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Medea’s Chorus

Myth and Women’s Poetry Since 1950


Veronica House

Women’s mythic revision is a tradition at the heart of twentieth-century literature. Medea’s Chorus explores post-WWII women’s poetry that takes Greek mythology as its central topos. The book investigates five of the most influential poets writing in the twentieth century (H.D., Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood, Eavan Boland) who challenge both the ancient literary representations of women and the high modernist appropriations of the classics. In their poetry and prose, the women engage with cultural discourses about literary authority, gender, oppression, violence, and age. Yet even while the poets rework certain aspects of the Greek myths that they find troubling, they see the inherent power in the stories and use that power for personal and social revelation. Because myths exist in multiple versions, ancient writers did not create from scratch; their artistic contribution lay in how they changed the stories. Modern female poets are engaging in a several millennia-old tradition of mythic revision, a tradition that has ruthlessly posited that there is no place for women in the creation and transmission of mythological poetry. Medea’s Chorus tracks mythic revision from the 1950s through the second-wave feminist movement and into turn-of-the-century feminism to highlight individual achievements and to show the collective effect of the poets’ highly varied works on post-WWII literature and feminist thought and practice. This engaging and beautifully written book is a must-read for any student, teacher, or scholar of the Classical Tradition, revisionist mythmaking, and twentieth-century poetry.
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How grateful I am that one summer twenty years ago, while home from college visiting my parents, I enrolled in Gregory Staley’s Introduction to Greek Mythology course at the University of Maryland. Greg has been my teacher, mentor, and friend ever since, and for his selfless and continual guidance and encouragement, I am tremendously grateful. As a ‘wise man’ figure in my life, Greg helped to guide me toward my belief in the power of myth. Also from the University of Maryland, I would like to thank Phillis Levin and Michael Collier. It was in their poetry workshops that I first began to make connections between myth and contemporary women’s poetry.

From the University of Texas at Austin, I wish to thank a whole host of people who supported me through my doctoral work, which culminated in a distant draft of this book. Chuck Rossman, Brian Breman, and Lesley-Dean Jones offered valuable criticism, ideas, and encouragement. Lisa Moore, whose insights and friendship in her Feminist Theory course helped me to first feel that I had found my community at UT. This project could not have happened without Liz Cullingford, my super-star director who offered such support, astute critique, and belief in my project. I thank her for her guidance every step of the way. I don’t know how I would have made it through those difficult years of writing the first drafts of this book without my wonderful group of friends in Austin who...

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