Sunday, 18 January 2015

Western Myths Retold in Canada

Many of the traditional Western myths have been re-told in Canadian poems of the late 20th and/or early 21st century. Please compare these contemporary poems to either the original myth or to one (or more) of the non-Canadian retellings of the same myth.


Lorna Crozier, "On the Seventh Day"
Ted Huges, "Apple Tragedy" (from: Crow Poems)

Leda and Zeus:
William Butler Yeats, "Leda and the Swan"
Robert Bringhurst, "Leda and the Swan"
-> Robert Bringhurst, The Calling. 90-91.

P.K. Page, "This Heavy Craft"
Anne Sexton, "To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph"

Margaret Atwood, "Siren Song"
William Browne, "Sirens' Song"

Image from:



  1. In general, the myth of "Leda and the Swan" is told from a male-centric point of view. In that the masculine swan is portrayed as being able to overpower and rape the feminine Leda. Bringhurst and Yeats both saw something as being created from this overpowering. I would like to view the myth from a different angle.

    Michael Field was the pen name of two female poets who went by the names of Katharine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper. These two poets also happened to be in a reportedly loving and impassioned lesbian relationship with each other. In their poem "A Pen-Drawing of Leda", the first feminine critique of the myth of "Leda and the Swan", they flip the traditional myth on its head and portray Leda as the character in control of the relationship, rather than the Swan. The feminist critique is evident in lines such as these:

    "Although his hectoring bill
    Gapes toward her tresses,
    She draws the fondled creature to her will.
    She joys to bend in the live light"

    I believe that "A Pen-Drawing of Leda" is important in the discussion of myth as it represents the malleable nature of myth. Myth is often portrayed as absolute within its context; however, in reality, it is often just the powerful groups version of a universal story. In this power dynamic it is evident that retelling of myths according to subjugated groups such as first-nations people, as well as homosexuals and women, as represented by Michael Field, is important in that it allows a sort of equalization in the worlds "collective myth".

    1. To add onto this, many mythos that we regard as the original were actually altered by the people in power as they were passed down through time. A common example would be the mythos surrounding Demeter and Persephone, as they were appropriated by the Ancient Greeks from the more matriarchal Minoan society. As the Greeks were heavily patriarchal, they diminished much of the prominence and power of these two goddesses. It is interesting to note though, that quite a bit of their former strength and agency is still presented within the Greek retelling.

      Our modern perceptions of myths are also central to establishing or changing predetermined views, especially in regards towards marginalized groups. For example, in the "Rape of Persephone" tale, the general impression is that Persephone accidentally or got tricked into swallowing the pomegranate seeds. Many, however, are now viewing it from the angle that she willingly did so as a decision about her own marriage/love life, which provides a more emancipated depiction of women.

      Essentially, looking at myths through another lens changes the entire dynamic of the myth and can help us to consider a different and more equal depiction concerning marginalized groups (both within and outside of fiction).

  2. Loved Yeats’ sonnet; I found it far easier to read than the latter (of course, it’s that much shorter). Gudrun’s interpretation of the language he chose was particularly engaging. The opening stanza of the octet is rife with power words: blow, beating, staggering, dark, caught, helpless “…breast upon his breast.” The second stanza puts question to Leda’s terror at being raped, even suggesting that once she gets over the initial shock, she relaxes (“…loosening thighs…”) and even engages (“…feel the strange heart beating…”). Not exactly a new hypothesis - given that men have asserted that women enjoy rape ever since they were ousted from the Garden. Sounds more like an excuse….until one reads, and rereads, the sestet. Here Yeats suggests that the consequences of Zeus’ behaviour, the devastation wrought by the offspring of his tryst with Leda (Clymenestra, Helen of Troy, Pollux, Castor) may have been foreordained, when, having had his way with Leda, he drops her, completely indifferent to either her or the reverberations of his actions. As a ‘god’, he cannot claim ignorance. He knows what he’s done. The final, open-ended question, “…does she put on his knowledge with his power….”, is significant. Did she, in retaliation for her rape, use her children to lay the ground for a re-ordering of Zeus’ world and his position in it? Was there an intended effect after the cause?
    Bringhurst’s poem, a more difficult read in its free verse form, affirms that cause and effect echo across millennia. Critical to my understanding of this version of the myth is Gudrun’s position that the poet is answering the final question posed by Yeats. There is intertextual reference: Zeus’ rape of Leda (and its consequences) is analogous to the colonial rape of First Nations people, their lands, languages, cultures. The poet is definite in his response to the question of whether Leda assumes Zeus’ knowledge - he answers “no” 6 times between lines 6-10 of the first stanza. The ‘god’ alone retains knowledge of/responsibility for his actions. I was, at first (and still am, slightly) put off by the musical metaphor to the instruments of the orchestra. It takes the mutuality of two to make music (orchestral OR sexual); once again, this infers that women (eventually) respond positively to the act of rape by an overpowering male, depending, of course, on the male’s virtuosity. The simile comparing the completion of the act of rape to a male animal marking its territory is abundantly clearly. Linguistic references to Leda as the Earth Mother of Canada’s indigenous peoples are unmistakable: “….mountains..the fruits, the roots, and the grasses…the streams…the depths of her mosses…” et al. He uses her, abuses her, marks his territory then drops her, his voice “…creaked like a rehung/door and said nothing, felt nothing”.
    Zeus is as dismissive of Leda as the colonists were dismissive of The People. Though Leda’s descent/return to reality is difficult - her memory is clear. No longer the woman she was, she is unable to respond to her husband’s advances and “…lay like so much/green kindling, fouled tackle, and hose harness under his hands….” In the end, that she lay thinking of soldiers, daughters, knives, puts period to the question of intended effect. Given that Bringhurst wrote his Leda and the Swan in 1946, he would have seen an abused people who, no longer able to respond to their natural way of life, their culture, their languages, simply lay quietly - as engrossed in thoughts of soldiers, daughters, and knives as Leda.

