Sunday, July 25, 2010


[image: Odysseus as a beggar in Ithaca]   

           . . .  and so the swineherd
Led his master, looking like
An old, broken-down beggar, leaning
On a staff and dressed in miserable rags.
. . .

           While [Odysseus] spoke
an old hound, lying near, pricked up his ears
and lifted up his muzzle. This was Argos,
trained as a puppy by Odysseus,
but never taken on a hunt before
his master sailed for Troy. The young men, afterward,
hunted wild goats with him, and hare, and deer,
but he had grown old in his master’s absence.
Treated as rubbish now, he lay at last
upon a mass of dung before the gates –
manure of mules and cows, piled there until
fieldhands could spread it on the king’s estate.
Abandoned there, and half destroyed with flies,
old Argos lay.

But when he knew he heard
Odysseus’ voice nearby, he did his best
to wag his tail, nose down, with flattened ears,
having no strength to move nearer his master.
And man looked away,
wiping a salt tear from his cheek: but he
hid this from Eumaios, and said to him,

“Eumaios, this is amazing, this dog that lies on the dunghill.
The shape of him is splendid, yet I cannot be certain
whether he had the running speed to go with this beauty.”

[Eumaios speaks, describing Argos]

“If this old hound could show
the form he had when Lord Odysseus left him,
going to Troy, you’d see him swift and strong.
He never shrank from any savage thing
he’d brought to bay in the deep woods; on the scent
no other dog kept up with him. Now misery
has him in leash. His owner died abroad,
and here the women slaves will take no care of him.
You know how servants are: without a master
they have no will to labor, or excel.
For Zeus who views the wide world takes away
half the manhood of a man, that day
he goes into captivity and slavery.”

Eumaios crossed the court and went straight forward
into the [Great Hall] among the suitors;
but death and darkness in that instant closed
the eyes of Argos, who had seen his master,
Odysseus, after twenty years.

~ Homer, The Odyssey, Book 17, translated by Robert Fitzgerald; except for the first four lines here, translated by Stanley Lombardo, and the three lines spoken by Odysseus to Eumaios, translated by Richmond Lattimore.


In her sequence, “Re-reading the Odyssey in Middle Age,” (The Imperfect Paradise), Linda Pastan has a poem in the persona of Argos.


Shaggy and incontinent,
I have become the very legend
of fidelity. I am
more famous than the dog star
or those hounds of Charon’s
who nip at a man’s ankles
on is way to the underworld.
Even Penelope wanted
proof, and Eurykleia
had to see a scar.
But I knew what I knew –
what else are noses for?
Men are such needy creatures,
Zeus himself comes to them
as an animal. I’ll take
my place gladly
among the bones and fleas
of this fragrant dung heap
and doze my doggy way
through history.

            ~ Linda Pastan


This is perhaps the least successful poem in the whole sequence, and no, it’s not fair to present this weak poem after quoting a moving passage in The Odyssey – but I am glad Pastan reminds the readers of this touching scene of recognition, the first one in the Odyssey.

For the Western reader, the dung heap calls to mind Job, in his poverty and sickness, sitting on a dunghill, scratching his boils with a broken potsherd. It is also interesting to ponder the parallel between Odysseus, returning to his palace in a beggar’s rags, and the wretched circumstances of his old dog, once the best hunter. Argos on the dung heap is almost a symbol of Odysseus, who gets rough treatment as a beggar, except from the swineherd Eumaios, who believes strangers and beggars come from the gods.

We know that Odysseus is not a beggar; the rags are only a temporary disguise. Later, the “divine Odysseus,” the “godlike survivor,” will be restored to his glory. And Argos too is momentarily restored to his former glory, in the account of Eumaios.

Note that the recognition is mutual; Odysseus tears up at the sight of the dying Argos, who wags his tails and flattens his ears, trying to greet him, but has no strength to approach him.

John Guzlowski commented about Pastan’s “Argos”: “It feels like a betrayal of the original poem, something that is good and true.”

Since the sequence is titled "Re-reading the Odyssey in Middle Age," we must assume that Pastan had Homer's version still vivid in her memory. The dog's thinking, Oh, I'm so famous, I'm the most famous dog in history, feels utterly false. Anyone who has ever experienced the warmth of a dog's affection when the animal greets you knows a simple, all-forgiving love that's beyond human capacity, except for saints and little children.

And this is in fact a heart-rending scene, both Odysseus and the dog "in rags." It reminds me of another touching scene, when the blinded Cyclops speaks to his favorite ram. Is it the affection and empathy that can exist between humans and animals? Is it the richness of detail? Both scenes have a soulfulness that resists intellectual theorizing; in a mysterious way, they let me know that the poet has known the depths of suffering. 

