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Does Classical Mythology Have A Place In Contemporary Poetry?

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?

This Post Has 75 Comments
  1. I agree that we want to challenge our youth in the classroom. You can’t grow without being challenged, the problem which I see is how to modivate the youth. You might have some that would look at an assignment like that and be excited but you would have others who would feel the assignment is pointless. In my opinion one of the biggest reasons why our society is lacking intellectually has to do with our value’s as a society. These values are best portrayed in our popular culture. I can maybe name a handfull of programming designed for youth which has intellectuall value. That programming is in the vast minority as the majority of the programming designed for youth is mindless dribble. This is another subject which we could go on in great length about but simply put, I agree that we need to challenge our children but lets also challenge ourselves to provide an environment for our children in which they would actually be excited to learn about these subjects.

  2. Does Classical Mythology Have A Place In Contemporary Poetry?
    I would have to say yes.
    Every one of the students in my high school was taught of the Greek myths in social studies class. Also, the Greek influence on the rest of the world through philosophy, language, writing and arts.
    Included in this high school study of the Greek gods was a brief mention of what their purpose was to the people along with the demigods and human heroes of the Greek myths- (which were all created in poem form or in a play of some sort at their origins, either Greek or Roman).
    In regards to the current generation of poets, I feel they all SHOULD read all of the works of the ancient Greek myths in order to get a reference on the basis of our current world civilization. This is because most civilized worlds follow the government and organization of the Greek examples and laws set down by the Greek and other myths of old. The poetry of a civilization should reflect its past, its dreams and its future (as an art form). If some current literature-studied student had not read the Odyssey, The Trojan War, The Iliad, or most of the classic Greek myths; they MUST in order to know what their human past was and how they envisioned their world.
    The ancient myths and epic stories helped humanity pass a dark age into an age of wonder. It opened their minds to hear of such human, demigod, and God’s atrocities and emotions. It continues to do so today in the study of myths. It opened the child’s mind of mine (and my high school classmates) to other worlds of possibility, into a new, adult way of thinking.
    Ancient myths open your mind and let the imagination of the reader free.

  3. Greek mythology of our ancient past has been taught to countless students and has its place in education, but to say that it should be included in poetry is very stifling to a writer. Poetry should not be bound by rules and guidelines. Poetry in its purest raw form is expression and creativeness. No artist should be told they have to refer or include certain elements into their creations. Whether or not a writer wants to read works of mythology from the past and learn from it is up to the writer individually. Although myths open up a very creative door to the past of our world that does not mean that a modern writer has to be influenced by that past. Maybe if instead of pushing past works on students and writers and allowing them to explore their own creativity we would have less adaptations of ancient stories and more brilliant new unheard stories.

  4. For an English lit student, I would definitely think that having even the slightest knowledge of classical Mythology would be a great jumping off point. Poetry is immersed in the past, very few poems deal with the here and now. Poets have been writing poems based on myths for years; you even see them in Hallmark greeting cards. I for one would believe that having the words of the ancient myths to reference back to could only strengthen the works of a poet. English literature and classical mythology are so intertwined in the books we have all read over the years which are considered the “classics”, how could you not be influenced? The only disadvantage that could possibly come of having this knowledge would be to think that the words you are composing are your own, a mere mortal, while they may actually be the words of one of the Gods of Olympus!

  5. In my humble opinion the state of modern poetry is suffering and a healthy dose of classical mythology would do wonders to bring back quality over quantity. Many younger and new poets sadly don’t have the benefit of reading the great works that have laid the groundwork for many of the excellent poets that we do enjoy today. Plato, Aristotle and Homer all of them gave freely of themselves to help enrich the world that they lived in and in no short point help to enrich the world we still live in today.

    Without these unique voices to help explain how the unknown could work, or how a hero is born, or to help fuse with that moral decision or experience of those who came before us, we might find that the vision and experiences that we all take for granted right now would be a little less vivid and taste just a tad bit less sweet and in the end we would all suffer for it. It would do us all well to remember the gift that classical mythology is, so that we can continue to create our own modern poetry every day.

