Versecraft

"Eurydice On the Art of Poetry" by Shane McCrae

May 14, 2024 Elijah Perseus Blumov Season 6 Episode 9
"Eurydice On the Art of Poetry" by Shane McCrae
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Versecraft
"Eurydice On the Art of Poetry" by Shane McCrae
May 14, 2024 Season 6 Episode 9
Elijah Perseus Blumov

COME OUT TO CLEVELAND June 13th to hear David, Matthew, and Ryan read! 

 

Soundtrack to this episode

 

Topics discussed in this episode include:

 

-Au revoir until June! 

-"The Birth of Tragedy" by Friederich Nietzsche

-"The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde

-"Pere Goriot" by Honore de Balzac

-The aesthetic parasite

-"And Which of Them In Time Would Be Betrayed" by Derek Walcott

-"The Georgics" by Publius Vergilius Maro

-"The Metamorphoses" by Publius Ovidius Naso

-The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice

-"Portrait of A Lady On Fire" directed by Celine Sciamma

-"Eurydice's Footnote" by A.E. Stallings

-"Pulling the Chariot of the Sun" by Shane McCrae

-"Eurydice On the Art of Poetry" by Shane McCrae

-"The Inferno" by Dante Alighieri

-"The Odyssey" by Omeros

-"Eurydice" by Adrienne Su

-"Axel" by Auguste Villiers de L'Isle-Adam

-The Orphic imperative absorbs all

 

 

Support the Show.

BUY VERSECRAFT MERCH HERE.

Please subscribe, rate, and review! Thanks so much for listening.

You can leave me a tip, support the podcast, or request a commission here!

TikTok: @versecraft
Send me a note at: versecraftpodcast@gmail.com

My favorite poetry podcasts for:
Sharp thoughts and cutting truths (Matthew): Sleerickets
Lovely introspection and sensitive reflection (Alice): Poetry Says
The landscape of Ohioan poetry (Jeremy): Poetry Spotlight

Supported in part by The Ohio Poetry Association
Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

Show Notes Transcript

COME OUT TO CLEVELAND June 13th to hear David, Matthew, and Ryan read! 

 

Soundtrack to this episode

 

Topics discussed in this episode include:

 

-Au revoir until June! 

-"The Birth of Tragedy" by Friederich Nietzsche

-"The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde

-"Pere Goriot" by Honore de Balzac

-The aesthetic parasite

-"And Which of Them In Time Would Be Betrayed" by Derek Walcott

-"The Georgics" by Publius Vergilius Maro

-"The Metamorphoses" by Publius Ovidius Naso

-The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice

-"Portrait of A Lady On Fire" directed by Celine Sciamma

-"Eurydice's Footnote" by A.E. Stallings

-"Pulling the Chariot of the Sun" by Shane McCrae

-"Eurydice On the Art of Poetry" by Shane McCrae

-"The Inferno" by Dante Alighieri

-"The Odyssey" by Omeros

-"Eurydice" by Adrienne Su

-"Axel" by Auguste Villiers de L'Isle-Adam

-The Orphic imperative absorbs all

 

 

Support the Show.

BUY VERSECRAFT MERCH HERE.

Please subscribe, rate, and review! Thanks so much for listening.

You can leave me a tip, support the podcast, or request a commission here!

TikTok: @versecraft
Send me a note at: versecraftpodcast@gmail.com

My favorite poetry podcasts for:
Sharp thoughts and cutting truths (Matthew): Sleerickets
Lovely introspection and sensitive reflection (Alice): Poetry Says
The landscape of Ohioan poetry (Jeremy): Poetry Spotlight

Supported in part by The Ohio Poetry Association
Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

Versecraft 6-9: “Eurydice On The Art Of Poetry” by Shane McCrae

 

A brief announcement before I begin: in a few days I will be heading to France for the rest of the month, and so the next Versecraft episode will be released in early June. Thank you for your patience, and enjoy. 

 

            There is a certain kind of wickedness that is particular to artists. Those who are not artists themselves may not even be aware that such a wickedness exists. We have heard Nietzsche say that life is only justified as an aesthetic phenomenon, and we have heard Oscar Wilde in the voice of Lord Henry Wotton, and before him, Balzac in the voice of Vautrin, say that one’s life is best viewed as a work of art. There is wisdom in such pronouncements, for they bring us closer to what we assume must be the mind of God, who creates purely for the splendor of doing so. Of course, we cannot take this train of thought too far, else we shall ourselves become as amoral as God and Nature appear to us to be. Moreover, we would fall victim to the paradox that when morality is sacrificed in service to beauty, beauty itself is cheapened. What is most beautiful, to human eyes, must always also possess the aspect of rightness. 

