Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

National Poetry Month 2013: Gods and Marble

April is National Poetry Month. As usual, I'm posting late and wanted to recommend the wonderful Favorite Poem Project.

This year, I thought I'd look at two poems involving the Greek god Apollo. The first one is better known:

Archaic Torso of Apollo
By Rainer Maria Rilke

(Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

That last line is unexpected and startling, and really makes the poem for me. It puts all that's come before in a new light, and suddenly, the poem captures the deep introspection that gazing at great art can provoke. Mark Doty discusses the poem more here.

Compare it to this one. (Coincidentally, I was introduced to it in a lecture by Mark Doty.)

Old Joke
By Alan Shapiro

Radiant child of Leto, farworking Lord Apollo,
with lyre in hand and golden plectrum, you sang to the gods
on Mount Olympus almost as soon as you were born.

You sang, and the Muses sang in answer, and together
your voices so delighted all your deathless elders
that their perfect happiness was made more perfect still.

What was it, though, that overwhelmed them, that suffused,
astonished, even the endless ether? Was it the freshest,
most wonderful stops of breath, the flawless intervals

and scales whose harmonies were mimicking in sound
the beauty of the gods themselves, or what you joined
to that, what you were singing of, our balked desires,

the miseries we suffer at your indifferent hands,
devastation and bereavement, old age and death?
Farworking, radiant child, what do you know about us?

Here is my father, half blind, and palsied, at the toilet,
he’s shouting at his penis, Piss, you! Piss! Piss!
but the penis (like the heavenly host to mortal prayers)

is deaf and dumb; here, too, my mother with her bad knee,
on the eve of surgery, hobbling by the bathroom,
pausing, saying, who are you talking to in there?

and he replies, no one you would know, sweetheart.
Supernal one, in your untested mastery,
your easy excellence, with nothing to overcome,

and needing nothing but the most calamitous
and abject stories to prove how powerful you are,
how truly free, watch them as they laugh so briefly,

godlike, better than gods, if only for a moment
in which what goes wrong is converted to a rightness,
if only because now she’s hobbling back to bed

where she won’t sleep, if only because he pees at last,
missing the bowl, and has to get down on his knees
to wipe it up. You don’t know anything about us.

(Poem from The Dead Alive and Busy.)

The opening evokes the themes of the Homeric Hymns and their many later imitators. Apollo is presented as perfect, exemplary, transcendent – an object of admiration. The poem takes a sharp descent to the mortal world of indignities and vulnerability. After reading the whole poem and looking again at the portrayal of Apollo, I'm reminded of a line from Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus, when Mozart complains about depictions of gods and heroes who "shit marble." It ties into an old dichotomy I've kicked around about the depiction of heroes, nicely illustrated by the two major film versions of Shakespeare's play Henry V, Laurence Olivier's in 1944 and Kenneth Branagh's in 1989. Olivier's Henry transcends suffering, is more than a mere mortal, and shot in glowing Technicolor, he gleams in his armor and surcoat, proud and unflappable in the face of overwhelming adversity. Sometimes, this depiction is countertextual, but it's an understandable choice given the film's main purpose: boosting morale for the British during WWII. In contrast, Branagh's Henry is muddy and exhausted, and a hero because he struggles through his suffering to succeed, never transcending it outright. He'll give a fire-and-brimstone speech in public at Harfleur, and then collapse in private. Something similar is going on in this poem.

When I first heard/read "no one you would know, sweetheart," it got a laugh from the audience, but it sounded a bit harsh and bitter to me, as if this wasn't the happiest of marriages. But after reading the poem to the end, and reading it again, it's clear this is a marriage of warmth, intimacy and compassion. The couple doesn't even necessary "succeed" in the face of suffering; the point is, they're sharing it, and that alleviates it a little. This is the state of their lives, a far cry from the grandeur of Mt. Olympus. (Shapiro does a marvellous job of contrasting images.)

None of this is to exclude other readings of these poems. They make an intriguing pair, and I like and admire them both. Shapiro's poem isn't a direct retort to Rilke's, which in any case is about contemplating a work of art more than the idea of a god per se. Rilke's piece uses beauty as a launching point and captures a moment of solitary (and profound) reflection, while the core of Shapiro's piece is about indignity that becomes a shared moment.

(Feel free to share or link a favorite poem in the comments.)

No comments: