How well I remember the awe and exhilaration that possessed me upon first reading Shelley’s Ozymandias or Tennyson’s Ulysses, some thirty years ago. With the guidance of a good English professor, I witnessed the impermanence of power in Shelley’s vision of a toppled statue in the sand; my spirit soared with the irresistible quest for adventure of Tennyson’s Ulysses.
How quickly the gods of antiquity gave way to angel-headed hipsters and 20th Century everyman. And while these modern and postmodern incarnations are natural and inevitable, and very much my forte, I recently read a book that makes an excellent case for turning back to the classic forms.
Reading G. M. Palmer’s book of original poems, With Rough Gods, is like utilizing a precision slide rule or a pocket-sized handbook of knowledge. Palmer’s concise, confident verse is enhanced by the glossary of Greek mythology in the back of the book. For example, Before reading the selection on page 16, called “Apollo and Daphne,” I turn to the glossary and learn that Apollo is “the archer god of the arts and the sun” and, among other things, “his seductions of Amalthea, Coronis, and Daphne went poorly,” and that Daphne was “a nymph; when Apollo mocked Eros’ archery skills, Eros swore revenge. He shot Apollo with an arrow of love and Daphne with an arrow of hate…Daphne was pitied by Gaia who turned her into a baby laurel. Still infatuated, Apollo then made the laurel his sacred tree.” Now I understand more fully the lines in Palmer’s poem as, “My broken words return / in splintered shards of sound” and “With branches snapped and rough / Impossible to please”. It’s a fun way to read verse!
With so many modern poets eschewing rhyme and rhyme schemes (ABAB, ABBA, etc.), it’s refreshing to read verse that adheres to a specific structure. What makes it refreshing is that Palmer does it so well. I attended a reading by G. M. Palmer a couple of years ago. I remember him saying that poems were meant to be understood. David Yezzi, Executive Editor of The New Criterion, says, “In With Rough Gods, not only are the ancient dramas kept very much alive; they are made young again.”
The title of this blog entry is taken from the introductory poem to With Rough Gods by G. M. Palmer