One Fire, Quenched with Another, by Jeremy Michael Clark
Above you can find a link to this week’s poem, as well as the podcast episode itself. Below, you’ll find the script for that episode.
Jeremy Michael Clark read this poem for the Poem-a-Day podcast. In the “About This Poem” section, he says he took the title from a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, specifically the story of Phaethon, son of Clymene and Helios.
The original myth is that Phaethon was a proud son of Helios, but had never met him and was made to doubt his true heritage. He asked his mother if he really was the son of Helios, and his mother sent him to ask Helios for himself. Helios confirmed his parentage and promised him any one favor in all the world. Phaethon asked to drive Helios’ chariot of the sun, which was hitched to horses made of fire. But Helios knew it was folly, that only he could control the horses and lead the sun across the sky. Phaethon persisted, though,and Helios let him take his chariot out. Sure enough, the boy couldn’t direct the wild horses, so they began dragging the sun, and him, toward the earth, burning it and killing all in their path. To save the world, and to punish the hubris of the boy, Zeus struck the chariot out of the sky and Helios gathered back his horses. Phaethon’s body fell to the earth and was buried by a newly flowing river, which had been steamed away by the heat of the sun.
Clark recontextualizes this story in his poem. He said that it is about meeting his father for the first time in his 20s. He says, “This poem is about the pain of finally finding what one has been looking for, and how it can’t salve the pain of having been without it.”
What Can We Learn
What can we learn from this poem? Recontextualization. It means giving new meaning to something by putting it in a different context, giving it new background, or by emphasizing different aspects of it than the original.
Recontextualisation has been incredibly important in fostering societal change and growth. Because it lets us see from another perspective, it has, uniquely, been able to strike our empathy and allow us to put ourselves in the shoes of others. What may seem fine and harmless to one person or group, can be understood as harmful or deadly when realized from another’s point of view.
I think recontextualization is really at the heart of movements like BLM and civil rights. It is the tool that let us see the disgusting behavior of people in power as destructive to the lives and careers of children and others in the #metoo movement. Recontextualization allows us to see that social safety nets are necessary for our most vulnerable, and that victim blaming is not a worthy tactic in dealing with poverty. When we go from discussing the problem of too many homeless people on the street bringing property values down, to the problem of gentrification exacerbating the housing affordability crisis, we have recontextualized the problem.
Using this tool, you can reveal a more universal meaningfulness in your memoir, or you can use a big universal truth to access something much more personal in your story.
You can write a story from one perspective, then choose another character to write from. You can take an old story or myth and add personal meaning to it, like he has done here comparing himself to Phaethon and his father to the burning, unreachable Helios. This could be an ekphrastic technique, borrowing inspiration from other art, or it can be something you do to your own work, explaining things from a different angle.
So, there’s another tool to add to your writing toolbox. I hope you’ll find ways to recontextualize, that you look back on ways you already have done this, and that you consider what meanings you may have overlooked in your work. Think about what you’re saying from someone else’s perspective. Does it still get your meaning across? Ask others to read your work and see what they think.
I hope you found this episode useful. Are you looking for more poetry analysis? Listen to our episode on Married Love, or our episode on Second Attempt Crossing. Interested in Kit’s thoughts on other media? She wrote a post on masculinity in the show The Uncanny Counter, and a post on writing mistakes in Bridgerton. Thank you for supporting us. If you’d like to donate, we are on Patreon. You can find Writer at Work Podcast on social under the handle @writeratworkpod. And you can listen to us on YouTube or any podcasting software you like. Good luck out there, and stay safe.