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“Everything Here is Conflictual”: American Women Poets Read the Iliad

Sheila Murnaghan

“Everything Here is Conflictual”: American Women Poets Read the Iliad

This paper takes Adrienne Rich’s “Reading the Iliad (As If) for the First Time” (2009) as a starting point for assessing the Iliad’s place in revisionist mythmaking by American women poets, a project Rich herself played an important role in articulating (especially in the essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision”(1972)).  In the tradition of women poets rewriting Greek myth that goes back to HD, the Iliad plays a much smaller role than the Odyssey.  HD evokes the Iliad only briefly as the source of certain images and the formal device of the catalogue, finding a more congenial route into the Troy legend through Euripides, who offers a clearer precedent than Homer for her own questioning and pacifist outlook.  Comparison of Rich’s poem with Linda Pastan’s “Rereading the Odyssey in Middle Age” (1988) points up one important reason for this discrepancy.  In both her earlier and her middle-aged encounters with the Odyssey, Pastan’s speaker is drawn into the epic through identification with Penelope, whose circumstances prompt rueful reflections on a wife’s responsibilities to her household and family.  And this is only one of many poems by modern American women that appropriate Homer’s Penelope in order to reconsider the expectations and opportunities that have traditionally defined women’s experience. 

The Iliad offers no such obvious invitation to identification with a sympathetic female character or the exploration of private, conventionally-female concerns.  Furthermore, Rich avoids the elements of character and narrative that might distract a reader from the Iliad’s status as a jarring testament to the nature of war: ignoring the Achilles plot, she trains her attention on the poem’s graphic depictions of combat and its assault on the body, beginning with the verbal distillation enacted in her first line: “Lurid, garish, gash.”  In this, she recalls Simone Weil, with whom she explicitly aligns herself in a footnote: Weil’s famous essay, The Iliad; or, The Poem of Force, begins by displacing Achilles in favor of force as the poem’s “true hero.”  In her choice of reading “(as if) for the first time” in contrast to Pastan’s “rereading,” Rich also reconceives the modern reader’s relationship to both personal and literary history.  Her reader is sharply discontinuous with her earlier self, newly awakened to the horror of war, and finds the Iliad more meaningful in relation to contemporary experience than to the classical tradition.  Rich’s reconfigured chronology makes the Iliad an answer to Keats, replacing “a grecian urn” as the bearer of beauty with “a wall with the names of the fallen/ from both sides,” a projected monument that combines the Iliad’s even-handedness with the restrained grief of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

One of Rich’s formulations of the Iliad’s essential meaning, “Everything here is conflictual,” connects with one of the few poems by a contemporary female writer that engages with the Achilles plot, Louise Glück’s “The Triumph of Achilles” (1985).  Glück’s explorations of the self, often mediated through figures from classical mythology, are rigorously unsentimental; in Meadowlands (1996) she presents a modern Penelope who is no more patient or conflict-averse than her thoughtless husband.  In “The Triumph of Achilles,” Glück turns away from the battlefield to foreground Achilles’ love for Patroclus, but nonetheless insists on the self-regard and competitiveness that temper even the most affectionate bonds.  Achilles grieves “with his whole being,” but he is also “abandoned” and a “victim,” and the disparity between him and Patroclus is not forgotten: “Always in these friendships/ one serves the other, one is less than the other:/ the hierarchy/ is always apparent . . .” As she incorporates into her account of personal relations the inescapable competition that fuels the more public realm of warfare, Glück shares Rich’s strategy of drawing on the Iliad to express an unsparing vision that stands apart from the gentler sentiments and domestic preoccupations that are too easily equated with women’s poetry.

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Responses to Homer’s Iliad by Women Writers, from WW2 to the Present

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