I hasten to say that Linda Pastan has written many excellent poems, including "Circe" in the Odyssey sequence. And, to reiterate, I am grateful even for "Argos," because it made me re-read Homer.

As for the death of Argos, I can’t help thinking of yet another biblical parallel: the “nunc dimittis” scene of old Simeon being able to die now that he has seen the promised savior (Luke 2: 29-32).

The name Argos means “bright” or “shining.” How simple great poetry can be! The wagging of that tail, the flattening of those ears – immortal now, shining. 


As an aside, I want to draw the reader’s attention to this passage in Homer:

You know how servants are: without a master
they have no will to labor, or excel.
For Zeus who views the wide world takes away
half the manhood of a man, that day
he goes into captivity and slavery.


The ancient Greeks highly admired areté, or excellence (sometimes translated as “virtue” or “manhood”). The word is related to aristos, “best” – the root of “aristocrat.” It seems obvious that a slave would not be motivated to excel, since he labors under duress, for the benefit of someone else. I found the passage very striking because it always puzzled me why some people had the will to excel, while others, generally the majority, did not. I observed this not only as a teacher, but also at any job I ever held, or, in the realm of leisure, in any exercise class I ever took. There were those who worked hard and aspired to excellence, and those who tried to get away with doing the least.

What Homer illuminated for me is how freedom enters into this “will to excel” or its absence. Slaves have no will to excel; they will not work a minute more than required; they try to minimize effort, and no one can blame them. But why do so many people behave as though they were slaves? They do not see themselves as free agents. Striving for excellence presupposes freedom. I feel the most free when I work the hardest – given that no one is forcing me to work with dedication, to “walk the extra mile.” There is a pleasure in doing something at the level of excellence. But perhaps the underlying and more basic pleasure is in knowing yourself to be free. 

                                [ Arete in Ephesus: Arete personified as a goddess ] 


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  2. I like Pastan, but it's interesting how weak this poem is, and I think the reason is pretty clear. She's playing it for laughs ("what are noses for"). I think this suggests something about a lot of recent poets. They are uncomfortable with the sentimental, basic emotions. Facing a scene like the one Homer offers, they don't want to appear soft, overly emotional so they fall back on humor. It's a shame. All the great writers are capable of true sentimentality.

  3. I totally agree with you. The fact that Odysseus, definitely a "he-man," can tear up seeing how the dying dog wants to greet him, and conceals this only because he needs to maintain his disguise, tells us that it was OK for ancient Greek warriors to cry -- when the occasion called for it. But it's not OK for modern American poets, at least for the majority of them. There's been a retreat from emotion -- Cecilia Woloch calls it "retreat from the human."

  4. I always think about something Holly Prado said in this regard: "If you're not going to at least RISK sentimentality, why bother? And I agree that the Pastan poem feels like some kind of exercise, some attempt to amuse an audience, and it falls really flat. All surface technique and no depth at all.

    Fascinating discussion about the "slave" mentality. As I understand it, the term "slave" shares its roots with "slav," that relationship having something to do with the slavic people who were captured and made slaves by the Ottomans. And since the word "slav" shares its roots with slowo, the Polish (slavic) word for "word,"-- "slav" having referred originally to those who could understand one another's language i.e., "people of he word" -- I've wondered if "slaves" are "people of the word," or if people of the word are in some way slaves? ;-)


  5. In ancient Latin, the word for slave was servus, but there were some linguistic changes during the Dark Ages . . . I can't pretend that I understand it. I remember my unease when I saw, in English, the word "Slavic." In Polish the word does indeed contain the root for "word," while the word for German appears to mean "no speech." Etymology is a murky realm, however, full of "false etymology," and I best stay away from it.

    It now seems to me that even the more admirable of Pastan's poems still don't take enough risk. It could be a matter of taking a narrower slice -- then even poetry, a miniature art form, can provide fantastic in-depth detail.

    Now that I'm turning to journalism more and more, I again remember the lessons from journalism classes: short sentences, short paragraphs, who-what-when-where, attention-grabbing title and first paragraph. Think small -- then the details unfold their power. Funny how that applies in many ways to poetry as well. I am also thinking of Brenda Hammock's response to my Underworld vs Journalism examples -- how she loved all of the journalistic poem, with its power of sparse but totally realistic details. I also remember that between a delicate and semi-mythic lyric, "First Frost," and a more journalistic "On an Escalator in a Shopping Mall," more readers preferred the Escalator poem -- realistic details, as long as they are not predictable, have that power, including an unexpected emotional depth. When Homer has Argos flatten his ears, we are moved. When Pastan has Argos "say" that he's more famous than other mythical dogs, we feel nothing (unless distaste). And a poem should always make us feel; well-chosen authentic details have that power. It's fine if a poem makes us think, but unless it connects with our feelings, it fails.

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