Poetry in film – February – O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Yes. I know. It’s March. What happened to February? I still can’t believe it’s gone.

My plan for February was to watch O Brother, Where Art Thou?  by the Coen brothers. The DVD is ready and waiting on a shelf I pass multiple times a day. It’s at eye level and I look at it each time I pass by. I just haven’t been able to watch it.

Despite that, the film and its distant, loose connections to The Odyssey have been on my mind.

In the meantime, my real purpose in this ‘poetry in film’ project (which sounds so much better than distraction, tangent, avoidance strategy …) was to think about the poems. There should be time for the film over the Easter break but I’m going to jump ahead and riff a bit about the poem now.

A late arrival

I came to The Odyssey late. I dipped into it as necessary when I was an undergrad. I watched friends work with it as part of their studies of Ancient Greek. I wished I could fit Ancient Greek into my own program. I couldn’t. I let it go.

I have fond memories of Sunday mornings in the ’90s watching Tony Robinson’s Odysseus, The Greatest Hero of Them All. I loved that. Robinson’s storytelling on windswept beaches and that great grey coat (and was there a red scarf? a pinkish one?) has stayed with me. Rik Mayall’s Grim Tales was also part of my television viewing at this time. I remember there was cracking storytelling from both Robinson and Mayall.

From time to time there were brief excursions into episodes along the way. Links to a short story here, a conversation about Homer/epic poetry/oral traditions there. It would come up – as you’d expect – in discussions about the hero’s journey and archetypes.

I didn’t read the poem in full until I was in my thirties. I still haven’t learnt any Ancient Greek* so I read it in translation – a Penguin Classics edition by E. V. Rieu, D. C. H. Rieu and Peter Jones and the Robert Fagles translation that I’ve realised is missing from my bookshelf and will need to be replaced. (Yay for shiny new copies!)

I read the Rieu et al version at the height of summer, stretched out on the floor very close to a fan. It was perfect reading for ridiculously hot days that stretched into hideously hot weeks.

I loved the unevenness of the narrative line. When I finished The Odyssey I jumped straight to The Iliad. It was that sort of summer.

poetry in film check in february book pile
Ready and waiting

A recent encounter

In the past few months, The Odyssey has been popping up. It could be I’m noticing it because I knew I would be thinking about it as part of the schedule I set myself. One of those, I just bought a red car, now all I notice is red cars scenarios.

The most striking encounter was when I caught The Epic (Finn O’Branagain and Scott Sandwich) as part of this year’s Perth Fringe Festival. That was an hour of whirlwind storytelling that looked at some of the ‘big’ stories from across the world over history. The show included a captivating demonstration of the ripples of the story that continue to be felt. (I won’t go into detail because I’d hate to spoil it for you if you ever get to see it. You never know…)

I had gone to the show because I thought there was a bit about Macbeth (there wasn’t). The Odyssey turning up was a timely bonus.

The Muse and magic

The Odyssey opens with an invocation to the Muse. As it’s an epic poem, I’m guessing that is Calliope. The invocation rests in ritual and the sacred. It also makes sense for the poem as a spoken performance. It not only calls the muse but captures the audience.

The telling of the story begins with an incantation.

Perfect. So much of storytelling is weaving a spell. I love that drawing in – and being drawn in. There is also the appeal of an external (or it could be internal) driver.

The invocations in Homer’s The Odyssey, its companion The Iliad, Virgil’s The Aeneid and in later poems such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost and, with a slightly different  purpose, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene offer up the poem as something not only created but inspired.

The lit-nerd in me quite likes the idea of reading just the invocations and doing a formal comparison of what they seek and what they offer.

There are all sorts of arguments against inspiration and for the hard graft of day in-day out work, but there’s a part of me that loves the idea of an otherworldly – if not divine (and these days I’m more atheist than agnostic …) – spark as the impetus of a work.

Why not begin with an invocation to a muse, human, divine or otherwise?

Peacock close up
A muse of sorts

*One day I hope to read it in the Ancient Greek. For now, though, translations have to do. After this thesis is done. Latin has a higher priority. And Middle English, for that matter. I’ll be in my 50s. Excuse me while I process that …

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