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The Classical Tradition Today

Watch Dr Kenneth Clarke explore the links between the classical poetic tradition and contemporary poetry in A. E. Stallings' poem.
I’ve chosen a poem by A.E. Stallings called ‘Song for the Women Poets’, which is from her 2006 collection Hapax. The poem very much engages with literary tradition, and especially literature in the Classical tradition. As its title suggests, it is explicitly directed a female poets, a group that is largely absent in this literature (with only a few notable exceptions, such as Sappho for example). A note of urgency in the opening line is suggested in that repeated imperative ‘Sing’, which immediately recalls the opening lines of epics such as the Odyssey and the Aeneid, where the same verb occurs.
The reference to ‘descending’ in the second line immediately invokes one of the most famous episodes in the Odyssey and the Aeneid, the descent into the Underworld, further suggested by the ferryman Charon, and the three-throated dog Cerberus. So it is clear in the first stanza that writing and descending go hand in hand. If Charon and Cerberus both represent guardians of the entrance to the underworld, the second stanza shows the next step, appearing before the King and Queen, Hades and Persephone, and the queen herself is described as wiping tears of kerosene on her sleeve. This is a place of grief, and the challenge is to write it.
The third stanza invokes the descent itself as a search for that which is lost, ‘The one you lost forever’, one who remains on the other side of a river that is ‘Black and sticky as licorice’. Stallings layers this poet figure descending with further
classical allusions: the ‘you’ figure glances down at the water and like Narcissus, sees an image ‘drowning in the weeds’, a reflection of sameness that ‘Could be your phantom daughter’. The word ‘phantom’ there evokes a ‘ghost’, or one who is dead, or perhaps also one who never was. The final stanza ends on an elegiac note, one part of ‘you’ leaves the underworld, another part remains behind; one part is Orpheus the poet, the other is she who he left behind. The female poet is thus caught between two identities, one associated with the masculine poet (Orpheus) and the other associated with the subject of poetry, the object of the poet’s love, Eurydice. The poem is also playful in its reception of Classical tradition.
While invokes the epic with ‘sing’ in the opening line, that singing is then connected to a ballad form, with its lines that alternate between trimeter and tetrameter. The ballad is a form associated with popular medieval poetry, and it was used by poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge in the Romantic period. There is also something humorous in the choice of words, where ‘kerosene’ or ‘licorice’ sound ‘modern’ at first, but turn out to be, in fact, Greek.

In this video, Dr Kenneth Clarke explores the links between the classical tradition of poetry and poetry today. Dr Clarke examines one of his favourite poems, ‘Song of the Women Poets’ by A. E. Stallings, and its journey through the underworld.

View ‘Song of the Women Poets’ by A. E. Stallings in the ‘downloads’ section – Copyright © 2006 by A.E. Stallings. Published 2006 by Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

Over to you

Consider these prompting questions and let us know what you think in the comments section. You may like to use these questions as a starting point for your comment, or you may choose to answer one specific question – we look forward to hearing from you!

What traditions is Dr Clarke discussing in this video?

How does Stallings’ focus on women poets in this poem inform your understanding of poetic traditions over time?

How much does an understanding of Greek mythology help your understanding of Stallings’ poem

Did it surprise you to be asked to think about ‘kerosene’ and ‘licorice’ as ‘perfectly Greek’?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments, below.

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