As Ezra Pound wrote, great writers make it new. So Sophocles’ Ajax becomes Shakespeare’s Hamlet . . . becomes Simba in Disney’s Lion King. Huck Finn’s river turns to Kerouac’s road. To play this game with poetry, examine the following pairs of classic and contemporary poems, which share canonical themes and even characters. Listen in the contemporary version for echoes of the old masters’ voices, even as the language and the tone sound centuries new.
“The Instruction Manual” by John Ashbery and “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats
The speaker in Ashbery’s poem sits at a desk, about to write the mind-numbing prose of an instruction manual. Yet his imagination temporarily rescues him and, as in Keats’ poem, he doesn’t wish to end his reverie.
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
We have seen young love, married love, and the love of an aged mother for
We have heard the music, tasted the drinks, and looked at colored houses.
What more is there to do, except stay? And that we cannot do.
“Women” by Louise Bogan and “The Wife of Bath” from the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
While Chaucer’s Wife gains power each of the five times she passes through the church door to marry, Bogan warns that women would be better off if they never let themselves be carried over the threshold. Whether marriage is an escape or a prison, 500 years later, irony still seems the best conduit for the debate.
She hadde passed many a straunge strem;
At Rome she hadde been, and at Boloigne,
In Galice at Seint Jame, and at Coloigne.
She koude muchel of wandrynge by the weye. (She knew much of wandering
by the way.)
They wait, when they should turn to journeys,
They stiffen, when they should bend.
They use against themselves that benevolence
To which no man is friend.
“Having a Coke with You” by Frank O’Hara and “Sonnet XVIII: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” by William Shakespeare
After Shakespeare compared all of nature to his beloved and found nature wanting, some thought there was little left to say. But not Frank O’Hara, whose breathless lines—themselves a perfect counterpoint to the constraints of the sonnet—convey his feeling that the pleasure of sharing a soft drink with his beloved is greater than entire cities and works of art.
O’Hara’s love is superior
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary.
Shakespeare’s love is superior because
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed.
“Cold Calls: War Music” by Christopher Logue and Book 9 of The Iliad by Homer
Like the fierce, unappeasable Achilles, who stays true to himself, Logue’s translation of The Iliad stays true to the spirit of this epic. While Logue takes creative license with almost every line, his interpretation preserves the ineluctable pull of the greatest tragic hero.
In Homer’s version, Achilles is playing a lyre when his friends come begging for his help. In the same scene, here is Christopher Logue’s guitar-playing Achilles:
You cannot take your eyes away from him.
His own so bright they slow you down.
His voice so low, and yet so clear.
You know that he is dangerous.
“Language of Love” by Rae Armantrout and “Sonnet CXXX: My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun” by William Shakespeare
Armantrout’s poem doesn’t describe love: it uses patterned language and snippets of story and image to apprehend the feeling of love on the page. While this style couldn’t be further from Shakespeare’s, both poets superbly chisel their words in order to create new, heightened languages for love—even if, at times, their words can seem unromantic:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
He stroked her carapace
with his claw.
They had developed a code
in which each word appeared to refer
to some abdicated function.
“The White Pilgrim: Old Christian Cemetery” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly and The Book of Revelation
The pregnant speaker in Kelly’s poem searches through a cemetery for baby names and, like the writer of Revelation, sees dark portents and dreams of destruction. In plain language, set against the mundanity of babysitters and newspapers, where “there is not much left” that is holy, “The White Pilgrim” uses the apocalyptic Biblical text to create a sense of mysticism.
The God of Revelation warns, “I know your works.”
I know your works, God said, and that is what
I am afraid of. It was very hot that summer.
Even the birds were quiet.
“You Can Have It” by Philip Levine and Paradise Lost: Book One by John Milton
In Philip Levine’s version of a lost paradise, paradise isn’t a place: it’s his youth, and Heaven is his brother. Levine would gladly give back 1948 and the once-great Detroit for a brother whose back hasn’t yet been bent by disappointment.
Despite being kicked out of Heaven, Milton’s Satan remains defiant:
Hurl’d headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky / . . . down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.
Levine wishes his brother still retained that fire:
Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.