Broken Plank & Immortal Veil

Hyland Blog OK copy.jpg4175102506_fda658ff0a.jpgGuest post by Peter B. Hyland

In book five of The Odyssey, the sea goddess Ino comes to the aid of a storm-tossed Odysseus. She emerges from the waves and loans him her veil, a talisman that ensures he will arrive in one piece on the island of Scheria, his last stop before returning home to Ithaca.

Ino was once human, nurse to the young Dionysus in one prominent rendering from Greek mythology. Judging from all the stories our Greco-Roman friends have left us, her family life bore characteristics typical for the period–filicide, madness, frenzied escape into the sea and subsequent transformation into a divinity.

Despite Ino’s good intentions, Odysseus is suspicious. She urges him to jump overboard and swim for it, promising that the veil will protect him. But he decides to stay in his boat. He’s already been jerked around by the gods a few too many times. In Robert Fagles’ translation, Odysseus says:

No, here’s what I’ll do, it’s what seems best to me.

As long as the timbers cling and joints stand fast,

I’ll hold out aboard her and take a whipping–

once the breakers smash my craft to pieces,

then I’ll swim–no better plan for now.


I like Fagles’ use of “craft.” The word isn’t Greek or contemporary with Homer’s time (its origin is Anglo-Saxon), but it makes associations with creative writing easy. Some of us have spent long hours in workshops tending to our craft. Well, Odysseus’ craft is smashed to bits by a massive breaker, but he manages to straddle a broken plank, “riding it like a plunging racehorse,” as he ties the veil around himself before plunging into the brine.

This is a moment that fascinates me–Odysseus steadied by a broken piece of human construction (he built the boat himself on Calypso’s island), accepting a mysterious gift from the gods in order to survive. It’s an accurate metaphor for the poetic practice. Craft alone is not enough. You can spend years learning the nuances of language, verse, conceits, and the forms of poetry–and you must–but all that will give you is technique. Insight, wisdom, wit, vision…those come from somewhere else.

I’m no mystic, but I believe that forces outside the conscious self help to direct my work as a poet. I don’t mean Zeus or Jesus or Virgil’s ghost, who have all been important to the creative lives of other writers. Rather, I mean an elusive, uncanny intelligence that seems both a part of me as well as foreign. Maybe it’s just my subconscious. Maybe it’s too much bourbon. Whatever the case, I’ve come to rely on that voice, and like Odysseus I’m sometimes a little suspicious of its motives, but I’m rescued by it again and again.

To take this in a less spooky direction, as a reader I have a similar sensation when encountering certain poets. The first poem that ever really resonated with me was T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Prufrock’s crisis, his loneliness and ineffectuality, felt like my own. Reading the poem, I experienced an ambivalence peculiar to art: the awareness of vulnerability and the simultaneous feeling that the poem was saving me from the threat it describes. That voice in the poem, traveling from a place far beyond the self, had arrived to offer some comfort and protection, if only briefly.

I wonder if poetry isn’t fundamentally an attempt at rescue, a lifeline thrown out into the squall. Perhaps it’s the willingness to be rescued, too.

Photo caption: Leukothea erscheint Odysseus im Sturm, Friedrich Preller d. Ä. Found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/26095468@N04/4175102506/in/set-72157622975337646.

This is Peter’s fourth post for Get Behind the Plough.

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About Peter B. Hyland

Peter B. Hyland is the author of the chapbook Elegy to the Idea of a Child (Trilobite Press, 2009). His poems have also appeared in Ploughshares, New England Review, Green Mountains Review, New South, American Literary Review, Ecotone, and elsewhere. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and he serves on the advisory board of Glass Mountain, the University of Houston's undergraduate literary journal. He holds a BFA in drawing and painting from the University of North Texas, and an MFA in poetry from the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. He and his wife live in Houston, where he is a director of development at the Menil Collection.
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2 Responses to Broken Plank & Immortal Veil

  1. dlkfox says:

    This post strikes a chord in a couple of recent reads of mine. And I like how you tie internal and external inspiration together. A couple of thoughts:
    Internal/metaphysical inspiration:
    Just last night, I finished reading the chapter on poetic inspiration (from antiquity to modern) in the book “Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination” by Daniel B. Smith. As part of it, he discussed that little voice we (may) hear inside (perhaps outside) ourselves as we write — and how we describe such inspiration to others. The ancients would name the Muses or G-d. And moderns? Do we go the religious route or do we brave the label of mental illness?
    I think your post is a perfect example of our modern ambivalence about Inspiration. Why do we fear metaphor so? That someone might take us literally? At yet, whatever the source, whatever our nomenclature, not a one of us can deny the experience.
    External inspiration/encouragement:
    Gaston Bachelard, in his book “The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos”, explores inspiration/daydreaming/reverie. Regarding your comment on the resonance you found with T.S. Eliot, Bachelard posits that reading about crisis (say, Prufrock’s crisis) makes that situation tangible and limited and thus easier for us to deal with. “[The book] is at once a reality of the virtual and a virtuality of the real. Reading a novel, we are placed in another life where we suffer, hope, and sympathize, but just the same with the complex impression that our anguish remains under the domination of our liberty, that our anguish is not radical. Any anguishing book can, therefore, provide a technique for the reduction of anguish. [...] …When [the reader] becomes quite conscious of the *aesthetics of anguish,* he is quite close to discovering facticity. For anguish is factitious: we are made to breathe easy. And it is in that way that poetry — summit of all aesthetic joy — is beneficial.”
    Here are links to the two books I’ve referenced:
    http://www.amazon.com/Muses-Madmen-Prophets-Rethinking-Hallucination/dp/1594201102/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1269280515&sr=8-6
    http://www.amazon.com/Poetics-Reverie-Childhood-Language-Cosmos/dp/0807064130/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1269281046&sr=1-1

  2. What a serendipitous article to come across. I have always been fascinated with The Odyssey. My Robert Fagles edition is dog-eared and well-worn. I recently finished The Lost Books of the Odyssey, a new book by Zachary Mason, who is, of all things, a computer scientist specializing in artifical intelligence. But, my of my, he writes prose like a poet. Go figure. I have to tell you, Peter, I have been quite intrigued with your blog posts. Ploughshares needs to make you a regular contributor instead of just a guest. The ancient Greeks treated all guests well, thinking they might be gods in disguise. The editors of Ploughshares better check under your robes.