            Anyone can attempt to live their life aesthetically, to holy or diabolical results. For the artist however, the stakes and risks are somewhat different, because they have dedicated themselves to producing an aesthetic product which is fueled by their life experience. Hence, it is tempting for the artist to view their life experience not as an artistic end in itself, but as a means to their own artistic ends. The artist is a parasite on their own life, and if they are not careful, their aloof and mercenary attitude toward their own experiences may be spiritually toxic not only to themselves but to others. It is risky enough to choose to observe one’s life as if it were a play; how much more so, to observe one’s life as a poacher, hunting for the meaningful experience to slaughter for the good of one’s poem. 

Brian Brodeur, who has one of the best Facebook accounts for poetry, recently posted this sonnet by Derek Walcott which beautifully articulates the problem. Taken from Walcott’s autobiographical epic, “Another Life,” it goes like this:

 

And which of them in time would be betrayed

was never questioned by that poetry

which breathed within the evening naturally,

but by the noble treachery of art

that looks for fear when it is least afraid,

that coldly takes the pulse-beat of the heart

in happiness; that praised its need to die

to the bright candor of the evening sky,

that preferred love to immortality;

so every step increased that subtlety 

which hoped that their two bodies could be made

one body of immortal metaphor.

 The hand she held already had betrayed

them by its longing for describing her. 

 

Here, a meaningful romance between an artist and the woman he loves is threatened by “the noble treachery of art,” which “coldly takes the pulse-beat of the heart/ in happiness,” so that it may make, of their union, “one body of immortal metaphor.” The woman herself is betrayed by the artist’s “longing for describing her.” Romantic love, one of the most profound experiences of life, becomes to the over-eager artist a gleeful source of profit, an experiential gold mine for his own poetry. The woman herself, the relationship itself, is secondary. All artists, to varying degrees, must reckon with this sociopathic impulse to value powerful interpersonal experiences primarily as fodder for the manufacture of art. 

            In Virgil’s Georgics, and later, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, we learn the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus is a son of Apollo, the greatest poet and musician to ever walk the earth, who can sing so beautifully that the beasts of the forest congregate to listen to him, and the rocks and trees dance for joy. Eurydice is a gorgeous young nymph. The two are deeply in love, and preparing to be wed, when disaster strikes—while out gathering flowers, Eurydice is bitten on the ankle by a venomous snake, and dies. Distraught, Orpheus vows to do for his love what no mortal has ever attempted before—go down to the underworld and get her soul back. Through his musical and poetic ability, he is able to charm the ferryman Charon enough to receive a crossing over the River Styx, and thereafter to convince Hades and Persephone to allow him to take the shade of Eurydice back to the realm of the living. 

Hades, however, who is cold-blooded and only wishes to humor his swooning wife, includes a fatal proviso: While escorting Eurydice back up to earth, Orpheus must not turn back to look at her—if he does, he will lose her forever. Orpheus agrees, and begins to lead Eurydice out of the underworld. Eventually, however, his longing, impatience, and doubt get the better of him, and right before he ascends into the daylight, he turns to look at his beloved, only to see her drifting away from him back into the darkness, never to return. Overwhelmed by grief, Orpheus emerges alone, and thereafter wanders the countryside, singing of lost Eurydice, until he is eventually torn apart by maenads, the frenzied disciples of Dionysus. 

Much has been made of this simple story, including not only countless literary retellings but an entire mystery religion known as Orphism. In particular, a great deal of speculation has surrounded Orpheus’s aggravating and seemingly idiotic decision to turn around. Was the sheer force of his love really at fault, or is there a darker explanation? 

In the recent, critically acclaimed French film, Portrait of a Lady On Fire, three girls who are reading Ovid together debate this very topic. One, Marianne, denies that Orpheus could have been motivated by love. Speaking of his turning, she says: “He could resist. His reasons aren’t serious. Perhaps he made a choice. He chooses the memory of her. That’s why he turns. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.”

Marianne is not alone in thinking this. Many have seen in Orpheus not only the prototype of the artist, but the prototype of the selfish artist who sacrifices everything, including his love and his loved ones, upon the altar of his art. 

The great contemporary poet and current Oxford Professor of Poetry, A.E. Stallings, whom I’ve covered on Versecraft before, has a poem on this theme from Eurydice’s perspective, which she treats with her characteristic combination of playfulness and sympathy. It is entitled “Eurydice’s Footnote,” and begins with an excerpt from the scholarship of renowned classicist C.M. Bowra, which serves as an epigraph:

 

“A single Hellenistic poem, on which Virgil and Ovid drew freely, made a vitally important change by turning the recovery of Eurydice, whether complete or temporary, into a tragic loss.” 

