Getting inspiration when sticking to a theme: “Philomela”

My thesis adviser suggested that I think about incorporating Greek myths into my collection of poems. I took Latin and Ancient Greek from middle school up, so I’ve been steeped in that tradition since I was young and I’ve always loved the myths.

Yesterday,  I read through a summary of Ovid’s Metamorphoses to refresh me and see if any of the stories would hit me.

The myth of Philomela did. Philomela’s sister’s husband, Tereus, raped her and then locked her in a cabin. When she told him that once she escaped she would tell everyone, he cut out her tongue. She wove a tapestry with her story and sent it to Procne, her sister. Procne broke her out of the cabin, and in revenge, killed their son and served it up to him as a meal. After he had eaten it, she revealed what he had eaten, and he chased after the sisters with the intent of killing them. Before he could reach them, however, the gods intervened and turned all three into birds: Tereus into a hawk, Philomela into a nightingale, Procne into a swallow.

I chose to focus on the bird transformation, and I made Philomela a swallow instead of a nightingale because swallows have such distinctive plumage (a glossy blue) and the play on the word “swallow.” Many Greek myths have a strange bestiality (Zeus rapes Europa when he’s a heifer, Leda as a swan, etc.), and I was interested in playing with keeping the birds birds, but the story alive.

Right now, this draft is about four tercets and I haven’t figured out where to go after the rape (yes, the hawk does rip out of the swallow’s tongue, and swallows do have tongues, I discovered!), but I’m pretty pleased with where I’m at now. Here’s the first stanza:

The hawk lusted after the swallow,

dreamed of the soft rufous feathers

of her breast, short bill, forked tail.

Gathering together a selection of poems and then writing with a theme in mind does seem daunting, but by continually reading and going over works that incorporate what I want, I’m finding I can still be inspired. Next, I’ll be picking up Ted Hughes’s Tales from Ovid, where he revamps 24 of the myths from Ovid.

Unfortunately, the rest of the summary of Metamorphoses didn’t inspire me the way the myth of Philomela did, but I did read some gems like, “King Minos had been cursed by his wife; he ejaculated scorpions and spiders that would devour the genitals of those he slept with.” I’d love to insert something like that into a poem or a narrative, but I’m not there yet. Maybe the story will come to me that will work with that, and then the poem will follow.


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