early 19th century, Byron’s mock-epic Don Juan (1824), a few by Keats and Shelley in between, and Goethe’s Faust (finished 1831). It’s not that poets stopped writing epics ( Nobel-winner Derek Walcott’s Omeros, for example), but they have either taken on the interior spaces as opposed to the external heroic journeys, effectively become more subtle, psychological, and, well, contemporary, or they have launched off into meta spaces and become self-aware parodies. By the time James Joyce published Ulysses in 1922 (patterned after Homer’s The Odyssey) the novel had become to the vehicle of choice for epics, and for longer literary narratives period. Poems are now confined to a much smaller space.

Although narrative-driven, the old myths were also poetry. (We keep returning to the concept of myth-as-fugue from Parts 2 and 3. You see, myths are impossible to dissect, pin down, classify. Poem, novel, song, ritual, history, esoteric spiritual manual, etc.) In the textbook for my course, Gilgamesh is in sentences and paragraphs, appearing as some surreal short story out of South American magical realism (though set in Southern Iraq, of course). In reality, it would have looked and sounded more like this, from the first page of David Ferry’s translation:

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Translators of this epic usually attempt to replicate the rhythmic structure of the originals, and here it seems Ferry uses anywhere from 4 to 6 beats per line. Stephen Mitchell’s translation uses 5 in some sections and 4 in others. In any event, the rhythm and repetition (in particular of the word “who”) create a sense of immediacy and tension (as repetition often does in performance). This of course gets flattened out or just plain removed in prose translations.

Here’s a related passage from the textbook I’ve been mentioning:

Who as the Gilgamesh who built these walls of lasting fame? Who was the Gilgamesh who built this most majestic temple? Gilgamesh was the renowned king of the city of Uruk. To his people, Gilgamesh was a tyrant who became a great hero. Gilgamesh left his city to learn how to avoid death, and he returned having learned how to live.

Cue the “The More You Know” music from those NBC commercials. Certainly this is more readable than Ferry’s poetry translation, if you define readable as instantly palatable. Much has been lost, of course. Reading Ferry’s version, I can almost hear a pounding drum and see people gathering close to the poet to listen and be reminded of the lore of their civilization.

I just keeping thinking that mythology is poorly served by quiet textbooks and desks arranged in neat rows. This is a bigger problem than I can tackle here (or likely in my lifetime), but I’ve written in the past about the need for a more transdisciplinary approach to education. Studying Mythology in the English Department (or in any one department at all, given the whole myth-as-fugue situation) is as myopic an approach as studying the environmental crisis entirely in the Biology Department. To do a proper job of this, we need Chemistry, Political Science, Marketing, Education, and so on.

A Mythology course should include, at least, the following departments:  English (Literature and Creative Writing), Foreign Languages, History, Anthropology, Music, Theater, Speech, Religious Studies, Philosophy, Sociology, Political Science, and so on. Sure, Culinary, too. We’ll get hungry doing all of this.

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2 Comments

  1. Perhaps this tendency of poetry to glance inwards is a result of the Romantic era. I think this has something to do with Rousseau’s Confessions, which anticipated the Romantics. In this text, Rousseau really pushed the idea that an individual’s thoughts and feelings should be considered important. Rousseau feels to me like the first psychologist. I think that with the advent of actual psychology, poems became more particularized– the goal for poets was to offer psychological complexity, to capture and compartmentalize one’s own individual experience. In some ways psychology is a natural outgrowth of the Romantic period. In finality, your beautifully written post recalls to me a quote by Anaïs Nin. “We are going to the moon, that is not very far. Man has so much farther to go within himself.”

    Reply
    • I agree. Whenever I’ve include some of Confessions in a class (usually World Lit) I have to explain why it’s a big deal, since his basic approach has become our standard way of thinking, nothing now seems very revolutionary about it. Every person who has acquired the slightest bit of fame writes a memoir something like Rousseau’s.

      The irony is that the Romantics drew heavily from classical mythology, but perhaps, as you’re saying, they took it personally, so to speak.

      This made me think of Rilke’s poem Archaic Torso of Apollo with it’s final line “You must change your life!”

      Reply

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