The Song Under The Song | Poetry Review: Orpheus by Theo Dorgan

In the Winter 2015 issue of the The Stinging Fly Billy Ramsell invited poets to write what Ramsell called souterrains- a kind of layer below, an archaeology of the poems that would feature in the issue. These souterrains were poems in their own right, and had some relationship with the completed poems of which they were the bedrock. In his new long poem, Orpheus, Theo Dorgan likewise writes about a lover, his Eurydice, who tells him that he

“saw how it meant; / you heard the old call, the song under the song.”

To see the song under the song is in large part what this entire poem is about, and it might be that it is for Dorgan, reaching an age now where he is more reflective of his practice, to think about the song under the song. The poem as palimpsest is an attractive idea, the layers of meaning and reference that can be scraped away by careful reading – the song under the song, the old call, the souterrain – call it what you will. Poetry, and the poetry we write, is an amassing of influences, experiences, language we acquire, and language we shape, language that comes before us and that will continue after us. While such ideas may not strike everyone as revelatory, it is clear in this poem that Theo Dorgan is thinking about what it is to be a poet, to be a creator.

This is an ambitious work; a long, narrative poem divided into two sections, retelling the classical Greek myth with a dollop of autobiography with help from a cast of characters whose voices we hear only through italics. The poem is written using the sapphic form – quatrains written in three long 11 syllable lines and ending with a short line of just x syllables. The final syllable of the first and fourth lines ideally ought to mirror one another to create a subtle rhyming effect. Few modern poets have more successfully mastered this difficult form than Allen Ginsberg with Dorgan wielding it well for the majority of the poem. However working with such a form means that often there are word choices and orders that have been clearly jammed into place, a bit like a jigsaw piece made to fit where it doesn’t. The poem is narrative and is thus readable in a short space of time but by using the sapphic form, Dorgan occasionally places the narrative ahead of the individual poems.

As we follow the development of Orpheus / Dorgan in Part I we move with someone “trying out words, testing some slight gift / more sensed than believed; awkward, tentative things —” to someone who “wept, sweated, swore, built and tore back down / version and version, but I did it.” This is the kind of tale of the poet’s craft that will give succour to young writers, but which may well bore more advanced writers and readers. First draft, you eventually learn, is not best draft. The first section ends

‘I work the old trade as many have before, I play the cards I’m dealt. I hope to die old, Grateful, doing my best.’

In this reflective end to the first part of the poem, we are left to wonder if perhaps Orpheus / Dorgan sees Orpheus’ death as being a representative of a death for all artists. The death of a variety of possible lives we might have ledin order to pursue the life of the artist. There are shades in this poem of the odyssey of the author, – going out into the world Bob Dylan-esque, to learn the craft, and then eventual return home. As a story in verse about the development of the poet it is perfectly serviceable, though the better thread is the love between Orpheus and Eurydice. Their adventures – the underworld rendered literally as the Parisian metro stop Metro Saint-Michel – is what gives Dorgan’s treatment of the Orpheus myth it’s reprieve.


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