Classical Tourism in Debora Greger's Poetry

By Bryant, Marsha; Eaverly, Mary Ann | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 2004 | Go to article overview

Classical Tourism in Debora Greger's Poetry


Bryant, Marsha, Eaverly, Mary Ann, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This interdisciplinary, collaborative essay assesses the figuration of ancient Roman statues, temples, and excavated cities in poems by Debora Greger, arguing for an expanded sense of women poets' relationships to the Classical tradition. "Classical tourism" proves more accessible and flexible than the revisionist mythmaking that has drawn more critical attention.

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From the establishment of Classics as an academic discipline to the English gentleman's Grand Tour, ancient Greece and Rome have been a vexed and gendered inheritance for women poets. Alluding to its patriarchal canon is both a form of cultural capital and a means of gaining academic recognition. For poets as diverse as H.D., Rita Dove, and Carol Ann Duffy, it can serve as simultaneously a restrictive repository and a continuing source of inspiration. Eileen Gregory, among others, has noted that "Classical transmission operates within a seminal (patrilineal/fraternal) order" because very few of the ancient authors were women, and few of their texts survive (53). Even more off-putting are the roles ascribed to female characters in these texts, distilled aptly in the title of Classicist Sarah B. Pomeroy's pioneering book, Goddesses, Wives, Whores, and Slaves. Florence Howe, who edited one of the first anthologies of women's poetry, pronounced that mythological women offer "few heroines" for contemporary women poets (14). In addition, the translators and scholars of Classical literature were primarily male--as were their students--until women gained access to British and American universities in the 1870s and 1880s (Bolger 43). Rachel Blau DuPlessis best sums up the legacy's challenge for women: "To enter the classics is to confront the issue of cultural authority, for knowledge of Greek and Latin, formerly barred to women and certain males, was the sigil of knowledge and authority, the main portal of the liberal humanist hegemony" (17). Despite these obstacles, women poets' interactions with Classical texts have formed a significant part of both the modern literary canon and women's poetry studies.

Mythology has been a pivotal point in feminist debates about whether or not women can participate fully in the Classical tradition. When Debora Greger published her first volumes in the 1980s, feminist critics tended to see women poets as "working at once in and counter to" the established literary canon (Montefiore 14). Assessing American women's poetry, Alicia Suskin Ostriker coined the term revisionist myth-making to characterize poems that subvert Classical versions; the essence of this strategy "lies in the challenge to and correction of gender stereotypes embodied in myth" (216). In other words, poets can reverse gender dynamics and empower female characters by shifting them from subsidiary to central status. Modernist and contemporary women poets have given voice to such figures as Helen, Calypso, Persephone, and Eurydice. Yet such revisionism still works largely within the narrative contours of Homer, Ovid, and Virgil so that, as Jan Montefiore argued, the myths' prior meanings "either return to haunt the poem that overtly discards them, or vanish into witty analysis" (56). Indeed, the titles of some of Duffy's sassy revisions of mythic figures in The World's Wife (such as "Pygmalion's Bride" and "Mrs Sisyphus") reflect the difficulty of even imagining Classical women outside scripted gender categories. Thus women poets like Greger who engage the tradition inherit not only a gendered canon but also a conflicted critical legacy.

Part of this interpretive impasse lies in literary critics' focus on Classical mythology to the exclusion of the material remains usually considered the domain of Classical archaeologists and art historians. By the early twentieth century, women had achieved influential roles in both fields; for example, Harriet Boyd Hawes was the first American to excavate Bronze Age Crete, while Eugenie Strong published a definitive study of Roman sculpture (Bolger 44; Calder 160). …

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