  3. Siren Song - Margaret Atwood
    Mischa Milne

    The myth about the Sirens has been around since the 7th or 8th century BC, and when Homer wrote about them in The Odyssey, he talked about them from the perspective of Odysseus and the other sailors. Margaret Atwood flips this around in her poem by writing from the perspective of a Siren. She uses modern language and free verse, instead of the dactylic hexameter used in traditional epic poetry. This could be to emphasize that despite the passing of time, thousands of years later humans are still drawn in by the same song. She also uses humour, in lines like 'I don't enjoy it here, squatting on this island, with these two feathery maniacs,' making the Siren seem more human and in need of help until you realize it's just another part of her song to draw people in.

  4. Crozier vs. Hughes
    I really enjoyed these 2 stories. They are both reinterpretations of Genesis, a holy story in the Holy Bible, but tell fairly different narratives. I don’t mean to reduce and simplify Crozier’s poem, but beside Hughes’ poem, it just appears simple, playful and straightforward. Whereas her poem is cheeky and cute, Hughes’ poem is very dark and more difficult to interpret.
    I really liked how in class we discussed that Lorna Crozier is from the Prairies, where the feminist movement originated in the early 20th century. Her critical feminist approach is fairly straightforward: she conveys God as a simpleton who takes all the credit for Creation, while his wife – and yes, he actually has a wife – is the one who did all the creating.
    He completely recreates the story of Adam, Eve and the Serpent, but in this poem, “God” may actually represent Satan and “the serpent” may well represent God. It is the Serpent who rests on the seventh day, and is then given apple cider from God who tells him that he has “invented a fun new game.” Adam drank and said “be my god,” but it’s not clear to whom he was speaking – was it the serpent? Was it the cider? Eve drank it and beckoned the serpent for sex, who she then accused of rape; “in a drunken rage” Adam tried to commit suicide; Eve and Adam stamped on the serpent’s head which “pleased” God, and then “everything goes to hell.”
    The first time I read it I found it very humorous. Upon the second read, I found it very surreal, darkly satirical and cynical. I believe that he is confronting the human condition, the evils of alcohol, the pointlessness of religion, and most darkly – that “God,” good or bad, desires mankind’s chaos and destruction. I think he’s suggesting that we are living in hell and chaos, that God is sinister and the serpent is harmless (we are mistaken on what evil is) and that we’re all just pawns in God’s little game, just for his amusement.

  5. I've always enjoyed Margaret Atwood's work and "Siren Song" is no different. I find it particularly interesting because most of us have always seen sirens as these unrelatable, unreachable creatures that relish in the wrecking of ships. Atwood's poem reminds us that there are always more than one perspective to a story and that it could be wrong to judge when everyone who's actually heard the song is dead or can't remember. I found that Atwood's poem also had more of a sense of progression in the sense that there is a beginning, middle, and end to the song, with events happening outside of the song that are reflected within the song.

    To explain that, what I mean is that the song builds up. It introduces itself, and we can visualize that the first notes of the song are wafting over to the sailors on the breeze. The middle is the core of the song, the part which lures men to their death. It is disguised as a cry for help and beckons the men closer by making them feel special. In this section, the men are following the trail of the song, disregarding their imminent death. The ending reveals the sirens' genuine thoughts. They no longer have to pretend to be a damsel in distress because they men have already succumbed to the song that "works every time" despite being "boring." Here, the sirens' actual unhappiness is shown to be the tedium of what they do.