 

The poem then begins:

 

Love, then, always was a matter of revision

as reality, to poet or to politician, 

is but the first rough draft of history or legend. 

So your artist’s eye, a sharp and perfect prism,

refracts discreet components of a beauty

to fix them in some still more perfect order

(I say this on the other side of order

where things can be reinvented no longer).

 

Still I recall, at times, the critical moment 

when nothing was so difficult as you had wanted,

and knowing my love would grow back for you like any crop,

you turned your head, an inhospitable, cold planet

(your eyes—flash, flash, like sickles)—

how the sun grew far away again and small

as a red eye at the telescope’s far tapering.

Life proved fickle as any lover. 

 

I still imagine your explanation, were it to come,

as in some catalogued and hardbound learned journal

speaking with 100 iron tongues of respected criticism:

 

Disappointment in the end was more aesthetic

than any merely felicitous resolution. 

            

In the voice of Eurydice, Stallings wittily compares the literary revision of the Orpheus myth into a tragedy to Orpheus’s own artistically tactful decision to abandon Eurydice, thereby aesthetically enriching his own narrative. Like a politician, Eurydice says, a poet will warp narratives to suit their own devices, and will arrange reality according to their own vision of order, beauty, and meaning. Eurydice claims that, for Orpheus, reuniting with her was too pat and boring a conclusion to his quest, and he therefore coldly abandons her. Moreover, she imagines him explaining, with the fusty ethos and authority of literary criticism: “disappointment in the end was more aesthetic/than any merely felicitous resolution.” Stallings’ metatextual interpretation of Orpheus as conscious creator and critic of his own narrative is both a compelling reading of the myth as well as a hip nod to the Postmodern milieu in which her poem was written—this is an Orpheus for the late 20th century. The poem may also implicitly function as a gentle critique of the contemporary fad for autofiction and confessional writing, wherein writers use and often abuse their relationships with others as materials for artistic creation, and strain the facticity of events to suit their own literary purposes. 

I would now like to turn to another poem on the artistic selfishness of Orpheus, also from the perspective of Eurydice, but of an entirely different tone and character, and possessed of a more radical reinterpretation. Before I do, however, I must introduce you to the fascinating poet behind it: one of the most ambitious, idiosyncratic, and successful metrical poets writing today, Mr. Shane McCrae. 

The story of McCrae’s life is stranger than fiction, and anyone curious about it would do well to read his recently published memoir, Pulling the Chariot of the Sun. Born in 1975 in Portland, Oregon to a white mother and black father, McCrae was kidnapped at the age of three by his white grandparents, abusive racists who claimed that McCrae’s father abandoned him and that he himself was white. Confused and traumatized, McCrae resolved to give up on life, and deliberately failed all of his classes from 6th grade on. At the age of 15, he discovered the despairing, suicidal work of Sylvia Plath, and, like a thunderbolt, realized that his suffering too could have a voice. He became obsessed with poetry, and devoured every book on it that he could, even as he continued to disregard his academic studies. At 18, he dropped out of high school and got his G.E.D., just as he became a father to his newborn child. Despite such stressful circumstances, McCrae was now determined to fulfill his literary destiny, and at 21 enrolled at community college, and eventually earned an undergraduate degree in creative writing from Linfield University. During this time, he discovered with surprise that the English poetry he was most drawn to was that of the late 16th century, and Spenser and Sidney became foundational authors for him. 

He then received his MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and enrolled at Harvard Law, where, aside from his jurisprudential studies, he had the opportunity to poetically apprentice under Jorie Graham, who helped him to develop his signature style, of which we will have a taste in a moment. Afterwards, he returned to Iowa for an MA, and began to release his first books to critical acclaim. Now armed with an impressive CV, he became assistant professor at Oberlin in 2015, where he taught for two years, before attaining a professorship at Columbia, where he is now tenured. A deeply impressive trajectory by any measure. 

McCrae is famously prolific and has released eight books of poetry since 2011. Over the years, he has won a plethora of prizes, including the Whiting Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and a Guggenheim fellowship. McCrae’s poetry is a kind of perfect storm: eminently suited to the current zeitgeist, it is also innovative and visionary enough to transcend it. Identitarian, political, and sometimes confessional, it is also dazzlingly theological, fantastical, and linguistically inventive, marrying accounts of personal trauma to spiritual vistas worthy of Blake, critical explorations of systemic racial oppression with startlingly original mythopoesis, and Renaissance orthodoxy of meter with avant-garde strategies of lineation, sound-play, and typography. He is a true original, and unquestionably one of the most important poets writing today. 

