Mythology can serve several functions in poetry. Myths are interesting in their own right as culturally resonant, compelling, amusing, frightening, or just intriguing stories, an engaging realm to explore. They are a reservoir of cultural knowledge, hopes, fears, and passions, of archetypal figures and situations, an inexhaustibly rich lode of charged materials that each poetic generation can mine and remake. Much of Western literature is built on allusions to mythology, particularly to Classical mythology and to Judaeo-Christian mythology, and much of it doesn’t make sense without knowledge of those myths. Myth can also be used to place one’s own experiences, thoughts, and feelings in a larger context, opening them up to realms beyond the individual, making them less purely personal and idiosyncratic, as Louise Glück does in Meadowlands, in which she treats her own divorce in the terms of the myth of Odysseus. One may not have access to Glück’s personal experience, or even care about it, but anyone has access to the stories in which she couches that experience in that book, and the myth opens up beyond the merely private.
Mythology presents gods and demigods and heroes who are projections and embodiments of human fears and desires and primal impulses. While we introject these feelings and experiences and call them, among things, the unconscious, the ancient Greeks, for example, projected them outward into figures and stories that enacted and embodied them. When one was in love, one was possessed by Aphrodite; when one was wise, one was being whispered to by Athene. The world of Greek myth is very plastic and capacious, but at the same time it has a great formal elegance. It is based not on ethical precepts or prescriptions but on the proper relations to power and desire, to forces that (like the forces of nature) are, in Nietzsche’s phrase, beyond good and evil, but which are always beautiful (keeping in mind that beauty can be both terrible and strange, that beauty is a danger as well as a seduction, and often both at once).
That combination of elasticity and capaciousness of emotional and intellectual content with shapeliness, that containment of force within form (what I have elsewhere called the confluence of glory and catastrophe), can serve as a model for what the poem should be and do. Myth is also similar to poetry in its formal operations. Myth is essentially metaphorical: like poetry, it translates “feelings” in the sense of emotions and thoughts into “feelings” in the sense of physical sensations; it takes the intangible and makes it palpable, embodying rage and anger in the figure of Ares, and for that matter embodying poetry’s transformations and seductions in the figure of Apollo, poetry’s patron god.
We should also remember that “mythology” doesn’t just mean ancient Greek or Roman stories, tales from ancient Egypt or the times of the Vikings. Anthropologically, the stories of the Judaeo-Christian tradition—the creation of human beings and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt (including the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea) and Moses’ delivery of the Ten Commandments from atop Mount Sinai, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the lives of the saints and their legends—are all myths. And these myths do the same things for past and current believers that they did for various ancient peoples: they make sense of a world that is rarely reliably or securely in our control, they reconcile us to tragedy and other painful events, they help us to deal with the intractable fact of death, and they project human fears, hopes, and desires outward into shapely figures and coherent narratives.
There are three main ways in which writers engage with myth, though of course these modes aren’t mutually exclusive, and all can overlap with one another. A writer can retell the myth, staying within the terms of the myth and basically giving another version of what’s already been written and handed down. This is, from my perspective, the least interesting way to approach myth—it adds little new, doesn’t explore very much or investigate or question. A writer can relive the myth, entering into it to explore a moment or a character, perhaps opening up an underdeveloped element in the myth, while still accepting the overall terms of the myth. Or a writer can revise the myth, questioning its terms, bringing out what it represses or excludes, giving voice to those whom it silences, giving presence to those it makes invisible. The German critic Walter Benjamin called this reading against the grain. This approach has been especially popular with women writers exploring and interrogating the role of women in classical myth, who are so often objects but not subjects of desire, spoken of endlessly but rarely getting to speak on their own behalf.
I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
Look like pigs.
I’m sick of your world
That lets the outside disguise the inside. Your men weren’t bad men;
Did that to them. As pigs,
Under the care of
Me and my ladies, they
Sweetened right up.
Then I reversed the spell, showing you my goodness
As well as my power. I saw
We could be happy here,
As men and women are
When their needs are simple. In the same breath,
I foresaw your departure,
Your men with my help braving
The crying and pounding sea. You think
A few tears upset me? My friend,
Every sorceress is
A pragmatist at heart; nobody sees essence who can’t
Face limitation. If I wanted only to hold you
I could hold you prisoner.
I have a fish’s tail, so I’m not qualified to love you.
But I do. Pale as an August sky, pale as flour milled
a thousand times, pale as the icebergs I have never seen,
and twice as numb—my skin is such a contrast to the rough
rocks I lie on, that from far away it looks like I’m a baby
riding a dinosaur. The turn of centuries or the turn
of a page means the same to me, little or nothing.
I have teeth in places you’d never suspect. Come. Kiss me
and die soon. I slap my tail in the shallows—which is to say
I appreciate nature. You see my sisters and me perched
on rocks and tiny islands here and there for miles:
untangling our hair with our fingers, eating seaweed.
Ulysses on the Way Back From Troy
Further west there was the bee-buzz of Sirens
impassioned like the jobless.
Already gone were the thick shoes
on the shore-rock as they changed to hooves.
Gone as well all souls
puffing behind the ship
like an ash-cloud in a slow wind.
Everything had come to be nude:
the voices munching in me like a riddle,
the women, the stones stripped
from the glue of snails.
But I chose them all and their opposites
while others take one and swear at life.
The god didn’t care. He let his hair
float up like seaweed, a magistrate
of water haunting his own country.