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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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Conclusion: Feminist Mythmaking at the Crossroads


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Feminist Mythmaking at the Crossroads

Tired of the elite male monopoly on Classical mythology, many women poets writing between the 1950s and the present transformed previously silent, marginal, passive, or treacherous mythic women into heroines, turning object to subject. As a public forum for redressing personal and historical injustices, women’s mythic revision is a discourse of exposures and reversals. All of the poets in this study have challenged culturally weighted stories and have participated in the tradition of revision inherent in mythmaking.

H.D., Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood, and Eavan Boland wrestled with what was traditionally expected of them as women and with their sense of themselves as artists, a conflict embodied in their sometimes-frustrated attempts to revise male-constructed mythological literature. Part of their frustration grew from the clash of admiration and anger that they felt toward the classical tradition and canonical literature. These writers grew up reading Western culture’s literary canon, which posits that masculine experience equates to universal human experience, and that voices attesting to feminine experience must be marginalized and sometimes actively silenced. The project of revising both classical mythology and the high modernist revision of the classics has constituted a feminist act that represents a commitment to asserting a woman’s right to inscribe herself and her experiences into literature and to altering previously male-defined criteria for poetry. At times, those ← 121 | 122 → past stories represented so much oppression that...

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