The Homeric Answer: Odyssey

Yesterday morning my dear Emily drove me & my still-worsening asthma to the hospital at Ireapetra. At the very foot of the mountain we saw Adonis beginning his ascent. His car wasn’t working & it was easier for him to come along with us via Ireapetra by car, than hike up the steep mountain road to Agios Ioannis. I also think he wanted to help as well, being the nice fella that he is. Once at the hospital, & after the formalities of introductions were helped by Adonis, I was left to coalese with an oxygen pump while Emily went back to pack. Slowly but surely my lungs were coaxed back to normality by this hissy, gas-splurgling thing, & I was picked up a couple of hours later by Emily & the girls at the resumption of some semblance of normality.

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It was time to drive to Elounda for our final few-day stint in Crete, arriving yesterday. The rooms are slightly less than OK, but they do have A/C AND mosquito nets – a veritable godsend. I slept most of yesterday & well into this morning, on account of my asthmatic lack of sleep at Ioannis. it had all been rather like that film, A Nightmare on Elm Street; I was afraid to nod off in case I never woke up again. Also, & quite startingly, that bloody palmthorn decided to eject itself from my body. I had just immersed myself in a lovely hot bath, when the water must have disturbed my puncture wound’s scab & suddenly, like a cork from a bottle, the black thorn emerged slowly out of my foot. I had no idea it had been that bloody big & I have just witnessed at first hand a miraculous testament to the human body’s ability to expel alien bodies.

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Today we’ve pottered about Elounda, something of an ex-pats colony, taking lunch on a floating restaurant – including a freshly caught, 60 euro fish – while gazing at the dusky old leper colony on Spinalonga island. It was then off to a nearby waterpark where a mixture of chlorine & seawater is making all my bodycuts scream in pain. It is under such stingy conditions that I shall now begin my further investigations into the Homeric Question. In an earlier Letter, I showed how the Iliad was in fact a construction, or rather reconstruction, of earlier Homeric materials by a Cretan poet under the patronage of a Spartan King. The Odyssey, I believe, came to light under quite similar circumstances, which occurred at Athens in the 6th century BC. The noble catylyst was a tyrant called Pisistratus, whose influence on the Homeric poems has already been observed by many classical writers;

Pisistratus brought together & published the Iliad & the Odyssey (Aelian)

We praise Pisistratus for his gathering together the poems of Homer (Libanius)

Pisistratus brought them together, as this epigram, inscribed by the Athenians on Pisistratus’ tomb, makes clear: Pisistratus, great in councils, I who gathered together Homer, who had formerly been sung here & there (Anonymous Life of Homer)

Who was more learned in that same period, or whose eloquence is said to have had a higher literary culture than that of Pisistratus? He is said to have been the first to have arranged the books of Homer, which were previously confused, in the way we now have them (Cicero)

The general gist is that during Pisistratus’ time as the Athenian leader, both of the Homeric epics were ‘arranged’ into their 24 books, then scribally copied, i.e. ‘published,’ for public consumption. Of the two epics, the Iliad seems far too much of a composite to have been ‘previously confused,’ as Cicero says, & one expects Pisistratus did little other than arrange the Iliad into its 24 books. Indeed, he seems to have had some influence upon book 10, for Eusthatius has stated, ‘the ancients say that this book was put seperately by Homer & was not counted among the part of the Iliad, but was put into the poem by Pisistratus.’ Other Iliadic tweaks made by the Athenian demagogue are said to have included his fudging of the ‘Catalogue of Ships,’ an account of the Greek forces who sailed to Troy. Pisistratus could well have interpolated Ajax’s bringing of 12 ships from Salamis in order to prove that it was once an ancient possession of Athens. Turning our attention on the Odyssey, however, screams out with immediate rancour that it was ‘previously confused,’ & believe me it is still confusing to this day; a jumbled mass of plots & stories which leap about through the narrative like quantum literary atoms.

The need to show off personal power with monumental exhibitions is an ever-present trait of the human condition. In recent centuries, the Great Exhibition of the British Empire in 1851 & the neoclassical buildings of Adolf Hitler at Nuremburg are perfect examples of the grand ego’s demonstrance. Pisistratus understood how, & more importantly why, Lycurgas had moulded his own version of Homer. Wishing to demonstate his own cultural splendour, the Athenian lawgiver emulated the modus operandi of his Spartan predecessor. He even gets a namedrop in the Odyssey, where a ‘Pisistratus’ appears as Nestor’s noble son. There is something also of the tyrant’s return from exile to Athens & resumation of its leadership reflected in the epic; which is altogether a perfect metaphorical match for the return of Odysseus to Ithica. Furthermore, when we observe Odysseus being praised with, ‘in the world of men you have no rival as a statesman & an orator,’ it is east to make out a veiled tribute to Pisistratus.

The platform for the first oral performance of the Odyssey would have been a festival known as the Greater Dionysia in Athens. Inaugarated by Pisistratus himself, this festival celebration to Dionysis, the god of wine, lasted six days, mirroring the six equal parts into which the Odyssey is divided. The central stage of the festival was a theatre to Dionysis on the Acropolis – also built at the instigation of Pisistratrus – which would in succeeding centuries play host to the works of the best playwrights of ancient Greece. We may permit ourselves a moment to imagine that the very first recital of the Odyssey was sung from the stage of this theatre; when, for six consecutive night throughout the festival, the best Athenian bards would remember & retell the adventures of Odysseus.

In contrast to the testosterone-fueled Iliad, the Odyssey has a lighter, feminine touch, leading certain scholars to believe the poem was composed by a woman. This new feminine direction would have pleas’d the women of Athens, who held high social standing in the democracy. Among the many strong female characters, the true star & heroine has to be the goddess Athena, who dominates the action from beginning to end. As the ‘patron saint’ of Athens, her presence in the poem strengthens the idea that the Odyssey was created in the city.

Strabo discusses how Pisistratus ordered an official recension, entrusting the task to four leading scholars. Such a split in pensmanship explains the stylistic differnces & textual inconsistancies in context which run rife throughout the Odyssey. An example can be found with the spear-holder used by Telemachus; which moves from inside the megaron building in Book 1, to merely being leant against a column in Book 17. Modern scholars have identified an earlier ‘A’ poet, & one or more later hands they designated as the ‘B’ poet. Of these hands, the ‘B’ poet is reckoned to have modernised & lengthened the nucleus of the poem as given by ‘A.’ Let us then assume that the ‘B’ poets are four leading scholars employed by Pisistratus to work on the orginal Odyssean material.

The version we now possess presents us with the recognition scene in xxiii 1-296, a fine passage in which the only discordant notes are the late interpolations in 96-165, & perhaps in the last lines; in this account, Penelope is portrayed as finally learning the truth at the end of a story in which she has played, up to that moment, only a marginal part. But in the hypothetical second version, of later date than xxiii, the recognition scene would have taken place earlier, during the bathing of the wound in xix 53ff, at the point in the text of our MSS where Odysseus asks for an old woman such as Eurycleia to attend him (xix 343-8); & this would have been followed by husband & wife together hatching the plot for vengeance. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey (v3) – Russo, Joseph / Fernandez-Galiano, Manuel / Huebeck, Alfred (1992)

They four scholars are never given names, but one of these ancient erudites could have been the literary-minded Onomacritus, of whom Heredotus states had collected the oracles of a poet called Museaus, into which he inserted forgeries of his own making. For numerous reasons, another of these scholar-poets might have been Stesichorus (632-555 BC). Only fragments of his poetry survive, but he was widely celebrated in classical times for his epic tayles in lyric metre; such a talent was perfectly suited for the job of assembling the Odyssey. The massive 10th century Byzantine collection of biographies known as the Suda actually attributes to Stesichorus a poem known as the Nostoi, which deals with the return of the Greeks from Troy. Is it in fact recording the work of Stesichorus upon the Odyssey? ‘The greatness of Stesichorus’ genius,’ praises Quintillian, ‘is shown among other things by his subject-matter: he sings of the most important wars and the most famous commanders and sustains on his lyre the weight of epic poetry. In both their actions and their speeches he gives due dignity to his characters, and if only he had shown restraint he could possibly have been regarded as a close rival of Homer.’ In a similar vein, Dionysius of Halicarnassus commends Stesichorus for ‘the magnificence of the settings of his subject matter; in them he has preserved the traits and reputations of his characters,’ while Longinus puts him in select company with Herodotus, Archilochus and Plato as the ‘most Homeric’ of authors. According to Plato, Stesichorus created a palinode which read, ‘that story is not true / You {Helen} never sailed in the benched ships. You never went to Troy,’ which is consistent with the ‘Egyptian’ Helen as hinted at in various places throughout the Odyssey. Plato adds that because of these slanderous verses, Stesichrous was rendered blind, a legend which may have transchisper’d into Homer’s own legendary blindness.

In the wake of the Athenian recensions, Alexander the Great would always sleep with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow, even paying homage to Achilles at Troy on his march into Asia. Alexander’s favorite line in the Iliad, Plutarch tells us, was ‘great in the war, great in the arts of sway,’ an apt epitaph for that mighty conqueror of the ancient world. Since the Athenian edit, the two Homeric poems have been copied out & copied out & copied out again until they became the stone-set poems which appear in our modern texts. Layer upon layer of composition. recomposition & editing has created the Odyssey & The Iliad, & holding them in one’s hand today is akin to the moment when Schliemann first set his eyes on Hisalrik Hill. He knew the truth about the Trojan War was in there somewhere, & all he had to do was start digging.

Elounda
15th July

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The Real Phaecia

I am currently back sitting at my favorite table in Star Beach, a few hours before my return flight to Britain as, I hope, a Pendragon. Yesterday we drove around the coast of Mirrabello to Mochlos, a startlingly mellow village-cluster reminscent of an Indian getaway. A few dope-smoking travelers were chilling out, idling the months away, I imagined, until they could return to the East. My attempts to procure a boat & sailor to take me to the island of Pseira soon fail’d, & we were directed instead to Tholos, a lovely sandy beach full of locals, perched beside an immense olive grove which carpeted the valley between tall mountains. Leaving the girls to frolick in the waves, I availed myself of a local sailor to take me to my long-thought-of destination. A handsome, tann’d feloow, we soone established that on arrival at the island I would have an hour or so to potter about its Minoan town. I have strong reasons to believe Pseira was once Scheria, the capital city of the Phaecians, among whom Odysseus spent a little time before his final return to Ithica.

The Phaecians were said to have originally dwelt at the city of Hyperia, near Kalaureia, on the Greek mainland. Abandoning the Plains of Troezen en masse, they relocated to a new home somewhere on the edge of the known Grecian world, ‘far from men that live by toil.’ That the name Kalaureia is also given by Pausanius to ‘a small island near Crete’, I began ruminating on the hyperfact of the Phaecians having settle’d in the area on, & around Pseira. It was time to search for topographicalo matches between the Odysseyean account of the Phaecian homeland. Many people associate this realm of deep antiquity with the island of Corfu, on account of a rock in its chief harbor matching a description of a sunken-ship as given by Homer.

Now when Poseidon, the earth-shaker, heard this he went his way to Scheria, where the Phaeacians dwell, and there he waited. And she drew close to shore, the seafaring ship, speeding swiftly on her way. Then near her came the Earth-shaker and turned her to stone, and rooted her fast beneath by a blow of the flat of his hand, and then he was gone

The Corfu link is unlikely, for the Phaecians call Odysseus a ‘stranger.’ With Kephalonia lying just down the coast from Corfu, why would Odysseus say ‘…if I outlive this time of sorrow, I may be counted as your friend, though I live so far away from all of you.’ Scheria must lie elsewhere, so let us cast our net wider to catch the Phaecian fish. Several clues in particular have pointed me to the Gulf of Mirrabello, the ‘Lovely Bay’ of the Venetians, in which wave-soothed Pseira serenely sits.

1: The Phaecians are said to have transported a Cretan Prince called Rhadamanthys to Euboea.

2: The name Scheria, the chief Phaecian city in the Odyssey, seems a philochisp of Pseira.

3: Pseira lies in a gulf, the Gulf of Mirrabello, which leads us to the Odyssey’s, ‘for seventeen days I sailed over the sea, and on the eighteenth appeared the shadowy mountains of your land; and my heart was glad, ill-starred that I was; for verily I was yet to have fellowship with great woe, which Poseidon, the earth-shaker, sent upon me. For he stirred up the winds against me and stayed my course, and wondrously roused the sea, nor would the wave suffer me to be borne upon my raft, as I groaned ceaselessly. My raft indeed the storm shattered, but by swimming I clove my way through yon gulf of the sea, until the wind and the waves, as they bore me, brought me to your shores.’

4: Pseira lies across the Aegean Sea from Athens, which connects well with the Odyssey’s ‘flashing-eyed Athena departed over the unresting sea, and left lovely Scheria. She came to Marathon and broad-wayed Athens.’

The descriptions of the Phaecians heavily invoke the Minoans of Crete; both of whom, for instance, were praised for their high seamanship. In 1991, archeologists found a Minoan serpentinite seal stone at Pseira, upon which can be seen a ship with a beak-shaped prow, high stern, and single mast connected to the vessel by ropes. Significantly, the ship does not have any oars, which embsosoms the concept of Phaecian ships being ‘steered by thought,’ i.e. by sailing’s intellectual use of wind. Indeed, the greatest Minoan shipwreck ever discovered was found just off Pseira by the Greek archaeologist Elpida Hadjidaki in 2003. We must also acknowledge the story-telling of the Phaecian bard Demodocus in the Odyssey. During his recital, he involved in the telling nine singer-dancers, holding up a perfect mirror to the nine all-drumming, all-dancing ‘Curetes’ of Bronze Age Cretan tradition.