  6. I believe that classical mythology already has a place in contemporary poetry whether the poets themselves, or their readers, realize it or not. So much of our culture comes from the building blocks of classical mythology that we are immersed in it from the time we hear our first fairy tale or nursery rhyme, we are often just not aware of the debt those stories owe to the Greeks and Romans who came before them. We see references to this legacy in our popular culture in Rick Riordan’s series of children’s novels: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the recent comic related movie Thor, and the song “Drops of Jupiter” by Train. Even though many of the children and adults may not understand the full stories behind these, and some may not recognize them at all, they are still familiar themes, names, ideas, that will stick with all of us and deserve to be explored more thoroughly poetically as well. Just as these stories were introduced to us in epic poem form through Homer, Hesiod, Virgil and others, having contemporary retellings or treatments of classical mythological tales would help to make them more accessible and preserve these stories for more than the academically inclined who are willing to accept the challenge of the beautifully written but more difficult to read archaic writers.

    That being said, while I do believe that studying and already possessing a working knowledge of classical mythology would make it easier to read poetry from any era, I believe it is essential for a contemporary poet to utilize this knowledge to pass on the essential stories we love in a new, exciting and accessible way.

  7. I have to agree with Heverin Watson on this one: Classical mythology most certainly has a place in contemporary poetry, as with any other aspect of our world that helps explain life and human nature : work, religion, relationships, philosophy, psychology, morality, fantasy etc… However, a poem (for mere entertainment) does not need to be fully understood to be enjoyed.

    For comprehension of the poetry utilizing classical mythology, it’s simple: How can anyone grow or learn without being aware of the past/history? To be sure, the creation and fulfillment of one’s own ideas and feelings (outside the parameters of another’s thoughts and expectations) is vital to artistic expression, however, is it wrong that a writer should choose to reference/utilize classical mythology in order to express themselves? Their choice of topic is solely their own. It need not conform to anyone else’s preference (unless of course the writer is only producing for money, in which the opinions of his audience are key).

    As many have posted previously, the issue today really is that many have become lackadaisical in their pursuit of knowledge and learning: Challenging them to research or think beyond the scope of what’s in front of them is seen as troublesome.

    What many fail to realize is that classical mythology is the origin of most of their favorite stories, books, movies, songs, theories, and even their own thoughts.
    Sorry folks, that great idea, that deep philosophical question, that stellar thesis about human life was already thought of long before you came into existence. You might have been aware of that had you taken the time to learn some history!

    Having said that, while the knowledge of classical mythology is vital to understanding poetry or relating to poetry on a personal level, it is not vital for one to appreciate a well-written poem. It is sad to say, but in this day and age, entertainment (and not knowledge) is the primary goal.

  8. In my opinion, classical mythology absolutely has a place in contemporary poetry. To me, classic mythology represents the timeless values that people had and the desire to describe life events, theology, beauty, art and everything else. Stories in classical mythology try to teach lessons through examples of events that a general audience can relate to, become emotionally connected with and retain to pass on to others. I would think that a contemporary poet would want his or her views on their perceived reality of a subject to be able to come up with a means to convey more than just their words but their emotions, feelings and impressions as well. I think today as in the future humanity will still be searching for ways to make sense of events beyond our comprehension as well as describe what we feel or how we interpret what we see just as those in the past tried to do. Language suffers immense limitations as I have found when trying to express comfort for someone who has lost someone they cared about or describe the love that I feel for my wife or my children. I don’t suppose that themes of love, laughter, tears or beauty will ever wear out their welcome in poetry of any age. But that is just my two cents.

  9. I believe that classical mythology should indeed have a place in the classroom; it not only makes a young reader think about what the writer is actually writing about it also makes them have to pay attention to how they are writing it and why they are writing it in that way and hopefully it would extend their vocabulary passed LOL or LAMO. It is also is way to look back into a time forgotten…to see the framework of a social structure our predecessors had managed to build and establish entire nations upon without the help of any mass media like viral youtube videos…and at the very least they are very entertaining and inspiring stories as well. It is literary art form and for our youth to be deprived of such a beautiful and cultural experience would be short of a crime on the art(s), all forms of art. I believe that classrooms can spare a few weeks to teach classical mythology and it’s background especially since classical mythology has inspired so much over the years (movies, TV shows, books (non-fiction and fiction), plays, sculptors, paintings, scientific studies, and well the list can go on and on), it is almost like paying back a due in a way.

