The Warm-But-Not-Fuzzy Joys of The Odyssey

Odyssey

You remember Homer’s epic similes—those longish, detailed, and often surprising comparisons of rather dissimilar things: helmeted heads to poppy flowers, thigh wounds to stylish harnesses, generals to woodcutters, weeping women to melting mountains, the pieces of skin torn from the limbs of a rock-battered, half-drowned man to pebbles lodged in octopus arms. While the epic similes of The Iliad often startle the reader by comparing acts of war to images of peacetime, those of The Odyssey often reinforce the themes of journey, homecoming, and community.

Especially notable are those passages where Homer compares one character’s experience to an experience that more obviously belongs to another. I’ll look at five of these (using Fagles’ translation, since that’s the one we use in my Great Works of Lit class).

1. In the first, Odysseus has been bobbing in the ocean since his raft was blown to smithereens three days earlier by Poseidon. Lifted by a wave, he catches glimpse of terra firma once again:

Joy… warm as the joy that children feel
When they see their father’s life dawn again,
One who’s lain on a sickbed racked with torment,
Wasting away, slowly, under some angry power’s onslaught—
Then what joy when the gods deliver him from his pains!
So warm, Odysseus’ joy when he saw that shore, those trees,
as he swam on, anxious to plant his feet on solid ground again. (5.436-442)

Odysseus seeing land is like a child seeing his father return from the threshold of death. Our thoughts turn from the coastline of Scheria to Telemachus. Love for his son was the reason Odysseus feigned madness at the first mustering of the troops, and the reason he eventually had to give up the charade and go to war. Like the children of the epic simile, Telemachus, now a precocious twenty-year-old, doubts his father is alive and headed home. Continue reading

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poem

For Ann Miller

I

This morning was hot and humid.  Although it was grey, it felt as if I could have been in the tropics.  But by lunchtime, it was 53 degrees in Houston.  Cold.  How can we account for the plummets in our lives, the weather that we weather?  Who can explain how winter comes?  Well, scientists.

And poets.

II

Last week, some of my students wrote about some poems.  They could look at the poems–you don’t have to memorize.  Some of them wrote about all poems.  Some of them guessed.  One of the themes that kept coming up in the essays was:  this is a really great poem. That is not necessarily wrong.  It is just not the whole story. Sometimes there is a story, like Dido and Aeneas and how their love is a train wreck even before trains.  Sometimes there is no story.  Sometimes you are just in a station of the metro.

But at least you are in Paris.

III

Maybe you can look at the title:  “The Beautiful Changes” is a good one.  But then you have Emily Dickinson–who never had titles for poems, although sometimes she had titles for herself, like “Queen.”  She didn’t need titles, yet people give them to her anyway. What should the title be for a poem that states,” I like a look of Agony/ Because I know it’s true”?

Don’t say “Agony.”  I am begging. Continue reading