The Traditions in English


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Re-appropriating Mythology

Questions for Discussion, Writing and Research

1. Earlier women writers re-imagined traditional myth in subversive ways. Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, imagines in her poem “The Circuit of Apollo” Apollo taking a survey of Kent, one of the “land of the muses” (2), whereupon the Greek god of poetry “saw there that poets were not very common, / But most that pretended to verse were the women” (NALW1 245). In the poem, Finch references the Restoration poet Aphra Behn, whom Apollo finds unequalled among literary women, though he objects to the raciness of her poems:

He lamented over Behn . . .
And said amongst femens was not on the earth
Her superior in fancy, in language, or wit,
Yet owned that a little too loosely she writ. (11–14)

How is Finch’s portrayal of Apollo subversive? What do you make of her move to have him locate a “land of the muses” in Kent, where she lived? How does such a move serve to legitimate the work of women writers such as herself? Do you see her seeking to establish a female poetic tradition in referencing Aphra Behn?

2. Since they are the original myths of Western culture, it isn’t surprising that literary works re-interpreting Greek and Roman myth are best represented in the anthology. But by no means does that mean that women writers have not re-fashioned other myths in their writing. Both the contemporary Australian poet Judith Wright and her American counterpart Denise Levertov write poems about the Babylonian goddess of love and fertility, in “Ishtar” (NALW2 724) and “Song of Ishtar”(NALW2 861), respectively. Read both poems and compare the different poets’ use of the myth. What are the similarities? Differences?

3. The African-American poet Audre Lorde reaches back to African myth when she writes “The House of Yemanjá” (NALW2 1072) and “The Women of Dan Dance with Swords in Their Hands to Mark the Time When They Were Warriors” (NALW2 1074). Read both poems and compare them. Why do you think Lorde alludes to African myth rather than to Greek, Roman, or other European myth? Do you think her choice is politically motivated? What does it achieve?

4. Read Carolyn Kizer’s poem “Semele Recycled” (NALW2 909). How does Kizer make literal her title, recycling both the ancient myth and the speaker’s body into a contemporary love poem?

5. Read Eavan Boland’s poem “The Muse Mother” (NALW2 1291). In the poem, Boland equates a young mother with a sibyl, an ancient prophetess. How does Boland elide the two, and to what end? Does doing so elevate a rather mundane aspect of motherhood? How might we read the act of mothering as a muse?

6. Along with classical and biblical figures, several contemporary women writers have turned their attention to re-working fairy tales. The American confessional poet Anne Sexton published an entire book of poems called Transformations, and both the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood and the British writer Angela Carter have made transforming fairy tales a significant part of their literary output. Read Atwood’s short story “There Was Once” (NALW2 1217), in which she deconstructs the conventions of fairy tales. What does such a deconstruction achieve? Or read Atwood’s short story “The Little Red Hen Tells All” (NALW2 1219), in which Atwood seizes on nursery rhyme as an apt way to explore female martyrdom. How does Atwood update the material, and to what end? How does incorporating humor add to the effect?

7. Read Angela Carter’s startling short story “The Company of Wolves” (NALW2 1221). How does Carter subvert the original cautionary tale? What does her representation of the voice of Little Red Riding Hood say about female sexuality?

8. Read Sylvia Plath’s early poem “The Disquieting Muses” (NALW2 1047). In the poem, Plath references Greek myth with her use of muses and alludes to fairy tales with references to Sleeping Beauty and Hansel and Gretel. How does Plath fuse the two sources of myth? How does Plath portray the speaker’s sense of feeling haunted by these feminine figures?

9. Read Patricia Beer’s re-working of Germanic mythology in her poem “Brunhild” (NALW2 884). What does Beer’s move to inhabit the central character achieve?

10. Read May Swenson’s poem “The Centaur” (NALW2 655). How does Swenson re-appropriate a male figure from Greek myth to express the oneness and freedom a ten-year-old girl feels riding her horse? What does referencing the myth achieve? Would the poem work without the reference? Why or why not?

11. Read Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Myth” (NALW2 653). How does Rukeyser use the myth of Oedipus and the Sphinx to make a contemporary feminist statement?

12. Read Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck” (NALW2 970). Why do you think the poem begins “First having read the book of myths”? What do you think the speaker means when she says, “the thing I came for: / the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth” (61–63)? How does the poem’s ending make a case, in its lines “a book of myths / in which/ our name does not appear” (93–95), for the absence of women’s perspectives in literature? How might the poem be read as a corrective to that omission? After all, the speaker is “diving into” a “wreck” to see what can be recovered. How might that mission operate as metaphor for the kinds of feminist recovery work seeking to bring lost or critically forgotten women writer’s works into print?

13. Read Willa Cather’s short story “Coming, Aphrodite!” (NALW2 93). How does Cather’s reference to the Greek goddess of love and beauty in the title inflect our understanding of the characters? What does it achieve?

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