Poetry Friday: Ouroboros Revisited

I pause here in my consideration of the poems of 1940 to leap up to the poems of 2012, for a little reflection on how poetry is intersecting with my life at present, and I hope an opportunity for you to think a little bit about how poems work (or don’t).  The occasion is that I’ve finally completed an Ouroboros cycle, which I’ve been working on with a poet friend of mine, Shane Guthrie, since last fall, and I feel like talking about the experience a little.


Ouroboros: the serpent (or dragon) devouring its own tail. Symbolic, much? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Ouroboros?” you say.  “Er, what’s an Ouroboros when it’s at home?”  Well, first of all, veteran readers of the blog will recall my exploration of the form last year in reference to an Ouroboros co-written by Shane and Graham Isaac, another poet friend.  But to explain it to newer readers and refresh old memories, the Ouroboros is a cycle of short lyric poems—Shane invented the format, as far as we know, which is a cycle of 32 poems, in which each poem begins with the last few words of the poem previous.  The 32nd poem, in fact, is written so that it ends with the first few words of the 1st poem, thus completing the circle, so that an Ouroboros can be read starting with any poem—it has no beginning or end.  It’s named for the self-devouring serpent of ancient lore.  As I said a year ago, I find the format of the Ouroboros interesting and creatively exciting, since there’s a tension involved in the whole process.  In one sense, you’re co-creating a set of 32 poems that will have some kind of thematic consistency, and collaborating to make it strong.  In another sense, you’re creating your own set of 16 poems for publication, and building themes that carry over from one poem to the next (made more challenging by the fact that you don’t always—in fact, you don’t often—get the opening line you’d have picked for yourself).  And lastly, you really are just trying to write the best possible poem you can in the moment, at any given moment.  I remarked so positively about it last year that Shane invited me to write one with him, and it really was a great experience.  Certainly it got me writing much more often than I had been, and any creative writer will tell you that it’s hard to get back into the habit: I’m grateful to the project for this reason, although I’m also pleased with the work we did.

So today I’m going to take you inside the experience of writing an Ouroboros, using a little glimpse of the cycle we’ve just completed.  Those of you in the Puget Sound area should know that the Ouroboros will premiere in its entirety in Seattle on the evening of September 5th (a Wednesday)—Shane and I will be reading it in an as-yet-undetermined location somewhere inside Discovery Park.  More specific details can be had for the asking, either in the comments here or via email.  So, if you live near Seattle and would like to hear the actual piece in full, there’s an opportunity—I think Shane is also having it bound (in spiral form, without a cover, of course, so you can spin it around and start with any poem you like), and copies may be available for purchase, both at the reading and in some other times and places.  Again, if interested, ask.

So, the project began with me choosing a poem of Shane’s from a recent chapbook, and writing a poem that began with its last line.  It continues from there under its own momentum.  When possible, we both try to give the other fellow options, writing two or three poems (or more, if you’re Shane, that prolific son-of-a-gun) that all begin with the same opening words but which end differently—that way, the other poet can A) pick the opening line they want, and B) pick the poem they feel “suits” the cycle best.  I won’t say too much about the cycle in its completed state, but it was clear from the outset that we both had a few images we kept returning to, all of them somewhat familiar poetic tropes.  The uneven relationship, in which one person is not really understood by or responsive to the other.  The terrible sources of personal violence, and their terrible consequences.  The decadence of modern politics/society, and the just anger aimed at those in power.  Shane and I never spoke openly about our aims, and I think his 16 poems and mine on their own each tell a distinctly different story, but it’s very interesting to see how they are affected by each other.  Anyway, let’s fast-forward to a point early in the middle of the project.

I had fired Shane a sort of wry and satirical poem about modern democracy—very lighthearted.  One of his options back to me shifted the tone and setting (while hanging on to the political angle) to a powerful figure threatened by overthrow and execution, and the poem speaks to that figure directly, advising him on how to get out of his predicament.  The last lines of this particular poem were the following:

You need to help them through this hard time
You have made:
It is your divine duty.

