Alice Oswald - In this daring new work, the poet Alice Oswald strips away the narrative of the Iliad—the anger of Achilles, the story of Helen—in favor of attending to its atmospheres: the extended similes that bring so much of the natural order into the poem and the corresponding litany of the war-dead


Alice Oswald, Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad, Faber & Faber, 2011.

Matthew Arnold praised the "Iliad" for its 'nobility', as has everyone ever since - but ancient critics praised it for its enargeia, its 'bright unbearable reality' (the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves). To retrieve the poem's energy, Alice Oswald has stripped away its story, and her account focuses by turns on Homer's extended similes and on the brief 'biographies' of the minor war-dead, most of whom are little more than names, but each of whom lives and dies unforgettably - and unforgotten - in the copiousness of Homer's glance. ""The Iliad" is an oral poem. This translation presents it as an attempt - in the aftermath of the Trojan War - to remember people's names and lives without the use of writing. I hope it will have its own coherence as a series of memories and similes laid side by side: an antiphonal account of man in his world... compatible with the spirit of oral poetry, which was never stable but always adapting itself to a new audience, as if its language, unlike written language, was still alive and kicking". (Alice Oswald).

Alice Oswald made her name with a book-length poem: Dart. A tribute to the Devon river made up of her own and other people's voices, it won the 2002 TS Eliot prize. On the face of it, her latest book – an "excavation" of Homer's The Iliad – is not comparable, except that, like Dart, it is an extended homage. It's a poem written out of love for a story that matters to her as much as the rivers that have inspired her. Oswald is a classicist and, in her preface, writes of her hope that the poem does not depend upon "context" – readers are not obliged to lean on Homer. She need not fear: the poem stands by itself.
Having said that, it was reading Memorial alongside The Iliad (in Robert Fagles's translation) that made me feel the full force of Oswald's achievement. The task she has set herself is a poetic filleting (or, as she describes it, the "reckless dismissal" of seven-eighths of Homer's narrative) and a memorialising of every soldier, juxtaposed with extended similes – a Greek chorus of them. She describes herself as trying to retrieve the poem's enargeia, which translates as "bright, unbearable reality", and writes that she is doing this "as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you are worshipping".
The opening pages list the names of more than 200 dead. Reading them is equivalent to the poignancy of skimming surnames on a war memorial. But as the poem gets going, the risk Oswald runs is obvious: if each death is a foregone conclusion, the danger is of monotonous tragedy – each new casualty is likely to have less impact than the one before. Yet the miraculous thing is that this danger is somehow averted. The poem works in the opposite way: it builds. All poetry has a memorial aspect – the fixing of a moment, a place, the passing of a life. But this is remembering on a grand scale. This is a concentrated, intense, multi-tasking elegy. And it is written with a freshness to match Homer's own – as if each soldier had died on the day of writing.
What Oswald does is to give each doomed person an extra breath of life, a moment in the sunlight of her attention, even though, sometimes, there is little or nothing to record about the life. It is death that characterises the man and each death is different.The style is urgent, simple and spare. There are no ornamental phrases to hide behind: "Grief is black it is made of earth/ It gets into the cracks in the eyes/ It lodges its lump in the throat." It is a disturbing idea: grief as burial. Elsewhere, too, humble images are powerful. One soldier, in death, is described as like a child clinging to a mother: "Wanting to be light again/ wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted/ And carried on a hip."
Homer is full of marvellous images of armies as swarming bees, flattened fields of corn, waves that come in convoy. Oswald's poetic structure itself contains grand rhythms – rather like the sea. The extended similes are printed twice. They come at you like repeated waves. They push the poem forward and draw it back. There is a line in Homer that translates as the "trance of war" and this describes the poem's atmosphere. I long to hear Memorial performed; it would be tremendous. As the death toll rises, one becomes aware that only one thing survives – a life force carrying everything with it: the poem itself. -  
We remember the generals from almost any war. In the US, we often remember them because of the way they led soldiers to “glorious victory,” or if that’s too simplistic, through difficult times–and to their graves: Washington, Grant, Sherman, Pershing, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton, Schwarzkopf, Petraeus. We give them nicknames (not always complimentary): Black Jack, Blood-n-Guts, Little Napoleon, Old Wooden Head, Rough and Ready, Stonewall, Stormin’ Norman, Swamp Fox.
