I went to a talk recently co-hosted by former poet laureate Andrew Motion. During the Q&A he was asked whether Ancient Greek and Roman mythology had a place in contemporary writing. He cited the production at the National Theatre of Ted Hughes’ version of Racine’s Phedre as proof that it was still relevant. But he then went on to say that in his own teaching of poetry he found his students often lacked knowledge of the stories and characters of mythology which he said was a shame, not least because he had to explain background so often.
I pick up this point because if Motion has to explain mythological references to his students, understandably some will ask why poets continue to use them.
I suggest that for modern writers classical mythology offers a shorthand that can be called upon when personal or direct language presents difficulties, freeing the poet to explore ideas. The characters and events of mythology are about the eternally important issues of what it is to be human: love and anger, war and the reasons for war or lack of them, identity and loss, complexities of family relationships, justice versus the rule of law, what heroism means, hope, despair – these are some examples from a long list. The ancient stories are deceptively simple, giving today’s writers the option to interpret events, characters and themes every which way: symbolism and metaphor being two of the more obvious routes that spring to mind. Or a mythological reference can add a layer of meaning bringing interest or a cause for thought.
As a reader, poems that use classical mythology can sometimes be off-putting. Sadly some poets do petrify ancient myth into formal inaccessible puzzles, and think that a mythological subject matter requires old fashioned language. But a good poem should be understandable on more than one level, and new forms work with familiar themes. If it is a well-written contemporary poem a lack of knowledge of the specific myth should not stop appreciation or enjoyment. However, a reader who is prepared to do the work and find out what the poet means by his or her references, will gain further insight.
What Do You Think?
Do you think classical mythologies have a place in contemporary poetry?