A Greek I worked for once would always say
that tragedies which still appall and thrill
happen daily on a village scale.
Except that he put it the other way:
dark doings in the sleepiest small town
loom dire and histrionic as a play.
Cosmic? Perhaps. Unprecedented? Not
to the old women sitting in the sun,
the old men planted in cafes till noon
or midnight taking in the human scene,
connoisseurs of past-passing-and-to-come.
These watchers locate in their repertory
mythic fragments of some kindred story
and draw them dripping out of memory's well.
Incest and adultery; exile
and murder; divine punishment; disgrace:
the trick is to locate the right-sized piece
of the vast puzzle-patterned tapestry
from which one ripped-out patch makes tragedy.
This highly skilled and patient process - find
a larger context, match and patch and mend -
is what the chorus in Greek tragedy
has always done. And to this very day
spectators comb the tangles of a tale,
compare, remember, comment - not ideal,
but middle-aged or older, and later.
Beyond the hero's rashness or the hurt
heart of the heroine, they've reached the age
when only stars still lust for center stage.
The chorus, at a point midway between
the limelight and the audience, is seen
and unseen. Lady chaperones at balls
once sat on brittle chairs against the walls.
"My dancing days are over," they'd both sigh
and smile. Or take the case of poetry.
Mine used to play the heroine - me me me -
but lately, having had its fill of "I,"
tries to discern, despite its vision's flaws,
a shape. A piece of myth. A pattern. Laws.
This magnificent poem from Rachel Hadas covers a grand sense of scale of human experience, from the personal, first person, to the near cosmic sense, and we find that it all weaves into one large pattern. The very first sentence sets this scale contrast up wonderfully, with a Greek talking about how the sort of tragedies that "appall and thrill" us when presented on stage, as in a play, still do occur on "a village scale." The world is so vast, and so full of people, that at every single moment of the day, somewhere, a great drama plays out. It's incredible to think about the range of human experience occurring at every moment of the day. Hadas goes on to talk about some of that range, and who sees it. Old men and women see youth playing out these tragedies, these things that are "not unprecedented" to the elderly, who can relate to these tragedies.
Hadas then goes on to talk about the role that those who have stepped out of the limelight play. They are like the chorus of Greek drama, hence the title of the poem. Hadas herself sees her role as poet these days to be more like that of the chorus than that of the heroine. She said she had quite enough of the "me me me" of being in the limelight. She would have to have stepped out of the limelight and into the chorus to write such an observational poem as this.