We raise statues to them, we write biographies of them, we (now) retire them to television to serve as military experts, we revere and vilify them. For a while we elected them to the presidency, though we haven’t done that since 1956. Their names appear in history books and on AP exams, generation after generation. They become myth.
Only recently have we started trying to find ways to memorialize the other people involved in conflicts. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington DC lists the names of those fallen or missing in combat with no regard to rank or fame. Just name after name, in the order in which they died, etched into the reflective basalt rock wall which swallows you as you make your way down the path toward the monument’s center.
Alice Oswald’s Memorial A Version of Homer’s Iliad is written in this spirit of remembrance of the common soldier. Even people only vaguely familiar with Greek mythology recognize some of the kings from Homer’s epic–Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, Priam, Odysseus, Aeneas, Menelaus, Paris–but how many could identify Protesilaus, the first Greek to die at Troy?
It’s obvious from the time one picks up the book that this isn’t a translation of Homer’s epic, at least not in the way we commonly use the term. It’s a slim volume, with short lines and lots of white space on the pages. The Iliad I read as an undergraduate (Fagles’ translation) was doorstop-hefty, with hexametric lines that threatened to spill over the margins, even in 10-point type. Oswald has sliced away almost everything famous from what is usually presented as Homer’s original, and has left the reader with a haunting, violent, and yet incredibly beautiful look at the people who are usually ignored in any discussion of The Iliad — or indeed in any war.
The first eight pages of Memorial A Version of Homer’s Iliad contain nothing but names, a list from Protesilaus to Hector. The names, 200 in all, are starkly presented in all caps, as though they had been carved into the stone of the page.
No introductions, no explanations–just name after name engulfing the reader. The lack of context is important–as with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, most visitors don’t recognize more than a handful of names, if that, and yet the power in the presence of those names, column after column, is undeniable.
In Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, Protesilaus appears in line 796 of book 2, well after the confrontation between Agamemnon and Achilles, after Odysseus and Nestor have attempted to hold the Greek coalition together. Oswald, instead, starts with Protesilaus, which seems appropriate, since he is the first Greek to die at Troy.
The first to die was PROTESILAUS
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything
Pyrasus Iton Pteleus Antron
He died mid-air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half-built
His wife rushed out clawing her face
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother
Took over command but that was long ago
He’s been in the black earth now for thousands of years
Protesilaus, according to Ovid’s Heroides, leapt ashore aware of the oracle which had decreed that the first Greek to touch Trojan soil would be the first to die, and after killing four Trojans, he is slain by Hector. In Homer’s story, this is a side note, perhaps a passage thrown in during an oral recitation as a way to coax an extra coin from a listener who hailed from Phylace. The important story, according to Homer, plays out between the kings and princes–Agamemnon and Achilles, Hector and Paris–not to mention the gods, who join the fray on both sides.
Oswald’s version refocuses the questions about violence in the service of predestined outcomes by emphasizing a different set of characters. The people she’s most interested in are the ones without the privilege to question such matters. Even Pandarus, a captain and a wealthy man, seems trapped into the war.
PANDARUS son of Lycaon had a wife at home
In his high-roofed house in the foothills of Ida
He was captain of Zelea and he and his men
Used to drink the black raw water from the river
He was a rich man a master bowman
Eleven war cars in his stables brand new beautifully made
With rugs and thoroughbred horses
He couldn’t bear to risk them in the War
He went on foot to Troy with nothing but his bow
But that was no good to him
The arrows kept flying off at angles
If I ever get home he said
And see my wife and my high-roofed house
May a stranger cut off my head if I don’t
Smash this bow and throw it with my own hands
Into the fire it has proved such a nothingness
But he climbed up nevertheless next to Aeneas
He charged at Diomedes and a spear
Thrown by Diomedes pushed hard by Athene
Hit him between the eyes it split-second
Splintered his teeth cut through his tongue broke off his jaw
And came out clean through the chin
Pandarus seems to realize that he has nothing to gain and everything to lose by going to this war. He was wealthy and comfortable. He even seems to recognize that he’s doomed when his bow, which had no doubt provided him with some of his riches, betrays him, sending off arrows at angles. And none of it matters–the outcome of this war had been determined by the gods. Troy was going to fall, for the benefit of gods and kings, and men like Pandarus had to die to make it happen.
