Two evenings ago, late at night, a kernel of a poem came to my mind in one immediate burst. I typed it up on my iPad. That process took no more than a minute. Then yesterday I sat down for perhaps two hours, while visiting my old farm house on Windy Nob, and slightly developed and edited the poetic kernel.
Now for the poem, and then for a little commentary, in which I do not intend to “explain the meaning” of the poem, but add a few notes to clarify a some of the intentional borrowings. Whatever the poem means, I will let it mean to the reader, and not deny someone the pleasure and adventure of discovery.
A song of the Odyssey
Fierce howling winds driving
salt into my aged face
and still I hear their ravenous sounds
assaulting voices tearing my flesh
consuming what remains of me
Odysseus, you gods,
I am wandering Odysseus
strapped fast to the mast
that I may hear the Sirens singing--
and gods they sing their rapturous songs to me--
Were I not lashed down
rock-bound like Prometheus
severing the golden cords of thought
I would hurl myself at once
into the raging wine-dark sea
Knowing that I am going
to my sure destruction--
so powerful the pull
so irresistible to me
these tempesting Sirens.
A few notes:
In the kernel or germ of experience and thought that came immediately to mind, I as writer of the poem was Odysseus, tied to the mast, to hear the Sirens. Clearly the background at large is Homer’s Odyssey, but the phrases and particular thought-formations are not, or so far as I am aware.
The first stanza. There is an influence here of Shakespeare’s aged Leer, ranting wildly in the night of his breakdown, buffeted by winds and storm. I recognize this influence in the first of the four stanzas. But also here are borrowings from at least two poems of T. S. Eliot—from the “Wasteland,” which I have neither enjoyed nor understood; and from a phrase from one of his early works about the “toothless gullet of an aged shark,” or words to that effect. When one writes, there are always words and images from earlier experiences or readings that come to mind. Early this day, I spent two hours in a dentist’s chair, with another broken tooth, and so the experience works its way into the poem—perhaps. Furthermore, this stanza received final formulation on “Windy Nob,” as winds were howling outside. Reality can break in, even into the mind of a would-be poet.
Second stanza. he setting is now unmistakably that of Homer’s Odyssey, in the delightful passage in which Odysseus has his sailors plug their ears with bees wax, and tie him to a mast, so that he can listen to the beautiful and intoxicating songs of the Sirens, without killing himself in pursuit. The phrase, “Odysseus, you gods,” is curious, but intentional. He speaks his name at once, but is addressing “you gods,” unspecified divinities or forces at work. There is in my mind the ancient Greek awareness of living in a cosmos, an ordered Whole, that is “full of gods,” and I deliberately tap into this experience, rather than into the Hebrew conception of the one transcendent I AM WHO AM. “Every myth has its truth,” and too much can be lost, too quickly, if the gods are not given their due in the scheme of things. There is a tongue-in-cheek play on the Mosaic “I AM WHO AM” with the character’s “I am Odysseus,” here the mere creature who is caught up in forces beyond his control or understanding. The last line of this stanza is a deliberate overturning of one of the last lines of Eliot’s early poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in which the poet bemoans that he cannot hear the mermaids (similar to Sirens) singing “each to each,” and “I do not think that they will sing to me.” Odysseus in this poem is confident that these mysterious forces do indeed “sing their rapturous songs to me.” Prufrock is timid, withdrawn; the character in this “Song of the Odyssey” is bold and courageous, as was Homer’s Odysseus. Life is an adventure, and most assuredly, “Fortune favors the bold.”
Third stanza. Borrowings from the ancient Greeks continue. The deliberate literary reference is to Aeschylus’ profound play, “Prometheus Bound.” The Greek word “Prometheus” means “forethought,” and I intend the play on this Odysseus character having forethought in telling his men to bind him fast to the mast, but now willing to overthrow forethought and all of reason by hurling himself into the sea to pursue the Sirens. There is another reason I brought in Aeschylus: in the play, Prometheus had disobeyed the gods, and was punished by being fastened to a rock, from which a bird would come and eat out his liver—if I recall the details properly. In this poem, Odysseus feels as though his insides are being devoured—referring back to the lines of the first stanza about “tearing my flesh, consuming what remains of me.” Here I have deliberately bound Odysseus and Prometheus together. By linking in Prometheus, furthermore, as from Aeschylus, the drama continues for age upon age, as the devoured liver keeps growing back. This Odysseus lives in a condition that returns. The phrase “golden cord of reason” is a deliberate borrowing from Plato’s late masterpiece, the Laws, in which every man is torn between the thick cords of the passions and the golden cord of reason, and man is in effect at the sport of the divine Puppet-Player, who pulls the cords. The phrase “wine-dark sea” is obviously an intentional reference to Homer, who uses repeated phrases in his epics, rather like Wagner’s Leitmotifs, and this is one of my favorites. As “wine-dark,” the sea embodies the great mystery of the divine in reality: mysterium tremendum et fascinens, “the mystery [at once] terrifying and fascinating.” That condition clearly lies as background for the whole poem.
Fourth stanza. “So powerful the pull” is a borrowing, again, from Plato, and especially from his use of the helkein symbol in the Laws: the “pull” of the divine golden cord, the “pull” of the thick, iron-strong cords of passions. That the Gospel of John gives prominence to the same symbol, same Greek helkein, also lies behind the choice of words. And that the Sirens are thought to be the source of the pull concludes the stanza and the poem. I wanted a word to pull together the experience in Odysseus, and “tempesting” seemed apt. It is a real English word, connoting powerful, often agonizing forces, and captures in a word the turbulence not only in nature (with wind, sea), but within Odysseus himself. And the use of the word is a final wink back at Shakespeare, whose last play, the Tempest, is perhaps the most perfect example of serious-playfulness in English. And for one who knows that play, with tempest, winds, seas, playful magic, divinely wise Prospero (as in Providence), and so on, the reference to “tempest, tempesting” does indeed seem to pull the poem together.