If the Phaecians were Minoan, they must have spoken the same language as inscribed in the Linear A tablets found across Crete & beyond. This long-lost tongue should then be able to be traced back to the original Phaecian homelands in the Troezen, which had been established by a Lydian called Pelops. Lydia is essentially western Turkey, in which region Mount Ida towers over the Trojan Plain, & thus the Mount Ida of Crete gives us our first clear lingual connection. That ancient Minoan tongue was an offshoot of Lydian makes sound sense, for it can be readily observed how the seventeen symbols of the classical Lydian alphabet have indentical, or near identical, correspondents among the Linear A glyphs. Phonetical similarities also abound between Lydian & Linear A, such as;

LYDIAN — LINEAR A

Atr / Atros (dead) —A-Du / A-Du-Re-Za

Kopai (abundant)— Ka-Pa

Kue (collect) — Ku-pa / Ku-ra / Ku-ro
(appears to mean ‘total’)

Ovie (sheep) —Ovis

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If we assimilate Lydian words into the Egyptian name for Crete, Kaftiu/Kapthor, we gain a most agreeable translation of Kaf (cavity) Tiuae (divine), as in the sacred cave of Zeus as placed by the ancients on Crete. We may also combine the Lydian words FUE (flee) & KIN (clan) to create something like, ‘the clan which fled to safety.’ This is an apt desciption of the Troezen-based Phaecians, who fled their homelands in the wake of the rampaging Cyclops tribe. Such a conjecture opens up a basketful of potential answers to academic conundrums such as, ‘why does Linear A contain elements of the Anatolian languages?’ Answer: Because the Minoans were Phaecians whose original home was in Lydia. ‘Why is Linear A found in certain places on the Peloponnese?’ Answer:’ Because it was introduced there by Pelops. ‘Why is the Lydian word for the votive double-axe, ‘Labrys’ the phonetical base-root of the Cretan labyrinth, & why is the labrys itself found all over Minoan art?’’ Answer: Because the labrys was introduced to Crete by the Lydians. ‘Why does King Manes, son of Zeus, the first monarch of Lydia, sound so much like ‘Minos,’ son of Zeus, the great king of Crete?’ Answer: Because their name means king in Lydian. ‘Why did the genius Michael Ventris, the cracker of Linear B, instinctively feel that Linear A was connected to the Etruscan language?’ Answer: According to Herodotus, the Etruscans came from Lydia, a statement recently supported by recent DNA analysis & also an Etruscan-like language found on the Lemnos stele.

The barren, rocky island of Pseira rises from the sea, two miles from the coast by the Kavousian plain. Sailing there was sheer joy, skimming over a perfect sea under the gigantic slopes of those hearty mainland peaks. I was delighted to discover my ship’s pilot actually knew what I was babbling on about. ‘Scheria?’ he said, with an understanding eye. ‘Yes, yes,’ I replied, sweeping my hands in a broad circle about me, ‘it was here?’ As we approached, I noticed the western side of the island is a sheer surface of unclimbable, unlandable cliffs, fitting perfectly with the Odyssey’s description of Odysseus approaching Scheria;

There were neither harbors where ships might ride, nor road-steads, but projecting headlands, and reefs, and cliffs… without are sharp crags, and around them the wave roars foaming, and the rock runs up sheer, and the water is deep close in shore, so that in no wise is it possible to plant both feet firmly and escape ruin.

Arriving at Pseira in 2017, my boatman sat down in a spot of shade while I set off to explore the foundations & streets of the ruined town. It was so, so peaceful as with notes in hand I began to make my correlations;
A Walled City: Remnants of a wall can still be found at the top of the ‘city,’ which was a quite substantial settlement of 60 houses.
About the city he had drawn a wall, he had built houses and made temples for the gods, and divided the ploughlands…. when we are about to enter the city, around which runs a lofty wall
Two Harbours: A very impressive, tall, steep flight of steps known as the Grand Staircase leads up from the beach to the town. On either side of the Peninsular was a Minoan harbour.

A fair harbor lies on either side of the city and the entrance is narrow, and curved ships are drawn up along the road, for they all have stations for their ships, each man one for himself

Palace of Alcinous: To the north of the town square, on the west side of the peninsula, lie the remains of ‘House of the Pillar Partitions.’ The house appears to have been a smaller version of the Minoan Hall, which connects with the Palace of Alcinus as described in the Odyssey. Fragments of loom weights were found at the house, which suggest the weaving Phaecian maidens. In addition to these corellations, just as Homer describes Phaecian women sitting & weaving, so at Pseira a relief was found which shows the very same thing.

The houses of the Phaeacians are no wise built of such sort as is the palace of the lord Alcinous. But when the house and the court enclose thee, pass quickly through the great hall, till thou comest to my mother, who sits at the hearth in the light of the fire, spinning the purple yarn, a wonder to behold, leaning against a pillar, and her handmaids sit behind her. There, too, leaning against the selfsame pillar, is set the throne of my father, whereon he sits and quaffs his wine, like unto an immortal. Of bronze were the walls that stretched this way and that from the threshold to the innermost chamber, and around was a cornice of cyanus… golden were the doors that shut in the well-built house, and doorposts of silver were set in a threshold of bronze. Of silver was the lintel above, and of gold the handle. On either side of the door there stood gold and silver dogs… Filled were the porticoes and courts and rooms with the men that gathered… within, seats were fixed along the wall on either hand, from the threshold to the innermost chamber, and on them were thrown robes of soft fabric, cunningly woven, the handiwork of women. On these the leaders of the Phaeacians were wont to sit drinking and eating, for they had unfailing store. And golden youths stood on well-built pedestals, holding lighted torches in their hands to give light by night to the banqueters in the hall.

The House of Rhyta: There is a great deal evidence that ritualistic entertainment ceremonies took place at the so-called ‘House of Rhyta,’ named after a drinking vessel known as the rhyton. Many cups & goblets were found, some of which contain’d hints of barley, beer, and wine. There was a very large, almost communal kitchen space, in the building, suggesting it was used for feasting purposes. It is in this very place I believe the following occurred as given in Book 10 of the Odyssey.

The herald returned, leading their skilful bard, whom the Muse loved more than other men, though she gave him both good and evil: she robbed him of his sight, but gifted him the power of sweet song. Pontonous, the herald, placed a silver-embossed chair in the midst of them all, with its back against a high pillar, and hung the ringing lyre on a peg above his head, and showed him how to find it with his hands. And he set a handsome table by his side, with a basket of bread, and a cup of wine to drink if he was so minded. Then they all stretched out their hands to the fine feast spread before them. When they had satisfied their need for food and drink, the Muse inspired her bard to sing of the heroes’ glorious deeds… This was the bard’s song, and Odysseus clutched at his long purple cloak with his great hands, and dragged it over his head to hide his handsome face, ashamed lest the Phaeacians see the tears pouring from his eyes. Whenever the divine bard stopped singing, Odysseus wiped the tears away, drew the cloak from his head, and reaching for his two-handled cup made libations to the gods. But when the bard began again, prompted by the Phaeacian lords who enjoyed his song, Odysseus covered his head once more and groaned.
Meeting Place: While wandering the town ruins, I paused in the sun at a large & level spot near the harbor which is evidently identical to the Odysseyean, ‘place of assembly of the Phaeacians, which was builded for them hard by their ships.’ It was upon this very place, I felt, that Odysseus had been led to after listening to the recitation of Demodocus;

The herald hung the ringing lyre on the peg, and led Demodocus by the hand from the hall along the same path the Phaeacian nobles had taken to see the games. They headed for the gathering place, and a countless throng went with them… The first trial was a foot race… then they tested each other in painful bouts of wrestling, where Euryalus beat the best

While imagining the famous & sportive games of Odysseus & the Phaecians, with a toot of the boatman’s horn my hour was too-soon completed. My disappointment soon turned to joy, however, for as we sped off back to Tholos, over the perfect waters, I began to make out the small offshore island which looked rather like the stony hull of an upturned boat. During my investigative trawls through Google Earth, I had searched in vain for the following sunken boat, but this rocklet called Konida I began reckoning was the stone-ship island. It lies just offshore by the well-preserved Minoan town of Gourni, the ‘Minoan Pompeii,’ whose houses’ foundations remain intact, with only the mud-brick upper storeys fading into millennial dust. A casual walk around the ruins with the ladies reveal’d many similarities with Pseira, suggesting that they were both part of a wider realm which would have included Kavousi, Tholos, Vronda, Kastro, Azoria, Mochlos & Chrysokamino. This would have been the land of the Phaecians, & the leaders of those named places would have been among the princes described by Alcinous;

Our folk have for their chiefs & rulers twelve eminent princes, or thirteen if you count myself

A Cretan Phaecia also helps us to understand how the Odyssey contains quite bizarre elements known as the Cretan Lies, that despite popping up as outsiders to the narrative could well in fact be the original strata of the Odyssean tale. An excellent example has Odysseus say;

From broad Crete I declare that I am come by lineage, the son of a wealthy man. And many other sons too were born and bred in his halls, true sons of a lawful wife; but the mother that bore me was bought, a concubine. Yet Castor, son of Hylax, of whom I declare that I am sprung, honored me even as his true-born sons. He was at that time honored as a god among the Cretans in the land for his good estate, and his wealth, and his glorious sons. But the fates of death bore him away to the house of Hades, and his proud sons divided among them his substance.