  10. I abolutely believe mythology retains a position in contemporary poetry. I don’t believe we can advance into the future with writing without a full appreciation of all that has come before. What type of understanding can be gained without asking why? Most why questions involve examining the past for answers. Mythology offers accurate and predictable explanations for our baser natures. How can we expect to know where we are going with poetry or any type of writing if we dismiss the role which mythology played in the establishment of storytelling and stylistic expression?

  11. My long, mostly-Shakespearean sonnet cycle inspired by Pluto’s demotion includes many sonnets based on classical mythology; indeed, sonnets 95-112 compose a major subcycle retelling the myth of Pluto and Proserpina. For a thoughtful and perceptive review, see

    http://poemshape.wordpress.com/tag/greek-mythology-modern-sonnets/

    If you like the idea of history, astronomy, and myth served up in formal verse and with a dash of romance, consider buying PLUTONIC SONNETS, available at leading online bookstores!

    http://www.amazon.com/Plutonic-Sonnets-Robert-Bates-Graber/dp/1607032244

  12. I am confused. Is poetry not someones own expression. I don’t think this is a question that needs to be asked or answered. If we are talking contemporary then we look at and compare writings. So who is to say an author must use anything but their own feeling, words, meaning and expressions to write a good piece.
    I do feel we should learn about the classic. Is the bible not a classic everyone is still reading and using their own interpretation of there facts and meanings.

  13. Poetry and Mythology go hand in hand. And for an English Lit student learning Mythology in my opinion is essential. Mythology is new to me but as I read about it I can see that it is very much in our lives today. It especially appears vividly in poetry throughout time, even though that the more modern poets in my opinion are lacking the essence of mythology.

  14. I think that the study of mythology does influence not only modern poetry, it influences every aspect of story telling. The purpose of mythology is to literate our cuture and traditional concept in our life as well as to explain the unexplainable phenomena that occured.According to Campbell in Creative Mythology, mythology, the stories representing the traditions and spiritual beliefs of any culture or religion. .It is an organized collection of stories (i.e., “myths”) by which we explain our beliefs and our history. Beneath the story-lines, myths usually confront major issues such as the origin of humanity and its traditions, and the way in which the natural and human worlds function on a profound, universal level.Regardless of the era, humanity faces the same need to answer questions that our ancestors did a millenia ago. the medium used to convey stories may be different but all through out time there are basic issues that human kind needs to explain or define.

  15. This question is so complex there really is no simple yes or no. As for someone who had to read mythology in high school I only enjoyed the part I could understand. Much of it was lost as I did not see the connection between then and now as a high school student. Now as a parent and student I am still no sure how to answer. What I do know is that my wife has always said being cultured was important. Now I see her point. As one of the previous people stated how do you make it interesting and relevant for students now? There is so much else for them to explore outside of the book. With the technology they can Google something and get a plethora of information. How do they determine what is relevant material? I am taking a Mythology class and I have had my eyes opened to the cultural influences of mythology as a whole. Therefore yes it’s relevant, in poetry, religion and everywhere, even if we are not aware of it.

  16. Does Classical Mythology Have A Place In Contemporary Poetry?

    My answer to this question would be yes. As a poet or writer, classical Mythology can only aid in your ability to write. In my High School Junior English class we were all required to study the Greek Gods and their stories. We had many assignments from this and many students thought, “This is pointless, when would I ever use this in real life” but the truth is knowing these stories gives you a background on other things in life you witness in writing, movies, songs, and many other things in today’s culture. If it didn’t tell you in the beginning of the movie, how many kids today would know that the movie “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” was based on the Odyssey? My guess is very few, but because of classical mythology being taught in school it gave me a background of the story and I pointed it out while watching it with my friends for the first time. They of course thought I was retarded because I missed the beginning where the movie actually said this story is based on the Odyssey. The same can be true for Poetry, knowing the basis of a poem and that it roots back to a certain myth only helps you understand what the poet was trying to express. My overall belief is that you learn classical mythology as a poet for the same reason you learn U.S. history as an American. Learning the roots of where things come from only makes you stronger as a citizen, or in this case, a writer.

