The Poets

September 15, 2009

Ηχω (Echo)

"That tongue of yours, by which I have been tricked, shall have its power curtailed and enjoy the briefest use of speech." (Hera to Echo. Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.365).


What beckons back is not the word
Of her whose voice I deem sublime:
I call, but repetitions heard
Reveal not Echo’s voice, but mine.

Of the Poem (Background):

Zeus was hardly the god of fidelity, an unfortunate fact his wife Hera became increasingly aware of (especially when it came to his attraction to mountain nymphs). Desiring to catch him in the act of infidelity, Hera attempts to secretly follow Zeus, but Echo (another nymph) would distract her with her attractive voice and attractive stories. When Hera realized this she punished the nymph by stripping away her ability to speak freely. The curse only enabled Echo to repeat the last words spoken by another- hence the name.

The quatrain above indirectly embraces an aspect of the story that is seldom thought about: Echo’s isolation. In it is a voice that calls out to Echo and waits in anticipation for a response. What rings back is an exact- albeit fainter- replication of the voice’s voice. It is Echo, but the conclusion is drawn that she is nowhere to be found, and that the returning voice is a mere repetition of the original call.

The unspoken tragedy of the poem is that it is Echo’s voice beckoning back, returning the call in replications she’s unable to break- replications so convincing, so exact, that the voice concludes the non-existence of a respondent. Her voice- once loved, even cherished by the nymph herself- is now the selfsame voice that produces a deception in its hearers, that keeps Echo forever in isolation. It’s the deception placed on the calling voice- repetitions heard / reveal not Echo’s voice, but mine- that magnify the punishment originally bestow by Hera (creating, as it were, a secondary punishment of eternal isolation).


I have so many isolated stanzas (as I call them) that I have a folder specifically dedicated to them. Ηχω, a simple quatrain, is grouped with these. The stanzas range from heroic couplets to tercets to octets. Each of them have been kept because I felt them to be complete, fully finished poems- this despite the fact that they’re simple stand alone stanzas.

This begs a question: How long must a poem be to be considered a poem? Is there a such thing as ‘too short’ a poem? I’m utterly comfortable calling an isolated couplet a complete poem (especially if it was intended as such). Ezra Pound certainly considered his In a Station of the Metro not only a complete poem, but a highly mature one. A haiku is an exceedingly short poem, and yet contains volumes of poetic imagery (some of the best in the world).

It seems impossible that a single word could constitute a poem; but how about two carefully placed words? John 11:35, the shortest verse in the Bible, has a very poetic feel to it ... yet it's only two words.

As for me, I know internally when I can dub a work of mine as a poem (short or not)- but would that hold true by definition? I guess what my curiosity wants to know is this: What’s the shortest poem ever written; and, how short is too short (if there is such a thing)? Feel free to give an opinion on the matter (short or not).

copyright © 2009


Nancy said...

You know I can never give a short response. LOL.

I love the poem (as always).It is sublime.
I love the title in Hebrew
I understand the soul of Echo.
I know the scripture without looking it up.
I love your search for the meaning/definition of poetry.
I love learning something new at every post.

Silly Google-- I only removed the 1st (identical) comment so I could click "Email follow-up comments." Sigh!

Walter Boyd said...

Hello John,

My name is Walt. I am a composer from Minnesota who is interested in writing a vocal piece for five voices. The premise of my idea is to scatter the voices around the room and compose echo-type effects between the parts. I stumbled upon your poem while doing some research and fell in love with it. I am giving a recital with the piece I am writing in April and was wondering if you would allow me to set this poem to music. I am not published therefore no monetary exchange would be made using your text but if something like that did come up, I would be prepared to contact you. Thank you for your time and again, I love the work. Cheers!


As of April 9th, 2010