In this series ‘Teaching’ Poems for Children, Robert Hull selects an individual poem that is not often presented to young readers and suggests ways it might be used with them. Here he presents an excerpt from The Odyssey.
Wolves, lions, panthers, bears were roaming the grounds –
visitors she’d turned into beasts with her magic potions.
Our men weren’t in danger, the creatures only pawed
round them, fawning, swishing their long tails…
Then at the door they heard her singing, Circe herself,9
a spell-binding voice, as she moved back and forth
at her great loom.
Polites took the initiative and called out to her.
She opened the gleaming doors and stepped out to greet them,
inviting them in. In they trooped, not suspecting
a thing – except Eurylochus, who slipped away to watch,
smelling trouble. She showed the men to high-backed chairs,
then prepared them a drink – a bowl of mulled wine
with honey, barley and cheese stirred into it – into which
went the drug that would drain from their minds all memory
of home, of where they had come from and who they were.
Eurylochus saw them empty their cups to the bottom,
saw Circe smirk as she stroked each one with her wand,
saw them sprouting bristles and growing snouts as she drove
them honking and grunting into her pig-sties, their bodies
pigs’ bodies now, only their minds still left human.
She threw down acorns and nuts where they rootled
and rolled in the mud, snuffling and squealing.
Long fictions are useful quarries for poems. Stories can be arrested, and moments in them opened up, extended and re-shaped.
There are many moments in the Odyssey which are irresistible opportunities for writing this kind of interposed poem. Homer, gatherer of tales to forge into his own poem, would recognise the process. And since tales of metamorphosis, shape-shifting, are universal, it’s not surprising that this powerful episode grabs children as much as it haunts the older reader.
Is it too demanding, too daunting for children of – say – eight? Well, here’s a poem by a boy of eight written in response to the events on Circe’s island.
Circe gave us a potion
that was changing us into pigs.
Our ears got longer and longer
and suddenly our noses burst into snouts.
I said, ‘Hizuzschut icuzxhus hicuzxding.’
(Meaning, ‘What is happening?’)
Then our bottoms got wider
and we each felt a twitch there,
which grew longer and curled
and gave a big twirl,
then we finished changing into pigs.
The children were reading from a slimmed-down version of the Odyssey. Odysseus’ landfall and the events leading up to the men’s transformation into pigs were re-created in improvised drama sessions. The Circe poems emerged, a day or so later, from those.
I think it’s the splendidly liberated quality of its language that gives this boy’s poem such graphic immediacy. One hears a very-committed-to-being-a-pig voice in the imaginatively relished nonsense of ‘Hizuzschut’ etc, the half-comic unvarnished vigour of ‘our bottoms got wider’ and ‘we each felt a twitch there’. Then the two lines down to ‘twirl’ keep the action going, empathising with the metamorphosing no-longer-men through to the last line; he doesn’t even bother with the word ‘tail’.
For me this is a poem whose sense of involvement derives directly from speech improvised in a spirit of play and generally letting go. Letting go in order in immediate retrospect to gather together language like this.
The connection set up between improvised drama and the poem, especially in the beguiling context of shape-shifting, is too valuable to let go. Where next? There are, there were, many directions to go in. One can’t read far in collections of folk tales without encountering human beings turned into stone, into water, into stars, seals, monsters, and the rest.
Greek myth is full of ‘change’ stories. Dramatic improvisation of the juiciest moments in the Midas tale, to take just one, makes for total involvement. The story’s high moment is of course when Bacchus grants Midas his baleful wish that everything he touches should turn to gold.
There is a passage in Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid that recounts what takes place, blow by blow. As Midas washes his hands at a fountain:
The water that touched him
Coiled into the pool below as plumes
Of golden smoke, settling heavily
In a silt of gold atoms.
Children can construct the episode in dramatic improvisation, and out of what happens, as their unrehearsed speech re-creates it, when he touches fruit, leaves, stone, a blade of corn, and so on, they can work up their own poems – with Midas in the first person maybe. I’d read the whole of Hughes’ marvellous passage with children, for itself, and as a bridge to more poems drawing on other metamorphoses.
If it works, one can open out further; the children can read on and write more. A delicious Charles Causley poem comes to mind – ‘Mrs Mallarkey’; an Eve Merriam piece – ‘Once upon a time’.
A fertile process, then, to move from stories – versified or not, read or told – via improvised drama to making poems. Exhilarating, liberating, and fun. And not just for teachers.
Robert Hull , a schoolteacher for 30 years, is the author of two collections of poems for children, Stargazer (Hodder) and Everest and Chips (OUP). His Behind the Poem (Routledge) is a detailed study of children writing poems.
Versions of The Odyssey :
a fine prose version in Puffin Classics, The Odyssey , retold by Geraldine McCaughrean, 978 0 14 038309 6
The Odyssey of Homer , trans. Richmond Lattimore, Harper Perennial Classics, 978 0 06 093195 7
The Odyssey , trans. Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, 978 0 14 303995 2
Both these verse accounts are compellingly readable.
Folk tales – there are superb collections in the ‘Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library’. Their Favorite Folk Tales from Around the World (edited by Jane Yolen, 978 0 394 75188 7) has a long section on shapeshifting.
Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid is published by Faber, 978 0 571 19103 1.