To complete today’s letter, & the last one I shall be writing on Crete itself, I would like to look at the tradition of Minos as given by two classical era historians.

Minos is the first to whom tradition ascribes the possession of a navy. He made himself master of a great part of what is now termed the Hellenic sea; he conquered the Cyclades, and was the first coloniser of most of them, expelling the Carians and appointing his own sons to govern in them. Lastly, it was he who, from a natural desire to protect his growing revenues, sought, as far as he was able, to clear the sea of pirates Thucydides

Minos, according to tradition, went to Sicania, or Sicily, as it is now called, in search of Daidolos, and there perished by a violent death… Men of various nations now flocked to Crete, which was stripped of its inhabitants; but none came in such numbers as the Hellenes. Three generations after the death of Minos the Trojan war took place; and the Cretans were not the least distinguished among the helpers of Menelaos. But on this account, when they came back from Troy, famine and pestilence fell upon them, and destroyed both the men and the cattle. Crete was a second time stripped of its inhabitants, a remnant only being left; who form, together with fresh settlers, the third Cretan people by whom the island has been inhabited Herodotus

Interweaving these two accounts into my own researches, I would like to now assemble a timeline from the findings I have made so far in these ‘Letters from Crete.’

c.1700 BC: Crete is conquered by a Lydian king called Manes. He is also known as Minos. Neopalatial buildings spring up across Crete. Lydian is introduced into the island alongside an alphabet to write it (Linear A): ‘Minos… made himself master of a great part of what is now termed the Hellenic sea; he conquered the Cyclades, and was the first coloniser of most of them, expelling the Carians and appointing his own sons to govern in them.’ An Anatolian invasion of Crete c.1700 is suggested in World History: Patterns of Interaction (2005).

c.1600: Pseira island settled by the Phaecians, i.e. the Minoans who have left the Troezen: Men of various nations now flocked to Crete, which was stripped of its inhabitants; but none came in such numbers as the Hellenes.

c.1550: Events surrounding Menaleus (& possibly Odysseus) occur which will be later incorporated into the Homeric narratives: Three generations after the death of Minos the Trojan war took place

c.1450: The Cretan civil war in which the house of Mycenae is triumphant. Greek becomes the native language of the island, but retains the Linear A alphabet: When they came back from Troy, famine and pestilence fell upon them, and destroyed both the men and the cattle. Crete was a second time stripped of its inhabitants, a remnant only being left; who form, together with fresh settler, the third Cretan people by whom the island has been inhabited

Star Beach
17th July

Classical Poetics

It reflects on our abilities if we cannot reach the heights attained to by our predecessors, & on our judgement if we do not wish to
Tacitus

I am currently sat in a bar at the Athenian International airport. Before me lies two & a half hours transit between my flight from Crete & the final haul to Edinburgh. After dropping the hirecar off at Heraklion airport, the family & I were soon winging north on the less-than-an-hour flight to Athens. Sitting on the left hand side of the plane, I aspired to get a look at some islands & stuff, but was rather disappointed & it was only as we approached & landed on the Athenian plains that I was finally rewarded for claiming the window seat from the kids. ‘You’ve got all your life to see this, girls,’ I said, ‘mine’s about half over already.’

It is all rather apt that it is in the classical home of western culture that I shall conclude my own entrance into the cultural landscape as a fully trained Pendragon. This final essay (of sorts) shall be my concluding piece of dissertation-level writing, & the next time my feet meet the sacred soil of Mother Britain I hope to have been fully accepted as one of her chosen bards. But what to write about today?

Both my instincts & my locale deem it more than suitable to conduct a whistle-stop gallumph thro’ the very, very best of classical thought appertaining to the poetic arts. For this effect I have digested Plato’s Republic (10); Aristotle’s Poetics; The Art of Poetry & the Letter to Augustus by Horace; the Dialogue on Orators by Tacitus, Plutarch’s On the Study of Poetry & finally the excellent essay made upon Sublimity by Longinus. From this orchard I have taken the choicest fruits, with an eye upon the application of classical principles to modern poetics. As I have only a little time, I shall simply let the passages speak for themselves. What I shall also be doing taking away the scaffold, ie. the names of the classical writers, leaving a single & untrammeled stream of thought, with each individual dialect pouring its own diction into the classical poetical, analytical voice.

THE POET

The soul of the poet has no room for avarice; he loves his verse and this alone ; over the loss of goods by fire or the flight of his slave, he laughs. He meditates no wrong against his friend or pupil; he lives on salad and dry bread. Though slow and unfit for war yet he is useful to the state, if you admit this, that great things can be helped by the small. He moulds the tender, lisping speech of the boy and turns away his ear from vulgar words; later he trains his mind with kindly precepts; a corrector of envy and anger, he instructs the rising age with great examples ; he solaces the poor and sick. By his eloquent prayers he implores rain from heaven, averts disease, wards off impending dangers, procures peace and a year rich with harvests. By song the high gods, and by song the shades below are appeased.

THE GOLDEN AGE OF POETRY

The early and happiest period of the world, or, as we poets call it, the golden age, was the æra of true eloquence. Crimes and orators were then unknown. Poetry spoke in harmonious numbers, not to varnish evil deeds, but to praise the virtuous, and celebrate the friends of human kind. This was the poet’s office. The inspired train enjoyed the highest honours; they held commerce with the gods; they partook of the ambrosial feast: they were at once the messengers and interpreters of the supreme command. They ranked on earth with legislators, heroes, and demigods.

POETRY & HISTORY

The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with metre no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal, I mean how a person of a certain type will on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages. It clearly follows that the poet or ‘maker’ should be the maker of plots rather than of verses; since he is a poet because he imitates, and what he imitates are actions. And even if he chances to take an historical subject, he is none the less a poet; for there is no reason why some events that have actually happened should not conform to the law of the probable and possible, and in virtue of that quality in them he is their poet or maker.

POETS & ORATORS

Poets and orators both employ images, but with a very different object, as you are well aware. The poetical image is designed to astound; the oratorical image to give perspicuity. Both, however, seek to work on the emotions.

POEMS

It is not enough that poems be beautiful; let them be tender and affecting, and bear away the soul of the auditor whithersoever they please. As the human countenance smiles on those that smile, so does it sympathize with those that weep.

DICTION

If the words be discordant to the station of the speaker, the Roman knights and plebeians will raise an immoderate laugh. As leaves in the woods are changed with the fleeting years; the earliest fall off first: in this manner words perish with old age, and those lately invented flourish and thrive, like men in the time of youth. Mortal works must perish: much less can the honor and elegance of language be long-lived. Many words shall revive, which now have fallen off; and many which are now in esteem shall fall off, if it be the will of custom, in whose power is the decision and right and standard of language.