By focusing on these stories instead of the typical major characters like Hector and Achilles, Oswald’s version accentuates the cruelty of war. In Homer’s Iliad, the only major Greeks to die are Ajax and Patroclus (though Achilles does not survive the war, he does not die in The Iliad). The human cost is borne, as it usually is, by the “grunts,” the foot soldiers. The “generals” return home, and while some meet future tragedy–Agamemnon is murdered by his wife and her lover, for example–they are hailed as victorious, and remembered.
It’s an appropriate–even important–way to look at The Iliad today, since we are constantly engaged in a debate over the human cost of war. On March 31, 2003, 11 days after the start of hostilities in what would come to be known as Gulf War II, The PBS Newshour aired its first “Honor Roll” of US service members killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the early days of the war, I watched the Honor Roll when I could, always in fear that I would recognize names. A number of my fraternity brothers from my undergraduate days were in the Army Reserves–working class guys for whom a drill paycheck and the GI Bill went a long way toward helping them finish a Bachelor’s degree and cut a path to the middle class. They were patriotic men, after a fashion, but mostly they were looking for a way to finish school. Many joined in 1998. Most went to Afghanistan in 2002, just before their enlistment was to expire.
I wonder how many of the people listed in the Honor Roll since 2003, or whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall fit the descriptions of those Oswald has decided to memorialize:
EPICLES a Southerner from sunlit Lycia
Climbed the Greek wall remembering the river
That winds between his wheatfields and his vineyards
He was knocked backwards by a rock
And sank like a diver
The light in his face went out
ILIONEUS an only child ran out of luck
He always wore that well-off look
His parents had a sheep farm
They didn’t think he would die
But a spear stuck through his eye
He sat down backwards
Trying to snatch back the light
With stretched out hands
And TROS begging for his life
But his life was over
All of these stories end the same way: in death. It’s not heroic or glorious. It’s terrifying. It’s exactly what we should expect.
Oswald follows most of the biographies of the memorialized with similes, such as these lines that follow the section about Tros:
Like when two animals have found a little luckiness
Of clear-running water in the mountains
One dies and the other drinks it
Eavan Boland, in the Afterword to this epic, writes “Oswald lays the lyric world beside violent death, like someone putting summer flowers in a coffin, a reminder of all that’s been lost.” But these flowers aren’t buried with the dead. In fact, the dead aren’t even buried–they’re rotting on the battlefield. This memorial has not been sanitized of the violence which necessitated it in the first place. No marble statues, men on horseback rearing, sword or hat in the air. No nicknames which make light of or obscure the blood these men ordered spilled.
No, what starts as a list of 200 names ends as a statement about the brevity–and by extension–the value of human life.
Like when god throws a star
And everyone looks up
To see that whip of sparks
And then it’s gone
Alice OswaldThe end is violent, the burning of a meteorite as it disintegrates in the atmosphere. We can’t get away from it; violence is a low hum in the background of our daily lives. But we can remember, and be honest in the remembering. When we value human life–all human life, not just the privileged and powerful–we are less likely to accept at face value the claims made by the powerful that violent force is the best response to any conflict. Alice Oswald’s Memorial A Version of Homer’s Iliad asks us to confront that violence and resurrect the forgotten stories about those who sacrificed the most in the Trojan War.
We, as a society, have moved away from the glorification of generals as heroes, as examples for moral living, as near-mythic creatures. In the US, the generals still get their moments of glory, their names at times mentioned as potential presidential or vice-presidential candidates (Colin Powell, Wesley Clark, David Petraeus), but they don’t tend to get the statues their predecessors once got, and once they’ve been retired for a while, their names slip from the collective memory to be replaced by whoever has risen to their rank.
Perhaps we don’t lionize anyone the way we used to, or our collective attention span is just too short to make modern mythological beings (outside of entertainers), or we don’t have the taste for bloody battle our forebears did. During the Civil War, both sides would occasionally lose more soldiers in a single battle than the US has lost in the entire Second Gulf War, which was so unpopular that by 2008, opposition to it helped propel a little known junior Senator from Illinois to the Democratic party nomination and then the Presidency. (The public’s distaste for blood extends mainly to US troops; drone attacks that kill foreign civilians are still generally accepted by the public. We have work to do when it comes to valuing the lives of the people we categorize as “other.”) It suggests that we are becoming less interested in creating “great men” and more interested in not losing our neighbors, especially over something most consider frivolous.