  17. Cynthia Martinez stated in her post, 11Jan12, our culture has a “lackadaisical attitude toward the pursuit of knowledge and learning”. We have cliff notes and shortcuts for almost everything. The vast majority of learners are not attempting to solve the meaning of life; they are just trying to get a degree with the minimum effort because it is required to become successful in our culture. Yes, there are always exceptions, our culture values a degree, not necessarily the content of the degree. I believe that knowledge of mythology can assist in thought process of modern life. It is another tool in your tool bag of knowledge to be used when needed. If individuals do not have the right tools for the right job, the solution will be lesser for it. Schools are under pressure to do more with less and have had to make difficult decisions as to what to teach our youth. Poor decision making has prompted many districts to eliminate curricula such as band, choir, art, physical education, and many others to maintain a budget. This is the root cause of much of the issue with the youth not having a grasp on mythology. It is not because a lack of desire, the schools have eliminated the courses to create a “what is necessary for success” on standardized tests to make the school scores higher. Many youth are not receiving mythology in middle or high school and never are subject to the many stories and adventures that mythology holds until they reach college. Only then are they introduced to the wonderful world of mythology. A basic understanding of mythology is an under used tool in understanding our past cultures and thought processes of our ancestors. Sadly unless it is a blockbuster summer movie most of our country will never be exposed to mythology. Classical mythology does have a place in modern poetry.

  18. It is in my opinion that Classical Greek Mythology certainly does deserve to maintain its place in modern poetry; as a matter of fact I think some of the major stories should be a required reading at least in the high school level. I for one have been out of school for the better part of twenty six years and it has taken me a while to get back into the swing of things while undertaking this mythology class; I can however recall most of the epic stories and hero’s and heroines that have made a major impact in mythology. As a future educator it can be somewhat disheartening seeing what is going on in our public school systems; we have settled for preparation for state tests versus teaching the important subjects that can still be relevant in todays education. It can be a little overwhelming but I think with a little creativity and it would not take much to get even the most mundane student involved or even begin to show in interest in classical mythology, after all Hollywood as given us several classics and their re-makes as a launching pad. In an earlier blog some one stated that “poetry doesn’t have to be classical to be enjoyable” and I happen to agree with that statement as well but we should at least be willing to teach our young minds the great origins of literature.

    Donnie

  19. Ancient myths, fables, and stories have a lot in common with modern story. The ancient myths talk about great people, great deeds, and explains things that are unknown to people. They often speak to the heart as much as the mind. Human beings want to believe that there are great leaders, great events, and greater deeds accomplished by people for purely altruistic motives. Sure we have come far in science and technology. We have split the atom, sent people to the moon, and sent unmanned probes beyond the solar system. We have not, however, been able to scientifically find what love is. We cannot accurately measure faith, leadership, nor can we say with any certainty what happened before people began writing things down. We can assume, presume, calculate, and make many educated guesses. The mere fact that myths and legends persist to this very day about benevolent Gods, past heroes who seemingly did not die, things that happen when all our science and technology fails, proves that we are still spiritually and somewhat mentally still the same as we always were, and perhaps always will be. Many modern poets do in fact echo, channel, or parrot many ancient writers and myth makers, often without even realizing it. Humanities’ past is its past, what was written will always “be there”. We may think that ignoring or not mentioning it might make it go away, or relegate it to an insignificant blight in history. This author likes to attempt to find some remnants of what people used to think and believe in modern things like poetry. This author also believes that education of our children, or my children, does not stop when they leave their school. Parents are free to teach their kids what they feel is missing in public schools. This is however, another story, which has villains and heroes in its own right.

  20. I believe that it is beneficial to all to have some knowledge regarding classical mythology. Without a true appreciation for the background from which all words grow meaning, it would be simply words on paper. The innovative foundation which comes from classical mythology brings a greater understanding and consideration for all things to include poetry. It would dearly be a shame for our society to allow these stories to wither as if they never existed. I think we owe it to our children and the future of society to rekindle the spark which brought mythology to exist. As far as poetry being the reflection of one’s self expression, how can anyone portray the truth without the intellectual knowledge of how all things come to be? I’m not saying that you must write about mythology or even drop hints but to grasp the whole picture before revealing what may be depicted as a manifestation of you.

  21. I completely believe that classical mythological stories have a place in modern poetry and literature. Here’s why:

    Have you ever been in love with someone to such an extent that if they died you’d go to Hell to free them?
    Orpheus did this for Eurydice despite her inability to follow strict instructions not to look back.