One of McCrae’s most intriguing approaches is to take a well-known story, often a Greek myth, and re-invent the circumstances of the narrative to make it fresh and strange. Today’s poem is just such an example, one which deepens the conversation we have already explored on the subject of Orpheus and artistic selfishness. It is called “Eurydice On the Art of Poetry,” and it goes like this:

 

The story you have __ heard is false __ it’s true
 He sang for me __ and true he lulled the god
 Who didn’t care to fight him __ easily
 The god is like us all __ the blood of the dead

 

Is made wine by their sorrow some __ don’t argue
 And others never stop __ I followed him
 Yes but he wasn’t __ told he couldn’t look
 He didn’t look because he felt ashamed

 

I know now he already had the poem
 Finished or nearly __ so before he left
 For the underworld __ he didn’t come for me
 He came to check the details __ he had thought

 

He’d fail to win me back __ and in the end
 Yes __ at the mouth of the cave he just ran off
 I think he didn’t know what else to do
 I didn’t follow him __ it was a relief

 

To be allowed to keep my death __ I heard
 The poem first in the spring __ sung by a new
 ly murdered boy who didn’t know my name
 When he was told my name __ why should he have

 

I wasn’t in the poem __ the poem was true

 

            One of the disadvantages of this auditory medium is that I am unable to convey to you the formatting of the poem, which is key to McCrae’s signature style. I therefore suggest that, if you are able, you pause and pull up the text of the poem, which you can find in the show notes. On first glance, you will see that the poem looks very contemporary, even forbiddingly so—there is no punctuation to speak of, abrupt enjambment, and the lines are broken up with a smattering of tabulated spaces, which, like the em-dashes in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, create artificially imposed caesurae which unsettle the poem’s rhythm and meaning and may even disorient the reader. 

All of these strategies combine to allow the poem a maximal diversity of readings. Hovering above grammar in a kind of limbo of pre-utterance, the words of the poem take on the emphasis, and therefore the interpretation, of the one who reads them, and while the conspicuous spacings sometimes coincide with the natural rhythms of the sentences, oftentimes they do not, forcing the reader to pause in places they did not expect. These pauses in turn create new phrases, and force the reader to remain perpetually aware of the language as language, the words as words that have multiple senses, meanings, and contexts. 

And yet, despite these experimental techniques, the poem turns out to be, on closer scrutiny, not only surprisingly clear and comprehensible, but resolutely metrical. Apart from a trochaic or anapestic substitution here and there, the poem is unabashedly iambic pentameter. McCrae is thus able to have his cake and eat it too— his poems have all the benefits which meter confers, but they look like contemporary free verse. As a result, the general public, the majority of whom don’t know a dactyl from a pterodactyl, do not pick up on and are therefore not scared off by his aesthetic conservatism. 

Let’s now read through the poem again. This time, I will pause noticeably at each of the white spaces, so that you can get a sense of how they impact the meaning of the poem. Once again, this is “Eurydice On the Art of Poetry:” 

 

The story you have __ heard is false __ it’s true
 He sang for me __ and true he lulled the god
 Who didn’t care to fight him __ easily
 The god is like us all __ the blood of the dead

 

Is made wine by their sorrow some __ don’t argue
 And others never stop __ I followed him
 Yes but he wasn’t __ told he couldn’t look
 He didn’t look because he felt ashamed

 

I know now he already had the poem
 Finished or nearly __ so before he left
 For the underworld __ he didn’t come for me
 He came to check the details __ he had thought

 

He’d fail to win me back __ and in the end
 Yes __ at the mouth of the cave he just ran off
 I think he didn’t know what else to do
 I didn’t follow him __ it was a relief

 

To be allowed to keep my death __ I heard
 The poem first in the spring __ sung by a new
 ly murdered boy who didn’t know my name
 When he was told my name __ why should he have

 

I wasn’t in the poem __ the poem was true

 

            From the first line, we know this poem is going to be a revision of the story we know. The story we have, which is the story we have heard, is false. Orpheus did indeed sing for Eurydice’s release, did indeed persuade Hades to release her shade. Hades, Eurydice says, didn’t care to fight Orpheus easily. The dramatic pause before “easily” here shows a clear example of how McCrae uses these gaps to play with expectation. Hades did not want Orpheus to succeed, but he also did not want to deny him outright. Instead, he decided to play a little game which he assumed would go in his favor, but which increased the difficulty of his goal. In doing this, Eurydice says, “the god is like us all.” 