POETICAL FOCUS

It must not be forgotten, that the poet, who would produce any thing truly excellent in the kind, must bid farewell to the conversation of his friends; he must renounce, not only the pleasures of Rome, but also the duties of social life; he must retire from the world; as the poets say, “to groves and grottos every muse’s son.” In other words, he must condemn himself to a sequestered life in the gloom of solitude.

POETICAL IMITATION

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence of this in the facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general; whose capacity, however, of learning is more limited. Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.’

PAST MASTERS

Therefore it is good for us also, when we are labouring on some subject which demands a lofty and majestic style, to imagine to ourselves how Homer might have expressed this or that, or how Plato or Demosthenes would have clothed it with sublimity, or, in history, Thucydides. For by our fixing an eye of rivalry on those high examples they will become like beacons to guide us, and will perhaps lift up our souls to the fulness of the stature we conceive. And it would be still better should we try to realise this further thought, How would Homer, had he been here, or how would Demosthenes, have listened to what I have written, or how would they have been affected by it? For what higher incentive to exertion could a writer have than to imagine such judges or such an audience of his works, and to give an account of his writings with heroes like these to criticise and look on?

SUBLIMITY

The Sublime, wherever it occurs, consists in a certain loftiness and excellence of language, and that it is by this, and this only, that the greatest poets and prose-writers have gained eminence, and won themselves a lasting place in the Temple of Fame. A lofty passage does not convince the reason of the reader, but takes him out of himself. That which is admirable ever confounds our judgment, and eclipses that which is merely reasonable or agreeable. To believe or not is usually in our own power; but the Sublime, acting with an imperious and irresistible force, sways every reader whether he will or no. Skill in invention, lucid arrangement and disposition of facts, are appreciated not by one passage, or by two, but gradually manifest themselves in the general structure of a work; but a sublime thought, if happily timed, illumines an entire subject with the vividness of a lightning-flash, and exhibits the whole power of the orator in a moment of time.

SOURCES OF SUBLIMITY

I shall now proceed to enumerate the five principal sources, as we may call them, from which almost all sublimity is derived, assuming, of course, the preliminary gift on which all these five sources depend, namely, command of language. The first and the most important is grandeur of thought, as I have pointed out elsewhere in my work on Xenophon. The second is a vigorous and spirited treatment of the passions. These two conditions of sublimity depend mainly on natural endowments, whereas those which follow derive assistance from Art. The third is a certain artifice in the employment of figures, which are of two kinds, figures of thought and figures of speech. The fourth is dignified expression, which is sub-divided into (a) the proper choice of words, and (b) the use of metaphors and other ornaments of diction. The fifth cause of sublimity, which embraces all those preceding, is majesty and elevation of structure. Let us consider what is involved in each of these five forms separately.

LINGUISTIC STYLISM

The clearest style is that which uses only current or proper words; at the same time it is mean:—witness the poetry of Cleophon and of Sthenelus. That diction, on the other hand, is lofty and raised above the commonplace which employs unusual words. By unusual, I mean strange (or rare) words, metaphorical, lengthened,—anything, in short, that differs from the normal idiom… A diction that is made up of strange (or rare) terms is a jargon. A certain infusion, therefore, of these elements is necessary to style; for the strange (or rare) word, the metaphorical, the ornamental, and the other kinds above mentioned, will raise it above the commonplace and mean, while the use of proper words will make it perspicuous. But nothing contributes more to produce a clearness of diction that is remote from commonness than the lengthening, contraction, and alteration of words. For by deviating in exceptional cases from the normal idiom, the language will gain distinction; while, at the same time, the partial conformity with usage will give perspicuity.

METAPHOR

The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances. Metaphor is the application of an alien name by transference either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, or by analogy, that is, proportion. Thus from genus to species, as: ‘There lies my ship’; for lying at anchor is a species of lying. From species to genus, as: ‘Verily ten thousand noble deeds hath Odysseus wrought’; for ten thousand is a species of large number, and is here used for a large number generally. From species to species, as: ‘With blade of bronze drew away the life,’ and ‘Cleft the water with the vessel of unyielding bronze.’ Here {alpha rho upsilon rho alpha iota}, ‘to draw away,’ is used for {tau alpha mu epsilon iota nu}, ‘to cleave,’ and {tau alpha mu epsilon iota nu} again for {alpha rho upsilon alpha iota},—each being a species of taking away. Analogy or proportion is when the second term is to the first as the fourth to the third. We may then use the fourth for the second, or the second for the fourth. Sometimes too we qualify the metaphor by adding the term to which the proper word is relative. Thus the cup is to Dionysus as the shield to Ares. The cup may, therefore, be called ‘the shield of Dionysus,’ and the shield ‘the cup of Ares.’ Or, again, as old age is to life, so is evening to day. Evening may therefore be called ‘the old age of the day,’ and old age, ‘the evening of life,’ or, in the phrase of Empedocles, ‘life’s setting sun.’ For some of the terms of the proportion there is at times no word in existence; still the metaphor may be used. For instance, to scatter seed is called sowing: but the action of the sun in scattering his rays is nameless. Still this process bears to the sun the same relation as sowing to the seed. Hence the expression of the poet ‘sowing the god-created light.’

HEROIC MEASURE

As for the metre, the heroic measure has proved its fitness by the test of experience. If a narrative poem in any other metre or in many metres were now composed, it would be found incongruous. For of all measures the heroic is the stateliest and the most massive; and hence it most readily admits rare words and metaphors, which is another point in which the narrative form of imitation stands alone. On the other hand, the iambic and the trochaic tetrameter are stirring measures, the latter being akin to dancing, the former expressive of action. Still more absurd would it be to mix together different metres, as was done by Chaeremon. Hence no one has ever composed a poem on a great scale in any other than heroic verse. Nature herself, as we have said, teaches the choice of the proper measure.

TRAGEDY

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions… If you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents. The Plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy: Character holds the second place. Third in order is Thought,—that is, the faculty of saying what is possible and pertinent in given circumstances. In the case of oratory, this is the function of the Political art and of the art of rhetoric: and so indeed the older poets make their characters speak the language of civic life; the poets of our time, the language of the rhetoricians. Character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kind of things a man chooses or avoids. Speeches, therefore, which do not make this manifest, or in which the speaker does not choose or avoid anything whatever, are not expressive of character. Thought, on the other hand, is found where something is proved to be, or not to be, or a general maxim is enunciated.

A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change, of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these two extremes,—that of a man who is not eminently good and just,-yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous,—a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families.

A well constructed plot should, therefore, be single in its issue, rather than double as some maintain. The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, in a character either such as we have described, or better rather than worse. The practice of the stage bears out our view. Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic method, and dependent on extraneous aids. Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous, are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy; for we must not demand of Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it.

Actions capable of this effect must happen between persons who are either friends or enemies or indifferent to one another. If an enemy kills an enemy, there is nothing to excite pity either in the act or the intention,—except so far as the suffering in itself is pitiful. So again with indifferent persons. But when the tragic incident occurs between those who are near or dear to one another—if, for example, a brother kills, or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father, a mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of the kind is done—these are the situations to be looked for by the poet.

