Commentary, Essays, Recent

The Palinode’s Ethics of Questioning

by Mira Rosenthal | Contributing Writer

What do you do with a poem that expresses an idea you no longer hold? As someone who writes slowly and builds a collection over a number of years, I’ve long been interested in the question of how to embrace such poems as a record of my thinking instead of simply leaving them out. Exposing rather than hiding them feels important, inasmuch as I’m drawn to poetry that isn’t afraid to be vulnerable and expose flaws. It also seems to me a question of permission as a writer: how can I overcome the fear of saying the wrong thing or expressing the wrong opinion?

The palinode is a poetic mode that emphasizes a writer’s change of perspective in a process that is at once self-preserving, self-critical, and potentially generative of a third space between two conflicting realities. Originating in the Greek meaning “counter song” and similar to the Latin meaning “recantation,” a palinode retracts a previous poem while remaining tied to it, highlighting the very process of revising one’s thinking. To look at it another way, the palinode insists that it’s more compelling to see someone change their opinion than assert an opinion. What causes the shift? What nuance slips in as the poet revisits their own words? A palinode can also signal a strong arc for a collection, allowing the poet to circle back to an earlier image or idea in light of the thinking done by other poems in between.

I like to remember that the palinode has its roots in the faculty of sight; the classical Greek poet Stesichorus was blinded by Helen of Troy for writing a poem that cast her in a typical unfavorable light and so wrote a retraction, the first “palinode,” after which Helen unblinded him. In the new version, as far as we have it from fragments, she never even went to Troy. “The whole landscape looks inside out,” Anne Carson quips when addressing the question of Stesichorus’ retraction in Autobiography of Red, a book that performs its own act of reinterpretation. The tension of a palinode comes from admitting a blindness that needs to be addressed—to expose the story of your old poem as a preconceived myth.

Though some emphasize the aspect of apology in the mode’s origin, I’m more interested in Helen’s insistence on righting the record of her story. A comparable aspect captivates me in Muriel Rukeyser’s feminist palinode “The Poem as Mask,” in which she cries, “No more masks! No more mythologies!” Like Helen in critiquing Stesichorus’ traditional telling of her role in the Trojan war, Rukeyser brings into question the idea of female creativity based on traditional Greek myth, an idea that she previously upheld in a poem about Orpheus. Only through her palinode as a “deliberate act of self-criticism,” as Rachel Blau DuPlessis says, can she assert a process by which women can claim their own creativity and become unblinded to the patriarchal myth, to see the whole landscape inside out.

I get a similar feeling of being turned inside out when reading Ross Gay’s “Again,” a long poem that concludes his collection Bringing the Shovel Down and that reads almost exactly the same as the earlier title poem, save for a few key lines. Though he doesn’t call it a palinode, Gay’s poem provides a clear counter song that reimagines the narrative of a boy killing a stray dog other kids have tricked him into thinking is rabid. In the alternate version, the boy lets the dog live. “My biggest concern, in that poem and others, is how we are able to be both violent and tender,” Gay says in an interview, “how the violence and cruelty is not something outside of ourselves […], but that it’s something inside that we cultivate or don’t (or that gets cultivated in us), that we all share just by virtue of being human.” The palinode for Gay is an act of deliberate cultivation. By rewriting his poem, he’s able to establish a space between two possible outcomes, that is, an arc between cruelty and tenderness that spans his collection. 

It’s important to differentiate between the kind of retraction or disavowal a palinode performs and the more generalized notion of holding contradictory opinions simultaneously, made the darling of poets by Whitman himself: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Or, my preferred darling by Czesław Miłosz:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, 
and invisible guests come in and out at will

trans. Miłosz and Lillian Vallee

Yes, we are changeable and fickle and nuanced and haunted, bound to contradict ourselves. But the palinode is more pointed. It has specific work to do.

The palinode’s “I once said…” relates nicely to the broader refutation of poems rooted in “They once said…” Take, for example, W. H. Auden’s “I Am Not a Camera,” which repudiates his earlier poetry as well as Christopher Isherwood’s statement: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Kyle Dargan makes a similar move in his “Palinode, Once Removed” that begins with an epigraph from Richard Wright he wants to refute: “The Negro is America’s metaphor.” And Wisława Szymborska’s poetry often arises out of a preconceived idea turned inside out, such as in her poem “Lot’s Wife” (trans. Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak) that gives us the wife’s perspective. “They say I looked back out of curiosity,” the poem beings. “But I could have had other reasons.”

When writing my collection Territorial, I kept finding myself circling back to the usual trope of predator and prey in relation to one of the collection’s main themes of gender-based violence—the collection studies what it’s like for girls to grow up always looking over their shoulder. One of the oldest poems in the book, “Leach Pond,” presents the reader with an image of a young girl alone in a rural setting and explores where our minds go when we learn there are men watching her from a truck. The poem articulates the feeling of narrative entrapment, claiming that there is no way out of the trope of predator and prey, which has been so normalized through popular culture that it inevitably shows up in the stories we expect and perpetuate. In a slightly revised version for the book, I wrote:

And even if I’m now equipped to read  

a scene—cattails erect in their shafts
erupting with fluff, giving it up to the breeze— 
I have no way to warn the girl I was.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, the dilemma of being stuck in that expected narrative—too easily summed up with the term “rape culture”—propelled me into more poems exploring the patterns of predation within human violence, capitalism, and environmental exploitation. I wanted to expose such patterns, or to turn them inside out like Szymborska, searching for an inverse perspective. 

Six years into the project, I realized that I no longer agreed with my own inciting poem. So, I wrote a palinode. How liberating, then, to find myself seeing the cattails another way: 

What idles in periphery

releases the eye from its point of fixation,
so much fluff from cattails on the breeze
that the sky is awash in softness. I’m ready 

to feel how gentle the world can be, 

to see the seeds floating past on wind 
that relocates them.

The interplay between old and new is a reminder that what once seemed a perfect expression of wisdom often changes, since wisdom is ongoing and a matter of growth.

Perhaps it is this sense of relocation, of going beyond a limiting terrain of thought, that spurs us to write palinodes. I write them for many of the same reasons that I write metaphors: to take a familiar object or idea out of its usual context for a second look from an entirely different perspective. An image comes to mind of a very large tattoo that my sister loved at first but eventually had removed slowly, over much time and many sessions, with a laser. It left a scar, which she then incorporated into a new tattoo. It takes commitment to rework the original ink. But I find it beautiful how the scar shows through. 


Mira Rosenthal is the author of Territorial, a Pitt Poetry Series selection, and The Local World, winner of the Wick Poetry Prize. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and residencies at Hedgebrook and MacDowell, she is an associate professor of creative writing at Cal Poly. She also translates contemporary Polish poetry.