I’ve been writing a series on how to incorporate poetry into your works through prophecies, myths, and riddles to give your worlds some depth and flavour. But what if you just want to write poetry? Here is your guide to writing myth-based poems.
Creative Interpretation in Mythopoetics
From Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno, to Tennyson’s series on the Arthurian legends, Keats’ various “Odes,” and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Drama of Exile” (in which the angel Gabriel and Lucifer have a conversation at Eden’s gates), poets have been writing about myths for as long as they’ve existed. There’s something in myths that speaks to us about the human condition, something that compels poets to explore them over and over again in verse.
Mythopoetics is the term for the creative interpretation of myths and stories. I’ve long considered myself a mythopoetic poet; I’ve written about biblical stories and Greek and Norse myths. What draws me to this genre is the freedom to engage with some of my favourite stories in a new way.
If you’re thinking of writing your own mythopoetic poems, here are some great examples to get you going.
“Leda and the Swan”
“A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
…………………………………….Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?”
—W. B. Yeats
In this poem, Yeats is writing about the story of Leda and the swan, in which Zeus disguised himself as a swan so he could rape Leda. She birthed an egg, and from it came Helen, who was married to Agamemnon; Helen then left him for Paris of Troy and thus sparked the Trojan War. Here, Yeats describes the attack, but he also asks questions about it.
What I find really interesting about this poem is the break at line eleven. This poem is a sonnet, which means it has to have a rhyme scheme and follow iambic pentameter. But Yeats plays around with those rules by splitting line eleven in two and dropping the second half down to the next line.
The first part of the stanza mentions the results of the Trojan War, “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead.,” but then it switches back to discourse about the rape: “Being so caught up, / So mastered by the brute blood of the air…” The caesura after “And Agamemnon dead” together with the extreme break in the line signals the switch in ideas.
“Narcissus and Echo”
“Shall the water not remember Ember
my hand’s slow gesture, tracing above of
its mirror my imaginary airy
portrait? My only belonging longing
is my beauty, which I take ache
away and then return as love of
teasing playfully the one being unbeing.
whose gratitude I treasure Is your
moves me. I live apart heart
from myself, yet cannot not
live apart. Is the water’s tone, stone?
that brilliant silence, a flower Hour,
whispers my name with such slight light,
moment, it seems filament of air, fare
the world become cloudswell. well.”
Echo was a wood nymph cursed by Hera to only repeat what others said; she was tasked to distract Hera by Zeus so he could (surprise, surprise) fornicate with the other wood nymphs. Echo fell in love with Narcissus, but he was repulsed by her and fell in love with his own reflection. He drowned while trying to embrace his reflection, and Echo wasted away until only her voice remained.
This poem includes both Narcissus and Echo’s voices. Narcissus is pretty clear; his is the dominant voice. Echo is represented in the italicized words at the end of each line, which echo the previous syllables, as in “remember / ember.” But, you can also read the italicized words together: “Ember of airy longing ache of unbeing. Is your heart not stone? Hour, light, fare well.” In this way, Echo has her own say.
“It was easy to forget.
Among the clouds that sighed
and broke at our touch
as we flew through their mist
on our way to Neverland.
It was easy to forget
among the green that swallowed
our separate forms as we walked
deeper into this earth;
it clung to our bodies
as if we had never worn clothes
that weren’t made of green.
It was easy to forget:
the mother waiting at home
asleep in her rocking chair,
the mother I would be
and already knew.”
Thanks to Disney, the story of Peter Pan is fairly well known. But this poem doesn’t mention Peter at all. Rather, it considers Wendy and her experience in Neverland.
What catches my eye about this poem is the repeated refrain “It was easy to forget.” The first two are followed by “among the clouds” and “among the green,” entreating us to ask “forget what?” It’s only when we get to the third that we get an answer: “The mother waiting at home / asleep in her rocking chair, / the mother I would be / and already knew.” Wendy is talking about the inevitability of growing up, and how Neverland made her forget it.
Writing Your Own Mythopoetic Poems
When writing mythopoetic poems, I think it’s important to ask yourself: why? Why do you want to write about myth? What is it about a particular story that inspires you? And, what is the new thought you want to introduce?
When I started my series, “A Field Guide to Norse Mythology,” my intention was to write about some of the lesser-known flora and fauna in Norse mythology, like the irksome squirrel Ratatosk or the cow Audhumla (who gets maybe two lines of verse in the whole of The Poetic Edda). I quickly found that I had to think deeply and create my own stories about them because there wasn’t a lot of source material.
Here’s my poem, “The (Old) World Tree.” It appeared in the book Area of Effect: Wisdom from Geek Culture.
“Yggdrasil, the fissured ash,
bends at the middle,
an old man with no cane
to lean on, just branches drooping,
heavy from holding up
the weight of the universe,
the only tree in a forest
Purple buds burst
to pinnate wings—the last leaves
to come out in spring,
and, if an early frost, the first
to fall in autumn.
Yggdrasil can’t even be bothered
to change their colour—they fade
to dull green
before making their feeble,
Yggdrasil is old—too old.
But, who helps it hold up its weight?
The Norns water it from their well,
but the dragon gnaws at its roots,
the harts nip at its buds,
and the squirrel scurries up and down
its trunk with his endless chatter.
Wouldn’t it rather fall over?
be chopped down?”
Yggdrasil, the World Tree, is the pillar of the universe. I wanted to write about Yggdrasil because it’s so integral to Norse mythology: the different worlds are centred around it, and it’s the site of many events. Since it’s an ash tree, and my idea for this series was to combine the mythological stories with the scientific facts you’d find in a field guide, I did some research. A few of facts about ash trees show up in this poem. For example, the older an ash tree is, the more fissured its bark becomes, and its leaves don’t come out until late spring. (One thing I wasn’t able to use—something I’m disappointed about to this day—is the binomial name for the European Ash: Fraxinus excelsior.)
Yggdrasil is old, and it’s assailed by a number of different ailments (listed in the third stanza). I immediately thought of an elderly person dealing with different health problems, and the metaphor just seemed to fit.
When writing your own myth-based poems, don’t be afraid to take risks. If there’s something you want to explore about a particular character or story, don’t worry about your interpretation “getting it wrong.” Also, don’t think that your first draft has to be perfect. Many of my poems went through multiple drafts before I hit on exactly what I wanted to say. By using colourful images and inventive line breaks—and pushing your own limits—you can come up with poetry that’s creative, enjoyable, and surprising.