DRAMATIC VISION

In constructing the plot and working it out with the proper diction, the poet should place the scene, as far as possible, before his eyes. In this way, seeing everything with the utmost vividness, as if he were a spectator of the action, he will discover what is in keeping with it, and be most unlikely to overlook inconsistencies. As for the story, whether the poet takes it ready made or constructs it for himself, he should first sketch its general outline, and then fill in the episodes and amplify in detail. Every tragedy falls into two parts,—Complication and Unravelling or Denouement. Incidents extraneous to the action are frequently combined with a portion of the action proper, to form the Complication; the rest is the Unravelling. By the Complication I mean all that extends from the beginning of the action to the part which marks the turning-point to good or bad fortune. The Unravelling is that which extends from the beginning of the change to the end.

EPIC & TRAGEDY

Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in verse of characters of a higher type. They differ, in that Epic poetry admits but one kind of metre, and is narrative in form. They differ, again, in their length: for Tragedy endeavours, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit; whereas the Epic action has no limits of time. This, then, is a second point of difference; though at first the same freedom was admitted in Tragedy as in Epic poetry. Of their constituent parts some are common to both, some peculiar to Tragedy, whoever, therefore, knows what is good or bad Tragedy, knows also about Epic poetry. All the elements of an Epic poem are found in Tragedy, but the elements of a Tragedy are not all found in the Epic poem. The poet should remember what has been often said, and not make an Epic structure into a Tragedy—by an Epic structure I mean one with a multiplicity of plots—as if, for instance, you were to make a tragedy out of the entire story of the Iliad. In the Epic poem, owing to its length, each part assumes its proper magnitude. In the drama the result is far from answering to the poet’s expectation. The proof is that the poets who have dramatised the whole story of the Fall of Troy, instead of selecting portions, like Euripides; or who have taken the whole tale of Niobe, and not a part of her story, like Aeschylus, either fail utterly or meet with poor success on the stage.

EPIC POETRY

Epic poetry must have as many kinds as Tragedy: it must be simple, or complex, or ‘ethical,’ or ‘pathetic.’ The parts also, with the exception of song and spectacle, are the same; for it requires Reversals of the Situation, Recognitions, and Scenes of Suffering. Moreover, the thoughts and the diction must be artistic. In all these respects Homer is our earliest and sufficient model. Indeed each of his poems has a twofold character. The Iliad is at once simple and ‘pathetic,’ and the Odyssey complex (for Recognition scenes run through it), and at the same time ‘ethical.’ Moreover, in diction and thought they are supreme. Epic poetry has, however, a great—a special—capacity for enlarging its dimensions, and we can see the reason. In Tragedy we cannot imitate several lines of actions carried on at one and the same time; we must confine ourselves to the action on the stage and the part taken by the players. But in Epic poetry, owing to the narrative form, many events simultaneously transacted can be presented; and these, if relevant to the subject, add mass and dignity to the poem. The Epic has here an advantage, and one that conduces to grandeur of effect, to diverting the mind of the hearer, and relieving the story with varying episodes. For sameness of incident soon produces satiety, and makes tragedies fail on the stage.

JUDGING POETRY

As is painting, so is poetry: some pieces will strike you more if you stand near, and some, if you are at a greater distance: one loves the dark; another, which is not afraid of the critic’s subtle judgment, chooses to be seen in the light; the one has pleased once the other will give pleasure if ten times repeated. As at an agreeable entertainment discordant music, and muddy perfume, and poppies mixed with Sardinian honey give offense, because the supper might have passed without them; so poetry, created and invented for the delight of our souls, if it comes short ever so little of the summit, sinks to the bottom.

Athens
17th July

The Tiara of Theodore Roethke

My strength is the strength
Of ten young things: I am with you:
In that first moment of delight
When you look from the page, no longer lost
In the maze of youth
Roethke

Just as the Islamic world absorbed the ancient scholarship of its Greek conquests, & just as the European renaissance repeated the assimilations, so too does Poetry have a duty to regurgitate itself from time to time, when the spirit of renewal strips away the evolutions of time, leaving shiny new versions of moments of classical brilliance. It is with this as my leading inclination that I now turn to the writings of Theodore Heubner Roethke; a very fine-minded, Twentieth Century, Pulitzer-prize winning, American, post-modernist poet. Very much respected by his peers, James Dickey once opined that he did not, ‘see anyone else that has the kind of deep, gut vitality that Roethke’s got. Whitman was a great poet, but he’s no competition for Roethke.’ Dickey was surely here analysing the poetry of the poet, but what I want to study here are a curious collection of whispy musings on the art of poetry which Roethke stuff’d his notebooks with in the mid-twentieth century. In this same period he was also an English teacher, & these spontaneous philosophartistical outpourings represent some kind of cross-pollinating hybrid of human thought.

During the composition of these maxims, Roethke was too rush’d by teaching to collate his thoughts into a more conventional order. ‘I’m teaching well,’ he wrote in 1947, ‘if I can judge by the response – but haven’t done one damned thing on my own. It’s no way to live—to go from exhaustion to exhaustion.’ He seems have snatch’d at those scatter’d moments of focuss’d thought, scribbling them down in the depths of his office, to be discovered by his colleague, David Wagoner, upon the death of Roethke in 1963. Taking on the role of the Litologist (literary archaeologist) Wagoner dived into the 277 spiral notebooks full of fragmenting imagination, distilling them into a collection called Straw for the Fire (1972).

A half century later I intend to further the curation process begun by Wagoner by a secondary process of distillation. My endeavour shall be to select & reorder the most quintessentially poetic of Roethke’s maxims, in order to create some kind of spiritual map of the poetical experience entwined – with some magnitude & immediacy – with the entire universality of the poetic arts. As I do so, I hope to go against, as Roethke himself once said, ‘the academic tendency to rest: that profound impulse to sit down.’ Echoing the ‘garland’ collections of elegiac sayings espoused by the Tamils, I have named the collection’s form the ‘Tiara,’ in which are contained the choicest jewels dug up from the mines of mental ferment, which are polished & set in a smooth & solid structure.

‘The desire to express certain ideas,’ wrote John Cruikshank, ‘in as brief & memorable a form as possible is a long-standing human impulse.’ The aphorism has had many hey-days; the Kural of the Sangam age; the Roman epigrammical penchant as dictated by Tacitus & Martial; the intellectual epithetical flourishings of the seventeenth century French salon. In such brief capsules of literary exhortation, the qualities of elegance, accuracy & conciseness are held paramount. It is those maxims of Roethke which possess this triad of excellence the most which I have chosen for my materielle. Respecting Roethke’s deal love of teaching, I hope to have assembl’d the maxims in a way that will maximise the effects of the impartation of the poet’s empirical mind upon those who never had the pleasure of sharing a classroom with the man. Instead let us – & by us I mean every waking poet from now until the last gatherings of human time – listen to the everliving word-sage speak as if we were adepts gather’d at the naked feet of the wise Tamil sage; as if we were a young poet receiving Rilke’s letters of advice; as if we were one of the lucky students in the wartime poetry classes of Michigan State.

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BECOMING A POET

The young artist: there is no other kind of mind but my own

Poetry is the discovery of the legend of one’s youth.

There is an academic precept which says: never listen to the young. The reverse should be true: Listen, I say, & listen close, for from them – if they are real & alive – may we hear, however, faintly & distortedly – the true whispers from the infinite, the beckonings away from the dreadful, the gray life beating itself against the pitted concrete world.

The wisdom the young make holy be their living

We’re not going to split the heart of reality: not until the third semester.