We too often prefer to solve our problems discretely and indirectly, especially when they involve others, and we may even deliberately create challenges for ourselves to satisfy our intelligence or vanity, even at the cost of being cruel. McCrae reminds us that one of the allures of Greek mythology is that its stories show us how people just as imperfect as ourselves would act if given unlimited power and unlimited life—the answer, often, is monstrously. 

Suggesting the eucharist, Eurydice then says: “the blood of the dead is made wine by their sorrow.” We may be puzzled by what this means, but she then goes on to say: “some don’t argue/ and others never stop.” We can thus gather that she is saying that after death, having been robbed of life’s delights, one’s grievances are all one has left to savor. Some choose to brood silently, while others wax loquacious about their suffering. We may detect here a Dantesque influence. As in The Inferno, the souls are statically self-absorbed in their sadness, and some feel compelled to speak. The connection of blood to speech also recalls The Odyssey, where, in order for the dead to speak to the living, they must consume a portion of blood. 

We then are notified of the major revision to the classic story: at no point did Hades actually command Orpheus that he could not look back at Eurydice. Rather, Eurydice says, Orpheus doesn’t look at her because he is ashamed. Why? Because he had not actually intended to succeed in getting her back. From the beginning, his intention was to use his lost love as an occasion for a great poem, and he only went down to the underworld to “check the details,” as one might travel to the Amazon before writing about the howler monkeys. Here, Orpheus is made to look arguably even worse than in the Stallings poem. There, he had abandoned Eurydice in mid-journey, making a snap decision to favor his art over his love. Here, his choice to abandon his so-called love is entirely premeditated, and he is even willing to go down to the underworld and give Eurydice false hope just so that he can get the details right in the poem he is working on. 

Just as he is about to succeed in rescuing Eurydice, Orpheus, overcome by shame and frustration, childishly runs off, and Eurydice, rather than being powerlessly sucked back into Erebus, chooses not to follow him. Clearly, neither are particularly interested in continuing the relationship. Eurydice, for her part, is relieved to be allowed to keep her death. Perhaps she too, like the other shades of the dead described earlier, is content to savor her own sorrow. As Adrienne Su puts it, in yet another poem from Eurydice’s perspective: “fulfillment/did come to pass, each of us dwelling forever/in what could have been, for the other.” As Orpheus may have found it more aesthetically satisfying to abandon Eurydice, so may Eurydice have found it more aesthetically satisfying to be abandoned, each secure in the preservation of their ideal. One is reminded of that archetypal Symbolist play, Axel, in which two lovers commit suicide together because they know that life will never measure up to their dreams of one another. 

            Later, Eurydice finally hears the poem Orpheus has written, sung by a newly murdered boy—note the harsh but bone-chilling enjambment here— who is not familiar with her name, because it is absent from the poem. Though it is hard to imagine why Eurydice would be absent from the poem—after all, what is the poem about then?— this closing detail marks the ultimate break between love and art, with art triumphing utterly. As Orpheus abandoned Eurydice for artistic ends, so has he excised her from the poem for artistic ends. Eurydice remarks, probably with a mixture of bitterness and resignation, that the poem is true—true in the sense that the lack of herself in the story accurately reflects the lack of importance she ended up having for Orpheus. 

For the artist, it is far more convincing to conceive that Orpheus— who represents all artists— was calculating and selfish than that he was simply a lovestruck idiot. Nearly every artist has, gnawing in their mind, the same impulse to distance themselves from their own experience and exploit it for their art. To what extent one acts on this impulse varies, but the impulse itself is arguably necessary for creation, even as it alienates one from the immediacy of living. The abundance of poems which deal with this impulse show the impulse itself at work, the artist drawing on their own spiritual struggle to articulate something of truth and beauty. The Orphic imperative absorbs everything, even angst concerning itself. 

With all that we’ve learned and explored, let’s read through this poem one last time, as an old friend:

 

The story you have __ heard is false __ it’s true
 He sang for me __ and true he lulled the god
 Who didn’t care to fight him __ easily
 The god is like us all __ the blood of the dead

 

Is made wine by their sorrow some __ don’t argue
 And others never stop __ I followed him
 Yes but he wasn’t __ told he couldn’t look
 He didn’t look because he felt ashamed

 

I know now he already had the poem
 Finished or nearly __ so before he left
 For the underworld __ he didn’t come for me
 He came to check the details __ he had thought

 

He’d fail to win me back __ and in the end
 Yes __ at the mouth of the cave he just ran off
 I think he didn’t know what else to do
 I didn’t follow him __ it was a relief

 

To be allowed to keep my death __ I heard
 The poem first in the spring __ sung by a new
 ly murdered boy who didn’t know my name
 When he was told my name __ why should he have

 

I wasn’t in the poem __ the poem was true