Friday, June 06, 2008


I've been mulling over Ruth Pitter's 800 line poem Persephone in Hades recently.
Despite having studied Classics at uni I don't feel that Greek and Roman myths and legends are part of my personal cultural heritage (I preferred the history, architecture and philosophy side), maybe it's because I never got to study it at school where we did the Vikings instead and I feel more of an affinity with Viking mythology.

Anyway, I'm not particularly predisposed to modern poems about Greek mythology but something grabbed me in the section of Pitter's poem available on the Happenstance website where I purchased it.

This poem was first published for private circulation in 1931 (only 100 copies printed) and until now, has never been reprinted. It is prefaced by Helena Nelson ( editor of Happenstance) who doesn't shy from pointing out the archaic language employed by Pitter throughout the poem. Yet despite the subject-matter and, at times, archaic language, this is a beautiful and engaging piece of work.
This is no flowery retelling of an old myth but beautiful, dark and powerful writing.

Here's some of my favorite lines in the poem:

'What is love's counterpart? Answer, Love only'

'The chilly mist that drifted in from the sea / hung in her hair'

'The pale urns of the autumn crocuses / admired her feet'

'upon the sable air
a powdered silver hung, as when the moon
before she rises, sends a herald light
to gild the naked shoulder of the hill.'

'the trees / naked from winter, shining like golden wire'

'and the fire of love
confessed in spangles; then became a sea
carnation-crested, with a myriad waves
each moment in vermilion deeper dyed'

8 comments:

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Sorlil, thank you for your comment on "Relief". I must say that while experiencing "the arrival" of a poem when the lines are taking shape I grope in a kind of uneasiness that I think is not very far from your ache.
Best wishes, Davide

anhaga said...

Sounds interesting. The lines you've gathered together as favorites make a nice, strange little poem in their own right.

Received my Poetry Scotland yesterday. Thank you. Your poems therein are lovely.

Ken Armstrong said...

Wow... I've only been mulling over The Radio Times...

To quote John Travolta:

"I'd better shape up."

Sorlil said...

hi Davide, it's a strange thing writing poems isn't it!

you're welcome james, thanks! yes I like how the lines sound together!

lol ken I read plenty tv mags as well, usually cheap, gossipy ones than The Radio Times which I only ever buy at Christmas!

shug said...

This is nothing to do with anything, but I see you're reading Lowell. What do you think of him?

I'm often much more attracted to certain poets' lives than to their work. Specially the loonies.

Sorlil said...

hi shug, I'm doing the rounds of some of the confessionals, just done reading Sexton, and now Lowell.

My interest in them is via Plath, I don't know too much about Lowell apart from what I've read in connection to Plath. In the past I was definitely more attracted to Sexton's strange life than her poetry but since rereading 'All my Pretty Ones' I've found a lot to value in her work that I previously missed.

I'm not so interested in Lowell, I don't know why, maybe it's because he's a bloke :)! Anyway I really like some of his poems in the selected esp 'To speak of the woe that is marriage'.

swiss said...

yup that maclean institute has a lot to answer for

Jane Holland said...

I reviewed Persephone in Hades for Poetry Review a few months back (out in the current issue, Summer 08) and found it a problematic read too. Mainly because I couldn't help comparing Pitter's style to that of modernist poets publishing epics at the same time ... Eliot, for instance, or Pound!

Vive la difference, perhaps, but I did think that poem was a bit too retro for the age, considering what else was available.

Good to see it being revived though, no question there. Just because an earlier work of substance wasn't entirely successful, either when it was first published or now, doesn't mean we shouldn't have access to it and be able to draw our own conclusions.

Especially perhaps when it comes to work by neglected women poets from the past couple of centuries, who have traditionally suffered at the hands of male-biased anthologists.