    Browne's poem, on the other hand, is just the song. It paints a picture of the sirens very traditionally. The language his sirens use is, unlike Atwood's sirens, more elevated, perhaps reminiscent of their source material in Greek mythology. Images that are invoked, like the Phoenix, also serve to elevate the poem. Their song is also much more seductive, appealing to the sailors with promises of love and kisses. The sirens in this poem are perhaps the ones that appear later on in mythology. Earlier in mythology, sirens were often represented with some sort of birdlike attributes, hence the feathers in Atwood's poem. Later on, the sirens also became seductive not only in their song but also their bodies.
    In Browne's poem, it is difficult to tell if anything is happening outside of the song, such as whether or not it was successful or whether or not the song is actually what the siren's want to be singing.

  6. Hi all,
    Here are two great slam poems. I realize they're popular, and a lot of you may have already seen them, but on the off chance you haven', here they are! And even if you have seen them, I'd say they deserve a second watch!

  7. When comparing the myth of “Daedalus and Icarus” by Ovid with “To a Friend Whose Work has Come to Triumph” by Anne Sexton, they differ in their aspect on flying. While Ovid focuses more on the negative consequences of flight, Sexton describes the flight with positive admiration. When Icarus, takes flight, Sexton vividly describes the various sights that Icarus sees underneath him. Through the use of various descriptions of imagery, the readers focus more on the new experiences that Icarus is able to have through flying. In contrast, Ovid provides no imagery of what Icarus sees or the sensation of flying. Thus, the readers are drawn more to the consequences of the risks associated with trying something new. Sexton praises Icarus and regards him as innocent, rather then a son who disobeyed his father’s warning to stay away from the Sun. However in Ovid’s version of the myth, his focus is on Icarus disobeying his father and as a result drowning in the sea. Despite the fact that Icarus drowned, Sexton does not consider his death as very important. Rather, she describes his demise as “acclaiming the Sun”, thus portraying his death in a more positive light. Finally, while Ovid thinks that taking risks will lead to negative results, Sexton believes that taking risks should be embraced as it is an essential part of experiencing something new.

  8. In ancient Greek myth, the Sirens were depicted as bird-like creatures who tricked sailors to falling to their deaths from their ships by telling them the promise of being able to obtain all the knowledge of the world. They were perceived as monsters who only destroyed people through their trickery. In Margaret Atwood’s poem, the song that they sing is described to be “boring” though is successful each time in tricking people into listening to the Sirens as it is “irresistible.” It is also mentioned that the Sirens don’t actually like singing this song themselves, and would like to be “out of this bird suit” if they had the ability to do so. As compared to the poem by William Browne, the poem portrays the Sirens’ song as something almost to be desired. Much lighter words/descriptions are used to describe the Sirens and their song such as “Perfumes far sweeter than the best” and “Where no joy dies till Love hath gotten more.” The sailors and their ships are told not to fear the Sirens and their song, which contrasts with the ancient Greek myth of the Sirens being fearful creatures.

  9. Icarus and retellings of Icarus are probably some of my favourites with dealing with Greek myths. Something to consider when visiting with retellings of this myth that I think Page's poem also sort of falls into:

    "Icarus. The original myth had two parts. Daedalus said to his son, ‘I fashioned these wings for you. Two rules. Don’t fly too high, or the sun will melt the wax. But, more important, son, don’t fly too low. Because if you fly too low, the water and the waves will surely weigh down the wings, and you will die.’ We’ve left out the second part of the myth. We don’t say to people anymore, ‘Don’t fly too low.’ All we do from the time they are 4 years old is warn them against hubris. We have created this industrially led structure that says: How dare you."
    — Seth Godin

    I think Page does put a positive light on reaching upwards, but she doesn't really seem to approach an idea of "flying too low", which was very interesting to me the first time I read that quotation

  10. I love Lorna Crozier’s retelling of the Christian creation myth in On the Seventh Day. I am not a religious person. My parents grew up in Communist China—not a lot of room for Jesus if your heart is already filled with Chairman Mao. As a result, I don’t have a lot of basic knowledge about the Bible, but I did always notice an astonishing lack of female voices. Lorna Crozier plays with the image of God as it currently stands—an all knowing, benevolent, omnipotent male figure, endlessly wise and completely powerful. In her version, there are two powerful entities: God, and his wife. He is shown to be “a dreamer,” while she is responsible, proactive, and capable. He flubs the whole thing up, and she goes in to fix it. In Lorna Crozier’s creation myth, women have a voice, and we see it silenced. We see god coming back in and rewriting the whole thing, and though his wife thinks it’s ridiculous that anyone would ever believe what he’s written, we as the audience know people do. Her myth raises an important question: when else has the voice of women been silenced in favour of man?