Reviving kalliope: Four North American women and the epic tradition
Spann, Britta, 1979-
In English literary studies, classical epic poetry is typically regarded as a masculinist genre that imparts and reinforces the values of dominant culture. The Iliad , Odyssey , and Aeneid , after all, were written by men, feature male heroes, and recount the violent events that gave rise to the misogynistic societies of ancient Greece and Rome. Yet, in the twentieth century, women poets have found inspiration for their feminist projects in these ostensibly masculinist poems. The four poets in this study, for example, have drawn from the work of Homer and Virgil to criticize the ways that conventional conceptions of gender identity have impaired both men and women. One might expect, and indeed, most critics argue, that women like H.D., Gwendolyn Brooks, Louise Glück, and Anne Carson invoke their classical predecessors only to reject them and the repressive values that they represent. Close readings of these poets' work, however, demonstrate that, far from dismissing the ancient poems, Helen in Egypt , Annie Allen , Meadowlands , and Autobiography of Red are deeply invested in them, finding in them models for their own social critiques. The work of these four poets emphasizes that the classical epics are not one-dimensional celebrations of violence and traditional masculinity. Indeed, the work of Homer and Virgil expresses anxiety about the misogynistic values of the heroic code to which its warriors adhere, and it urges that war and violence are antithetical to civilized society. In examining the ways that modern women poets have drawn from these facets of the ancient works to condemn the sexism, racism, and heterocentrism of contemporary culture, my dissertation seeks to challenge the characterization of classical epic that prevails in English literary studies and to assert the necessity of understanding the complexity of the ancient texts that inspire modern poets. Taking an intertextual approach, I hope to show that close readings of the classical epics facilitate our understanding of how and why modern women have engaged the work of their ancient predecessors and that this knowledge, in turn, emphasizes that the epic genre is more complex than we have recognized and that its tradition still flourishes.