And then there is the more honest & charitable mentor who regards poetry as a kind of emotional & spiritual wild oats of the young, a phase of adolescence to be pass’d thro’ quickly – & anything said to shake him out of this emotional orgy is all to the good.

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THE SPIRIT OF POETRY

The eye, of course, is not enough. But the outer eye serves the inner, that’s the point.

Basis of poetry is sensation: many poets today deny sensation, or have no sensation: the cult of the torpid.

Hearing poetry starts the psychological mechanism of prayer

The intuitive poet often begins most felicitously, but raptures are hard to sustain.

O keep me perpetual, muse, ears roaring with many things

Good poets wait for the muse, the unconscious to spring something loose, to temper & test the promptings of the intuition with the pressures of craftsmanship: they can think while they sing.

Simple & profound: how little there is

Say to yourself: I will learn & treasure every good turn of speech ever made.

The intense profound sharp longing to make a true poem.

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THE ART OF POETRY

Perhaps no person can be a poet, or even can enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.

The nobility of my imagination is my theme: I have to let things shimmer.

The essence of poetry is to perish – that is to say be ‘understood.’

A ‘movement’ is a dead fashion.

The artist has several levels of life always available. If he falls to the ground with a theme or gets a ‘block,’ he can always return to life – a routine task.

This is the lazy man’s out often: I haven’t read it, therefore it does not exist.

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POETICAL TECHNIQUE

Poetry is not just a mere shuffling of dead words or even a corralling of live ones.

A musical ear is a gift from nature: but like all gifts it can be develop’d

Rhythm: creates a pattern into which our mental faculties fall; this cycle of expectancy calls for surprises. The poet, at least the good poet, provides them.

My design in short poems: to create the situation, & the mood as quickly as possible: etch it in & have done; but is that enough? No. There must be symbolical force, weight, or a gravity of tone.

Play with it – The language has its cusses & fusses just like us.

Diction: one of the problems of diction, in certain kinds of poems, is to get all the words within a certain range of feeling; all elemental, all household, etc. etc. Often a very good figure from another level or range will jar.

The decasyllabic line is fine for someone who wants to meditate – or maunder. Me, I need something to jump in: hence the spins, & shifts, the songs, the rants, the howls. The shorter line can still serve us: it did when English was young, & when we were children.

To make it so good that there will be no actors will ever act it right: but none can be so bad, in any windy barn, to foul it up entirely.
It’s the damned almost-language that’s hardest to break away from: the skill’d words of the literary poet

Did I beat the poem to death? Did I worry the material like a mad dog?

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THE POET

We can love ourselves & literature with equal intensity – that’s our contribution

A poet is judg’d, in part, by the influences he resists

Puts his thoughts in motion – the poet

A poet: someone who is never satisfied with saying one thing at a time

The poet must have a sense not only of what words were & are, but also what they are going to be?

A poet must be a good reporter; but he must be something a good deal more.

Poet must first control, then dominate his medium

Maturity in a poet: when he no longer is concern’d with personal mortality… but whether the language dies.

There comes a time in the poet’s life when one personality, even with several sides, is not enough. Then he can go mad or become a dramatist.

There are so many ways of going to pot as a poet; so many pitfalls, so many snares & delusions.

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FORM IN POETRY

Remember: our deepest perceptions are a waste if we have no sense of form.

We must have the courage, as Kierkegaard says, to think a thought whole

Transcend that vision. What is first or early is easy to believe. But… it may enchain you.

The artist (not the would-be): you may have deep insights – but you also need the sense of form. Sometimes the possession of the first without the second may be tragic.

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CRITICISM

English poetry: mostly by ninnies, capable of fits & starts of ravishing feeling

The Victorians – they didn’t let enough go in or go out. They lived in ponds.

Some of these Limeys write as if they were falling over chairs

The ‘other’ poem in Yeats… had to set the stage for his best work. If he had not written at such length, he might not have been heard.

The lyric is almost forgotten in this time of sawing & snoring & scraping

One of the problems of the lyric poet is what to do with his spare time; & sometimes it becomes the community’s problems too. It worries people.

A bewildering bardling: no real feeling except a thin intense hatred of his contemporary superiors

A culture in which it is easier to publish a book about poetry than a book of poems

One of the subtlest tasks is the sifting from time. Some poems have that special sheen of contemporaneousness, the immediate glitter of fashion – & still survive.

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BAD POETRY

One of the virtues of good poetry is the fact that it irritates the mediocre

Not the stuff, but merely the stuffing, of real poetry. An anthology of abstractions from one of the less sure metaphysicians: a nowadays nausea.

Much to be learnt from bad poems

A wrenching of rhythms, verbal snorting; tootling on the raucous tin-ear, mechanized fancies: his poems have movement, sometimes they slide away from the subject.
Embroidering a few metaphors on his pale convictions

These fancy dandlers of mild epithets, graceless wittols hanging on the coattails of their betters. I can forget what they do until they forget to steal & start being themselves.

Those dreary language-arrangers. Don’t be ashamed if you belch when you try to sing

So many writers are an immense disappointment: they’re neurotic, grubby, cozy, frighten’d, eaten by their wits.

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WORLDLY ADVICE

Think with the wise, talk like the common man

When you begin to get good, you’ll arouse the haters of life

May my silences become more accurate

Live in a perpetual great astonishment

I can’t die now. There’s too much to do.

He was the master of the remark that insults everybody – including himself.

May 30th
2018

Bukowski’s Irrepressible Brilliance

Ignored by the larger mainstream anthologists of America, Charles Bukowski is the ultimate proletarian anti-poet, an American hero their establishment would rather not possess on account of the fact he is by far their best, or rather truest poet. His style was refreshingly honest, a Tu Fu of the Beats, inspired by the twentieth century ‘Poetic Revolution,’ when poetry had, in Bukowski’s words, ‘turned from a diffuse and careful voice of formula and studied ineffectiveness to a voice of clarity and burnt toast and spilled loaves and me and you and the spider in the corner.’

index

Among Bukowski’s massive, almost industrial, output I have found a poem of his which is, in relation to the convetional poetic spheres, just so brilliantly curveball. It is found in a collection entitled ‘Love Is A Dog From Hell,’ a whirlwind of poems dated 1974-77. The book is midway between the publication of our poet’s first collection, ‘Flower, Fist & Bestial Wail’ (1960) & his death in 1994; & may be seen as the highwater-mark of his career. In this period Bukowski’s star was very much on the ascendency; success in Europe, breakthrough interviews with Rolling Stone Magazine & an acceptance into the American poetical elite as a notorious enfant terrible. On 25th November 1974, Bukowski read in Santa Cruz alongside Gary Snyder & Allen Ginsburg, an event memorialized by Ric Reynolds, who described Bukowski as; ‘a man of genius, the first poet to cut through light and consciousness for two thousand years & these bastards dont even appreciate it.’

The mid-seventies also saw Bukowski engaged in a string of affairs with women; including Linda Lee Beighle, Pamela Miller – who becomes Nina in his short story, Workout – & Jane Manahattan – the Iris Hall of his Women. Of her time with Bukowski, Jane commented, ‘he was funny all day every day. A great love of life, & an enjoyment – always to be seeing the funny thing, & making a comment. he was a comedian.