I hope you’ll mull that over just a little, especially if you’re a writer.  I’ve given you a few details about the overall arc of the project, and where we’d just been.  What poem would you write, if you had to start with “it is your divine duty”?  You can fudge a little—maybe start with only “Your divine duty”, or be bold and start with “This hard time you have made? It is your divine duty”, or any other combo, as long as you’re using the last words of Shane’s poem, in order, to start yours.  What poems would you write if you had to write three of them?  It’s an interesting challenge, especially when you consider that ideally your last line will be a nice opening line—at the least, it would be best to avoid using so specific a detail or image that it would be hard for the other poet to get out of your poem’s shadow.  In this case, I did manage to make three poems, and I was reasonably happy with all of them as first drafts.  The poem I ended up polishing and using for the published Ouroboros is still under wraps, but here’s an example of the first draft of a poem I liked, at least, and which Shane nearly chose to work from:

‘It is your divine duty to use your talents to the best of your abilities,’
they say,
when what they really mean is,
‘Achilles, be Death for us.
Be Slaughter.’
Sometimes I lie awake at night and curse the man
who first forged a blade in bronze,
who first strung a bow or gave the chariot its wheels.
Sometimes I whisper the names of the men I have slain,
all of them remembered, all of them,
their faces before me like sunlight,
hot and unbearable, surrounding me.
The Greek princes pace around my camp like lions,
‘It is injustice to deny what you can do,’
they say,
‘think of the men who will die
if you do not kill for them.’

In the mornings I sit on the shore and watch the rolling surf,
each new wave a mouth to swallow up my bitterness,
each glint of light on the swells a spear agleam
in a field of gore.
The war-horn bellows,
I can hear the voices begin to sing.
Without thinking, I find a spear in my hand,
and my feet are taking me to the vanguard.

A man may be able to escape his destiny,
but he cannot outrun his skill—
there is no place on earth to hide from that.

So, a few things: first of all, this is a first draft I’ve never gone back to edit or revise, so if you have comments about it that will either identify what would be better if changed, or what would be better if kept as it is, that would certainly be helpful.  But more importantly, I wonder how different what I wrote is from the ideas you were exploring?  And, furthermore, I wonder what you would do now in Shane’s place, faced with the need to open a poem with “There is no place on earth to hide from that” (of course you could begin it “There is no place on earth.  To hide from that…” or any other re-punctuation you like, or extend or retract the number of words you’re taking to open your poem with, although opening with “That” would be a real cop-out).  So I hope you’ll leave any reflections you have on the Ouroboros as a concept, and the specific scenario I’ve sketched out for you here—we read enough poetry, every single Friday, that I hope we’re learning things about what it does and how it does it.  I’m thinking it will be interesting to see what we all have to say.

Poetry Friday: A Digression

I know I should post a poem from 1930, since A) that’s what I said I’d do, B) it’s been good to explore poetry through this weekly blog post, and C) it drives half the traffic to this site (welcome poetry people! I will not do your homework for you, but I’m happy you dropped by.  I hope you read some of the rest of the blog).  But I’ve been reading a book by a Classics professor called Homeric Moments in which she extols the virtues of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and it’s reminded me how truly great those epic poems really are.  This blog may slowly morph into a broader literary blog as time passes: I know it hasn’t yet, but I figured a couple of reflections on Homer and the Greek epic would be suitable on a Friday.

The author of this book I’m reading (Eva Brann, by the way) focuses on several dozen “moments” from Homer’s two poems, though she’s using “moment” in an extremely broad way—and that’s certainly not a problem, in my opinion.  She loves Homer with a passion, she’s been reading and teaching these works for 50 years, and she wants more people to realize what they’re missing.  The five years I spent teaching the Iliad to sophomores were certainly among the best moments of my working life (if not my life as a whole), and I feel a real kinship to her.  Sometimes Brann is hard to follow—so academic and precise with terminology that it’s difficult to make sense of what she loves about the poems.  But then she opens up with some paragraphs that get at the core of why it is powerful that all of Western literature, including the novels that win Pulitzer Prizes, traces its lineage back to this blind singer and his demi-god heroes of the dimly lit past of ancient Greece…so ancient, in fact, that what we think of as “ancient Greece” (Socrates and Aristotle and togas and democracy) was probably farther removed from Homer and the fall of Troy than we are from Shakespeare.  Here’s a taste of what I mean: Brann is focused on the shield of Achilles—THE shield, the shield forged for him by the smith-god Hephaestos—a shield whose beauty and symbolism move me so powerfully that it served as the central image of the baccalaureate speech I gave to the class of 2008 at EHS.  If you don’t know the poem or the description of the shield, what follows may be hard to make sense of: as a quick reminder to those who knew once and have forgotten, the shield carries on it cities and sunbeams, singers and lovers, wars and feasts, trees and plowed fields, rivers and oceans.  Envision it, and see what Brann believes about it.

