Every time I read a very long book, a quote that I discovered while studying Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables for my undergraduate senior thesis comes to mind: “The epic alone has the right to fill twelve thousand verses with a battle.” Epic poems are far from the easiest genre for any reader, be they a college professor, an undergraduate English major, or a ninth grader at Falmouth Academy. As FA’s ninth grade English teacher, I’m inclined to think the epic might be the most difficult genre our ninth graders tackle over the course of the year. When we wrap up The Odyssey in December, they’ll have read twelve thousand lines of epic poetry. My primary concern is this: will they remember them?
During the first week of school, the ninth graders learned about how The Odyssey was originally part of the oral tradition in ancient Greece. Bards (like Phemius in Book 1 of The Odyssey) would recite epic poems at parties for entertainment. Bards used several mnemonic techniques to help them recite epics. They composed verses in dactylic hexameter, a mesmerizing meter that any FA ninth grader will happily tell you more about. (Right, ninth graders?) They also relied on repetitive phrases and passages such as epithets and catalogue portraits. Perhaps the most helpful technique available to bards was to set epic poems to music and recite them with the aid of a harp or lyre.
I don’t expect my ninth graders to memorize or recite The Odyssey as ancient Greek bards did, but I do expect them to remember it. One of the best ways I can encourage them to do so is by helping them build connections with the characters. It’s difficult to feel attached to a twelve thousand line epic, but it’s much easier once you’re invested in a specific character. In order to bring these ancient characters to life in a way today’s teens can understand and to nod to the fact that The Odyssey would have once been set to music, I asked my class to break into groups to create a Spotify playlist for a character of their choice. During a very productive, albeit noisy, class period, FA’s ninth graders curated playlists for Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus, Zeus, and Poseidon. They chose songs such as Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” for Penelope because “she needs to cry over a song while she is grieving for Odysseus” and The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” for Poseidon because “considering Poseidon's role with the sea, surfing might be something he would do.” Odysseus might have listened to “Whatever It Takes” by Imagine Dragons because “he’ll do whatever it takes to get home.” In the same vein, Falmouth Academy’s ninth graders have proved they’re willing to do whatever it takes to make it through the odyssey that is The Odyssey.
-Emily Turner, English teacher