    Did you know that venereal disease is named after Venus, Aphrodite’s Roman name, because it was thought to be a punishment passed to mortals who did not love honorably?

    What complications do you think would arise if medical science learned to resurrect the dead, as the centaur Chiron was said to be able to do until Hades himself had him killed?

    If you saw a half-man half-goat chasing a pretty girl through the woods, would you think of Satan or Pan? And in that thinking have you ever heard the saying “as randy as a goat?”

    Mickey Mouse’s dog is named Pluto, the Roman name for Hades, god of the dead.

    What would happen if you were granted the wish of immortality but you neglected to specify youth as well? Tithonus, were he not completely submerged in dementia, would be able to explain how that would work and I doubt he would recommend.

    If you were host to the gods, what would you feed them? I would certainly hope not human flesh, as Tantalus did. He was one of the most severely punished souls of Tartarus for his transgressions.

    Because of the many lessons taught in these stories they remain relevant today because many issues of that age are still issues today. Zeus and Hera epitomized the couple with transgression issues. How do women react when they find out their husbands have been cheating, and if there is a child involved how does that go over? And if you name that child after your wife, what do you expect the reaction to be? This is why these stories are just as relevant now as they were in Homer’s day.

  22. I truly believe that classical stories from the Greek and Roman Mythos are an important part of any media in today’s world. From poetry to movies, these stories have shaped our world from the moment they were conceived. It is a shame that too many of our children nowadays do not understand nor have ever heard of such stories. I especially am perturbed that our school system does not try to put forth more of an effort to keep these stories alive and teach them to our students. I can remember first delving into Greek Mythology just after watching the animated movie of Hercules, and find a wealth of imaginative material in the stories. It helped bring about the creative spark within me and continued to nurture it as I grew. I, for one, truly believe that without these references in poetry, those who study and appreciate the poems will never truly grasp what the author is trying to relate.

  23. “Does classical mythology have a place in contemporary poetry?” In my opinion: yes, but it shouldn’t be a crutch for a lack of creativity. The author of the article brings up some valid points about the universal ability of classical mythology to convey thoughts and ideas to a new audience using, as she put it, “shorthand that can be called upon when personal or direct language presents difficulties.” And though I would agree with the timeless nature of the classics, I would argue that they are over used in some contemporary poetry, and serve as a template more than an inspiration. Simply reworking an old story into a modern one to make it more palatable for today’s audience is the poetic equivalent of a cover band; sure, everybody’s comfortable and familiar with it, but you’re not presenting anything new.
    I also found it interesting that at the beginning she relays the story of a poetry teacher having to provide background of classical mythology before progression in the study of a certain piece. This strikes me as odd; if you are a student of poetry how can you not be familiar with classical mythology? The oldest poems we have are the classics; I would think such knowledge would be a pre-requisite.
    Essentially, what I’m saying is that if you must cite a well-known classic to elaborate on an original idea, by all means do so; reference is a function of literature, however, reiteration is not creation.

  24. As a student, Greek Mythology sparks a lot of creative energy for me. The word mythology in and of itself evokes mystery and intrigue. To me the occult nature of it allows one to go outside their own comfort zone and creates a platform for an explanation of the puzzlement surrounding our Universe. We all seek to distinguish ourselves from others. Classical mythology laid the framework for us to do this through artistry and imagery. I can’t imagine not being able to construct Mount Olympus and the images of Greek gods in my mind’s eye. It should be required coursework for any student, literary majors or not.

  25. Yes, I believe that classical mythology has a place in contemporary poetry. To say that it doesn’t, is to say that discussing the human condition has no place in contemporary poetry.

    Throughout classic myths lie the eternal struggles of mankind. Our hopes and fears, our most paramount problems and questions, our relationships and our outlook on the future; all of these things are laid bare and showcased in the raw style of ancient mythology. The Greeks and the Romans analyzed and discussed what makes us human, what drives us, what destroys us… and they showed us just how much we all have in common no matter our backgrounds or origins. They captured both the beautiful and the dark parts of the human psyche. They show us both the irony and the beauty of the human condition.

    Is that not what the essence of poetry is? To capture raw bits of the spirit of life and the human condition—both good and bad? If so, then contemporary poets would do well to seek understanding and inspiration from our ancient predecessors.

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