The Trojan War, after all, was fought over a marital dispute, one that Homer’s text never exactly clears up. Was Helen abducted by Paris or did she run away with him or was she forced to leave Menelaus by a goddess who owed Paris a favor? And why did Protesilaus or Pandarus or Epicles have to die because of it? The Vietnam War wasn’t fought over a marital dispute, but the official reasons for the conflict didn’t make much more sense. The same can be said about the reasons for Gulf War 2. Why did 58,272 soldiers have to die in Vietnam? Or nearly 4,500 in Iraq since 2003?
This impulse to remember the regular person extends into the way we are now reacting to mass violence in the US. Over the last few years, every time a gunman goes on a killing spree, regardless of the way the news media reports these stories, people use social media to list the names of the dead and injured, imploring their friends to remember the victims and to deliberately shut the name of the gunman out of public discourse. It’s a reaction against the idea that a person can become famous by doing great damage to a community. “If fame is what you want,” the public seems to say, “you will get no satisfaction here.” It’s hard to imagine a modern-day Billy the Kid emerging in today’s world as a hero, no matter how violent some social critics and doomsayers suggest our society is.
More and more, we seem to be recognizing that the lives of working class people, of the underprivileged, are valuable in their own rights and shouldn’t just be sacrificed on a whim, all to glorify generals or warlords. Our lives are short, a “whip of sparks” as Oswald put it, too short to be wasted carelessly by powerful people on a cause some may feel is less than noble. They deserve better than to be piled up so that “great men” can stand atop them and declare their glory. They deserve, as Alice Oswald so beautifully demonstrates here, their own memorial.  - Brian Spears

The “Iliad” is the goriest of ancient poems. Homer doesn’t sugarcoat the death of a hero, or even that of some insignificant Myrmidon. He’s an anatomist of death, a forensic pathologist of the bronze spear and the bronze sword. The Greek and Trojan warriors meet their fates in ways violent, bloody and graphic — had Greek battlefield surgeons existed, they could have used the “Iliad” as a textbook. Hollywood’s violence is merely a weak imitation of what the Greeks recited for centuries.
In “Memorial,” the British poet Alice Oswald has had the provocative idea of boiling down the poem to two of its most striking features: the gruesome fatalities and the similes that often lie in pastoral counterpoint to the action. Her version shifts the moral center of the poem from the anger of Achilles and the death of Hector to an oral history of the dead (in her fine phrase, an “oral cemetery”). The subtle portrayals of emotion, the strikingly modern psychology, the ancient tactics, the fate-haunted warriors — all that life almost three millenniums old has been reduced to little more than a bureaucracy of death.
Despite the crippling losses, Oswald’s “Iliad” has a strange, luminous quality. With the narrative stripped away, what’s left is obituary — and the domestic similes that draw in the workaday ancient world: winnowers cleaning their chickpeas, a woman weighing out her weaving, fish trying to escape a ravaging dolphin. Oswald brings the poem closer to the begats of Genesis, meant to carry fact through the fog of time, than to the tales of ­Beowulf and Roland, which may have begun in history but ended in legend.
The “Iliad” appears to have taken shape some four centuries after the events of the Trojan War, if there ever was such a war — the excavations at Hissarlik, the site of what is probably ancient Troy, have not revealed enough of the history from which the “Iliad” emerged. The poet probably knew less about his Bronze Age Greeks than Shakespeare did about the world of Macbeth. Our version of the “Iliad” was composed toward the end of what we assume were centuries of oral tradition — the “Iliad,” like the “Odyssey” and other oral poems, had a genetic ability to reproduce itself, changing with each recital, picking up new details even as old ones were discarded, but always remaining recognizable. Almost nothing material in the poem can be traced with certainty to the Mycenaean Greeks (the scholar G. S. Kirk thought the remnants of Mycenae amounted to no more than a wheeled work-basket, Nestor’s cup and a few pieces of armor). Indeed, Homer had only the sketchiest idea of Bronze Age arms and battle tactics. He treated the war chariots as if they were hackney carriages, ferrying the warriors to battle and then dumping them like so many fare-paying bankers.