The poems within ‘Love Is A Dog From Hell’ are both sexually visceral & brutally protagonistic, with an incredibly poised ‘cogito, ergo sum.‘ Here we have the American sonnet sequence to Laura, but of course fashion’d via fabulously free ‘verse libre’ & the even freer love of the sex-addl’d seventies. In one of the poems, ‘how to be a great writer,’ he declares at its opening the creative & spiritual ordination of the entire collection;

you’ve got to fuck a great many women
beautiful women
and write a few decent love poems.

Ever since the publication of his first poem, ‘Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip,’ in 1944 – at the age of 24 – the German-born Bukowski & his writing was dedicated to the holy trinity of Wein, Weib & Gesang – Wine, Women & Song. Thirty years later, his dedication to those core tenets was as strong as ever, only the delivery had changed to that of an ageing & cynical amourouse.

So to the poem I have chosen, artists: (Bukowski never respected the principle of capital letters), a classic laissez-faire love-affair with a groupie. Next to his omniscient genius – Bukowski almost breaks sweat telling us so – she is a minor writer, & not even that inspirational a lover. The scene is set for a droll masterpiece that could never find its way into an establishment canon, but for pure drama & in-the-moment magic it is unsurpass’d in all the poetry I have personally read. For the purposes of this essay I shall give the poem in full, adding a little critigloss in the interludes.


 

artists:

she wrote me for years.
“I’m drinking wine in the kitchen.
it’s raining outside. the children
are in school.”

she was an average citizen
worried about her soul, her typewriter
and her
underground poetry reputation

she wrote fairly well and with honesty
but only long after others had
broken the road ahead

In eleven lines Bukowski brilliantly introduces his muse. We know so much about her already; a bor’d mother who writes to differentiate herself from the hum-drum. In a damning piece of critique on both her style & the state of modern poetry, Bukowski portrays her quite ruthlessly as lagging far behind the original poets who have ‘broken the road ahead.’

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she’d phone me drunk at 2 a.m.
at 3 a.m.
while her husband slept

“it’s good to hear your voice,” she’d say.

“it’s good to hear your voice too” I’d say.

what the hell, you
know.

In this next segment, Bukowski introduces himself into the poem – he is always the star -, converging on illicit daft-o’clock phonecalls with his faraway ‘mistress.’ There is no background to these calls, but the not-knowing encourages our minds to calculate why? She is a poet of an underground scene, did they meet that way? Did they sleep together then, or are these late night calls the first sordid steps towards her infidelity. We get all of that from just five short lines, which are followed by five superbly brusque words in which Bukowski’s soul & voice are eternised. He’s up for it, why not, wouldn’t you?

she finally came down. I think it had
something to do with
The Chapparal Poets Society of California.
they had to elect officers. she phoned me
from their hotel

“I’m here,” she said, “we’re going to elect
officers.

“o.k., fine” I said, “get some good ones.”

I hung up

the phone rang again
“hey, don’t you want to see me?”

“sure,” I said, “what’s the address?”

With another piece of blasé indifference to his groupie – this time, given to his muse directly – Bukowski reaffirms all what he has been telling us about the situation. She is a poetess & she wants to see him, while he is completely indifferent to both her place in the poetry world & whether he gets to sleep with her or not. The Chaparral Society, by the way – Bukowski spelt it wrong – is the oldest and largest poetry organization in California, founded in the Los Angeles Area in 1939.

after she said goodby I jacked-off
changed my stockings
drank a half bottle of wine and
drove on out

they were all drunk and trying to
fuck each other.

I drove her back to my place.

she had on pink panties with
ribbons.

Here, in its most poetically pungent, is the visceral sexuality I mentioned earlier. What stands out the most, & what for me first shone a light on this poem’s architectural majesty, is the brevity & poetry contained in, ‘I drove her back to my place / she had on pink panties with ribbons.‘ This is all we are allowed to hear about their sexual union, delicately teasing us with what the poet secretly knows, but refuses to share, with just a hint of frilly lace to set minds racing & libidos rising.

we drank some beer and
smoked and talked about
Ezra Pound, then we
slept.
its no longer clear to
me whether I drove her to
the airport or
not

In this post-coital aftermath, Bukowski sounds almost bored with the scene – going through the motions. He was in his mid-fifities at the time, & one imagines hundreds of notches on his bedpost from literary groupies. Many, many beers & many, many conversations about Ezra Pound. He then reinforces our instinctive inquiry by completely forgetting the episode’s denoument. There is no teary farewell at the airport, his muse simply dissapears into the aether.

she still writes letters
and I answer each one
viciously
hoping to make her stop

In this short stanza we get a suggestion of the interplay between Bukowski & his muse – they have a relationship, the student-teacher-lover type – & it is the only moment when Bukowski shows any real humanity in the poem. The fact that he takes the time to answer her letters proves she’s got under his skin, when other groupies were simply swatted away. There is something about this lady that was incorrigibly annoying to Bukowski, but whose spirit he could never truly shake off.

someday she may luck into
fame like Erica
Jong. (her face is not as good
but her body is better)
and I’ll think,
my God, what have I done?
I blew it.
or rather: I Didn’t blow
it

meanwhile I have her box number
and I’d better inform her
that my second novel will be out in September.
that ought to keep her nipples hard
while I consider the posibility of
Francine du Plessix Gray.

The last two stanzas of Bukowski’s remarkable poem differ from the mental theatre of the earlier stanza, launching the poem into the more philosophical chambers of its creator’s mind. He is free now to pronounce judgment on both the affair & the poem, & does so with a flourish of bravura. Two leading literary lionesses of the seventies are dragg’d into the picture – one hardly expects Bukowski letting them know of his decision to do so – placed on pedestals beside his muse. Erica Jong ‘s 1973 novel Fear of Flying blew female sexuality wide open, while Francine du Plessix Gray was a Pulitzer-winning grand dame of the New Yorker magazine. To Bukowski, all three are simply sexual objects who just happen to write, & the most important happenstance here is actually his second novel – Factotum. This was published in 1975, giving us a terminus ad quem for the composition of artists:.

Personally, I find the ending a little abrasive – in the same way Millenials are being offended by some of the patter & subject matter of the Friends sitcom. But the honesty of artists: is what makes this poem transcend the confines of conscious dignity into the realms of cosmic genius. The afterburner proplusion of an already unchallengable classic. In a letter to Nancy Flynn (1975) our poet attempts some kind of explantion as to his psuedo-misogynistic style.

I’m no woman-hater. They’ve give me more highs and magics than anything else. but I’m also a writer, sometimes. and there are variances in all things

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To conclude this essay, I would just like to show how Nancy Flynn could well be the muse of the poem. In a letter dated April 7th 1975, Bukowski asks Nancy, ‘what’s this here shit about going to Turkey? It rains there too.’ This of course connects with the poem’s opening scene of a bored houswife writing about the rain. In another letter, dated April 21st, Bukowski mentions slipping ‘a couple of poems past the APR’ – the American Poetry Review. The informal substance of this comment suggests Nancy is familiar with the poetic establishment. This fits easily into his muse’s connection to the poetic establishment and her links to the The Chaparral Society.

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Finally, in the letter of the 21st our poet also tells Nancy; ‘finished the 2nd. novel, FACTOTUM, at last. It should be out in Sept,’ which is a clear match to the poems, ‘I‘d better inform her that my second novel will be out in September.‘ Nancy Poole is a poet, on whose website we may read, ‘I spent twenty years in Ithaca, New York, working and raising a son, before moving to western Oregon in 1998 with my husband and cats.’ She rather does look a lot like the literary photfit painted by Bukowski in his poem, & with that I rest my case.

Sept 29th
2018

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