Literature and the Gods
by Roberto Calasso, translated from the Italian by Tim Parks
Knopf, 212 pp., $22.00
“Everything, in the world, exists to end up in a book.”
The surprising durability of ancient Greek myths in an age when Homer, Ovid, and other classics are no longer taught in our schools is astonishing and not easy to explain. In this country, we have never been very good at history, barely troubling to remember our own in much detail, and the same is true of the literary past, which is gradually being expunged from the curriculum. When it comes to pagan myth, most of the champions of progress take it for granted that they have nothing to say to us anymore. How wrong they are. This year, for example, saw the publication of Gods and Mortals, an anthology of modern poems based on classical myths. Out of 323 poems in the book, roughly one fourth are the work of contemporary American poets. When it comes to being out of sync with reigning intellectual fashions, poets get the prize every time.
As for the anthology itself, the structure is thematic so one finds poems on almost every figure in mythology, with Orpheus and Eurydice and the wanderings and homecoming of Odysseus seeming to be the favorites. Poets who have vastly different and frequently unreconcilable ideas of poetry, such as, for example, Joseph Brodsky and Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley and Richard Wilbur, Lucille Clifton and Jorie Graham, are to be found reflecting on some god or mortal hero. To paraphrase Charles Olson, myth is a bed in which human beings continue to make love to the gods.
What is it in these stories that the poets find indispensable? The answer has to be that they still feed their imagination. What Ezra Pound said long ago still appears to be true today: “No apter metaphor having been found for certain emotional colours, I assert that gods exist.” Here’s a poem of his from 1912 commemorating that discovery:
See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
See, they return, one, and by one,
With fear, as half-awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,
and half turn back;
These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”
Gods of the wingèd shoe!
With them the silver hounds,
sniffing the trace of air!
These were the swift to harry;
These the keen-scented;
These were the souls of blood.
Slow on the leash,
pallid the leash-men!
Even in our days of technology and globalization, it may be that the world we live in is too complex a place to explain with just one god. We need Eros, Apollo, Dionysus, Narcissus, and the rest of their tribe to make sense of things. For poets, there is also an additional motive. The big headache for over a hundred years has been how to find a larger setting for one’s personal experience. Without some sort of common belief, theology, mythology—or what have you—how was …