Oswald’s condensed version of the poem is rudely partial, an “Iliad” after centuries of further loss and the accretion of a few modern artifacts like parachutes and motorbikes. She doesn’t go as far as the late Christopher Logue, whose take-no-prisoners adaptation equipped the warriors with helicopters and Uzis. Oswald, whose work has often been striking but verbose, has found a quiet way of facing death, a way as moving as the bulletin boards of the missing after 9/11. The warriors are marked less by who they were than by how they died — that is part of the ethos of war, where a heroic life can be marred by a cowardly death:
MNESIUS rolled in sand THRASIUS lost in silt
AINIOS turning somersaults in a black pool
Upside down among the licking fishes
And OPHELESTES his last breath silvering the surface
All that beautiful armour underwater
All those white bones sunk in mud
And instead of a burial a wagtail
Sipping the desecration unaware.
This is Homeric, with very little Homer in it — the ­“Iliad” simply lists the dead here. Oswald does not pretend that her version is more than a cheeky strip-mining of the ancient poem. (The subtitle of the British edition was “An Excavation of the ‘Iliad.’ ”)
Leaving out the boring bits, the long arguments and interminable speeches, forces us to see the “Iliad” through the lens of its fatalities, to recognize how extraordinarily violent it is. Oswald’s annotated casualty list places the deaths within the same Bronze Age bureaucracy revealed when the Linear B tablets were deciphered — there was not a scrap of poetry, just inventories of sheep, goats and weapons. We shall be lucky if what remains of our culture is more than a pile of Walmart receipts.
Oswald claims she has paraphrased the lives of Homer’s warriors but translated his similes; in fact, she plays fast and loose with both. In Book 12 of Richmond Lattimore’s translation, Greeks defend themselves like bees who “make their homes at the side of the rocky way, and will not / abandon the hollow house they have made, but stand up to / men who come to destroy them, and fight for the sake of their children.” In Oswald this becomes:
Like tribes of summer bees
Coming up from the underworld out of a crack in a rock
A billion factory women flying to their flower work
Being born and reborn and shimmering over fields.
“Factory women” is wryly ingenious, but this is far from translation as we usually mean it. A deeper and more disturbing problem is Oswald’s Frankenstein transplant of similes from the original. When Homer compares Menelaos and Meriones, bearing away the body of Patroclus in Book 17, to mules dragging a roof beam or a ship timber, it shows what a dead weight the dead are: even the king and his companion are reduced to draft animals by their labor. By grafting the simile onto the deaths of a Trojan and his chariot driver, Oswald denies us the original’s unsettling contrast — and it’s not clear if the mules are the dead men or the live horses. Too often this rough-and-ready recycling destroys the force, and the cunning, of the “Iliad.”
Oswald’s rendering is often more vivid than the Greek, but the lack of punctuation makes the syntactical relation of her similes obscure or impossible. Worse, her insistent use of “like” for “as” turns her narrator into a gum-chewing Valley girl (“Like suddenly it thunders,” “Like when a ditch-maker takes a mattock”). The similes are printed twice in succession, as if the reader were too dim to get them. Such a homage to the oral origins of the poem probably works well at a poetry reading; on the page the choral effect is merely tedious. Oswald at times seems to misunderstand Homer — Pandarus’ difficulty isn’t that his arrows were “flying off at angles,” but that they hit his enemies without killing them (she thinks the arrows were flint-tipped, as if the Trojans were Sioux braves). Her description of his death makes nonsense of the original — a spear that hits him “between the eyes” cannot somehow emerge through his chin.
The life of the “Iliad” has vanished here — life often petty, grumpy, ridiculous, but always aware of mortality. Yet reducing the brute struggle of epic to bottom-column obits, focusing on the minor kings and hapless grunts, underlines the shocking waste of these deaths. Oswald’s war memorial has taken the forgotten names and chiseled them in marble. She has made a poem that blooms out of slaughter.

William Logan
There is something marvellous about lists. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when the hunter Actaeon is turned into a stag by the goddess Diana, his dogs turn on him. Before they tear into his flesh, the poet pauses to name 33, along with their qualities (“Aello the stout runner”) and their breeding. The effect is hypnotic: these hounds meant something to their owner, who now, dehumanised, tries to call out their names but cannot. 
The same is true of the Catalogue of Ships in Homer’s Iliad, in which all the leaders and their countries are named. Little insights into their lives create a strange beauty, localising and focusing our attention.
Alice Oswald has sensed this too. She starts the first part of her magnificent new poem, Memorial – shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize – as a list, in capitals, of the dead heroes in The Iliad. Those who know Homer’s text will feel the keenness of “PEDASUS / SARPEDON / EPIGEUS”. Sarpedon is the son of Zeus, king of the gods, his end foreshadowing deaths to come. When Oswald comes to the end – “AINIOS / OPHELESTES / HECTOR” – the blank page after those two final bold syllables is heartbreaking. The rest is silence. There is no need to know the epic or its use of similes – here are names, with their own magical resonance, side by side; it doesn’t matter if they are Greek or Trojan, what matters is that they were men, and that they are dead.