The Homeric world, the poet’s and artisan’s world, is in its visible surface indefeasibly beautiful, no matter what happens within it.  Dancing youths and devouring lions, wine-refreshed plowmen and brutal amushes are all equally golden.  This is, after all, the truth about the Iliad itself: a blood-and-guts poem of unfailing beauty which, through its similes and storied recollections draws all the ordained labors and graceful recreations of the peaceful world into itself.  It is this world, whole and hale and soberly glorified by the artist, that Achilles carries into the last battle.  He bears it; it shields him.  He exposes it; it covers him.  He exposes it to the thrust of spears under which it is punctured and staved in but never completely penetrated (as any world is reparable after war), while during battle it insulates the warrior—but barely—from totally berserk dissociation.  Achilles carries the shield into battle as a real enough defense against mortal wounding , but he also bears it about—earth, star-studded heaven, seas, cities, land—as if he were the power behind the cosmos.  I surmise, I imagine, that Homer thinks of swift-footed, swift-fated Achilles as the being who makes possible the poetry that makes the full world visible.

The point of relating all of this is not to convince those few of you who read this and care that Brann is right in her analysis.  I’m not convinced she is (though she certainly makes a compelling case).  It’s that these epic poems at the dawn of human literature (not story—story being older, far older, than Homer—but literature) still have the power to make us feel this way.  It’s a power I have yet to find in the American novel, even at its best.  Maybe that’s a bias of mine, and an unworthy one: I don’t know.

Paul Goodman, a now-nearly-forgotten poet of the 20th Century, wrote a brief little poem entitled “Wonders of the Iliad” in which he relates moments that move him powerfully, and concludes by saying that, to the extent that the people he meets in life resemble these moments in the Iliad, he regards those people as human.  The Iliad as more human than humanity itself.  A high mark to set: too high, I suppose.  But today I found that letting thoughts dwell on the Iliad was very “humanizing” in all the senses that make the word “humanities” a bit magical for me still.  I sank into memories, memories of people.  Brian, a wise counselor and colleague, convincing me to go ahead and teach Homer—that the kids would get it, after all.  The voice of Olga as she declaimed Athena’s rebuke of Achilles in Book 1 with such force that the whole classroom caught its breath.  Daniel sneaking a copy of the Iliad into class and reading it every chance he got (correcting me at class breaks, if I was fortunate: in the middle of class if I was not).  Whatever combination of humans it took to convince me to play the role of Zeus on camera (“You just have one line, Shwag—just ‘I am Zeus’.  Okay, cool.  Can you say it and do a little dance step or something?  Awesome.”): the part may have been small, but somehow I didn’t manage to live it down very successfully.  There are many, many other names and moments I keep as treasures that I don’t have space to delve into now.  I taught a lot of good literature: stories that are as epic and gripping as Western culture has produced.  Somehow, none of it lingers with me (or, if I can take their comments and emails as any indication, with my former students) quite as deeply or in quite so resonant a fashion as Homer’s poetry does.

It leaves me wondering, as it always does.  Wondering how that blind old man who had likely never seen a battle, who had no way of even conceiving of the centuries of audiences waiting for his words, accomplished these remarkable poems—spoke to something in the human spirit that remains even now.  Wondering whether America has ever produced such art (and, if it has, if I will ever find it): art that will remain somehow new and classic, timeless and relevant, over the next three thousand years.  If you think I’m overselling the Iliad and the Odyssey, I suggest you sit down with them.  You may think you know “all about the wooden horse”…and maybe you do.  Get a copy of Robert Fagles’s translation (of either poem), find a spot with just the right sort of evening light and read it (aloud if you possibly can, especially if you can do so without feeling self-conscious).  Skip over parts if you must—get the story of it first.  Return to it when you are older.  It grows with you.  I’ll probably write about it here again…maybe more than most of you will want to read.  Thank you, at least, for hearing me out this time.  I’ll be back soon with more from the latest Pulitzer novel—for now, I’m off across the wine-dark sea to the shores of windy Troy.