Homeric Imitation

This is the second post of a two-part essay on the pedagogy of poetic imitation.

Let us turn to the students themselves now, and their poetic imitation of Homer. Here is Gianna Liberatore, an elementary education major who decided that her poem, appropriately enough, should be about the assignment itself. She writes,

Sing, Goddess, of Gianna’s inspiration,
Experimental and expressive, the words dancing patiently
Across the computer screen as they wait to be written.
For the leader of her troop, Dr. Tom,
Assigned a poetic endeavor, one that grants freedom to the
Minds of young students, challenge though it is.
. . .
As the battle waged on, the ravishing muse Calliope
Of epic poetry, flew down from her perch and positioned
Herself next to the feuding girl. With her golden crown upon
Her head, she spoke words of revelation into Gianna’s ear.
Like a farmer who determines what to plant
for the season that is to come,
He finds the perfect plot of soil to use
and nurtures it as it grows.
So too was Gianna when the idea struck in her head.

Miss Liberatore introduces a Greek goddess and an epic simile into her description, thereby deftly mimicking her Homeric model.

Since I ask the students to write from personal experience, it is not surprising that many of my student athletes write about their experiences on the field. Taylor Chavez, a business major, writes her poem about being injured while playing soccer. She begins,

Agony:
              Cry, competitor, unbearable pain,
Piercing and immediate, that cost the athlete
Unimaginable suffering, ceased the ability
Of a warrior to battle,
And left her body to lie stunned
For others to assist, as season was determined.

Another business major, Dylan Dario, describes a basketball game and creates a new hero in Achilles’ line:

The team walks with their heads down to the bench accepting
Defeat, all except Dylan. His body seems to be smoking from
All the heat against the cold air. His face is red, sweat drops from every
Inch of his body, and his eyes are raging with fury as he stares at
The sight of his pitiful teammates, he can no
Longer sit next to them, from the bench he
Rises, as he stands in front of his team.

Even Ultimate Frisbee finds epic expression in a poem by Steven McCarthy, future Director of Christian Education:

               A caged animal desperately paces its enclosure
               Frantically pawing at the walls
               Seeking any means of escape from captivity
So too strong-armed Christian’s men sought an opening in the defense.
. . .
Using his tremendous strength
Strong-armed Christian spread his feet to get his weight behind the throw
And chucked the disc towards the end of the field over the heads of the
               defenders.

But not all of the poets are athletes. At least once a semester, a student, usually a young woman, retells a tragedy from her childhood. Here, Mary McQuistan writes about her childhood in Nebraska, when her family was threatened by a fire:

Lori tightly grabs her daughter’s shoulder, a grip so strong
That the Father of gods could not even break such a hold.
With her other hand, the frightened mother points
Off into the canyon, spotted with pines and yuccas.
But the horizon is not warmed with the sun’s embrace.
Instead, billowing smoke swims up into the clouds,
Covering the sky with an ominous presence.
A volcano preparing to erupt emits a dark cloud,
Warning others of the approaching danger.
Mary is pulled by her mother towards the house.
But her eyes remain transfixed,
Staring at the approaching fires of Hades.

Conversely, I sometimes receive a humorous poem, the most memorable being a description of a hero devouring a hamburger, which included an epic catalogue of the many ingredients.

Admittedly, the poems are not perfect, and I still receive the occasional love lyric, complete with an essay, glorying in how “Homeric” the finished work is. This is, of course, not entirely the fault of the students alone, and I need to find ways to improve my instruction in imitation. For example, I recently came across an article by Deborah Dean of BYU which describes how she uses models of fine sentences to teach writing, and I think it would be worthwhile to do similar exercises with poetry in class.

I would like to end with a poem in its entirety, written by Spencer Trauthen, a history major who switched to English mid-semester. I have reason to believe that Spencer falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, and it pleases me that he was able to use the class assignment to create something of beauty.  His poem is entitled “An Observation of Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus”

Zephyrus and Cholris, you were there
When, on the shores of Cyprus
Venus emerged from the foam of the sea,
Standing on a cockle shell, naked,
Covering herself with her hands in elegant shyness,
Her smooth milky white skin and bright red hair
Gently caressed by the soothing breeze.
It was you, Zephyrus, while carrying Cholris on your left shoulder,
Guided the goddess of love to the island of Cyprus
               A swallow grows weary
After weeks of migration.
Before it faints from exhaustion,
A tailwind sweeps right beneath it
And carries it to its destination.
So too did Zephyrus escort Venus to Cyprus’ shores
With his breath. As the wind carried Venus to the shore,
A cascade of pink roses descended in her wake.
As she arrived on the beach of Cyprus,
Pomona emerged from a forest of orange trees,
Rushing towards Venus with a shroud embroidered with flowers
               A courtier discovers a plot
To assassinate his lord.
He rushes to his lord’s estate,
Knowing what will happen
If he does not arrive in time.
This was you, Pomona, as you rushed
Towards Venus, stopping at nothing
To cover her with the brocaded cloak.

The Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli
Had this story in mind
As he painted his magnum opus.
Using the elegance and bodilessness of Zephyrus’ wind,
Like strings on a puppet, to set all the figures in motion.
The draperies flow in sync with the gentle gusts
Parallel to the movement of the ocean.
The flowers left in Venus’ trail
Reflect the flowers on Pomona’s dress.
The fluid, moving, bright ocean
Meets the solid, motionless, dark earth
Like two armies confronting each other in battle.

This is how Botticelli illustrated
The birth of Venus, goddess of love,
Daughter of Zeus, mistress of Troy.

Surely the production of even one such poem a year makes this assignment worthwhile, yet more importantly, even the less successful novice poets come to a greater appreciation of the art and the work of poetry.

Kerri L. Tom is Professor of English at Concordia University Irvine