The second part of Memorial fleshes out the names. To turn around the metaphor, Oswald has achieved this through a filleting of Homer’s poem. She has sliced out the sharp bones: the deaths of the heroes, and the similes. There is no context; we don’t get the tenor of the similes, only the vehicles, and they are repeated, which enhances the prophetic effect. There is no punctuation, which, far from rushing the poem, lends a solemn gravity.
This is not a direct translation. It’s as if Oswald has looked behind the Greek into another world both uncanny and familiar. Her poetry is alive to sound patterns: “Hephaestus / Hot-faced”; “the world simplifies into cliffs and clefts”. The young men she memorialises come from “flower-lit cliffs”; one has “cold seed-like concentration”, another “wore his hair long at the back”. They are the sons of priests and gods, shepherdesses and kings, even prophets.
But it doesn’t matter if you can see into the future or not: “Death / Was already walking to meet them”. The father of “ABAS and POLYIDOS… could tell the future” yet it doesn’t stop Diomedes killing his sons. Meanwhile, “ADRESTUS and AMPHIUS/ Everyone knew they were going to die / They were the sons of Merops the prophet / He begged them to stay at home but they couldn’t listen / Their own ghosts were calling them to Troy”. (Isn’t that “couldn’t” brilliant?)
Sometimes a few words paint a whole life: “SCAMANDRIUS the hunter / Knew every deer in the woods”; PEDAEUS is “the unwanted one”. The occasional anachronism has an ameliorative effect: there are two brothers who come home “proud as astronauts / And didn’t want to farm any more / And went riding out to be killed by Agamemnon”. “Astronauts” is perfect here, triumph and overreaching coiled into one word.
Set against the often brutal deaths are the gorgeous textures of the similes: a girl clinging to her mother’s clothes, “Like staring up at that tower of adulthood / Wanting to be light again / Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted / And carried on a hip”. This is taken from a speech Achilles makes to Patroclus (in Book 16); woven in here, it becomes a startling gloss on the nature of fighting.
This beautiful, bleak poem comes down to the insanity of war. Here is “Diomedes a madman a terrible numbness / Turned inside-out and taking over everything”. (Diomedes isn’t slain, so he remains uncapitalised). War turns everything inside out – people, places; Troy will be torn out from its heart, its women and children scattered.
Oswald has achieved a miraculous feat. She’s exposed a skeleton, but found something magnificently eerie and rich. She has truly made, to borrow a phrase from Stephen Spender, a “miniature Iliad ”, taut, fluid and graceful, its tones knelling like bells into the clear air, ringing out in remembrance of all the untimely dead: “All vigorous men / All vanished”. - Philip Womack

The idea that a translation inevitably interprets and rewrites its source poem is today a mundane assertion. The cultural dialog of the 1970s and 1980s, with its emphasis on translation as a process of negotiation and reactivation of cultural meaning, seems to have finally liberated poets from that old-fashioned notion of fidelity. To take two recent examples, Mary Jo Bang’s translation of Dante’s Inferno is riddled with contemporary references such as Pink Floyd and Donald Rumsfeld, and Anne Carson’s hand-lettered and illustrated Antigonik, her wayward version of Sophocles’ Antigone, is more focused on crafting an art object in the spirit of the original than rendering the narrative. These women view translation as a mode of engagement with literature. Their projects foreground intense connection with the original: the process and polysemy of rewriting the canon in an attempt make sense of their subjective, present-day worlds. Sherry Simon would call them feminist translators (though they may not self-identify as such), or at the very least literary activists who flaunt the signs of their manipulation of the original. Their projects reinvent both the original and our idea of translation, what it is and what it can do.
While critics certainly still exist who decry such faithlessness, the question when approaching a work of literature in translation is no longer one of fidelity but rather of the parameters of the writing project and its success. There is no such thing as a faithful translation. Rather, there are many kinds of fidelity: fidelity to tone, to form, to emotional hue, considerations of historical moment, of reputation, of lineage and dialog. A translator makes choices about what elements to privilege, what to let fall by the wayside. It is more fruitful to ask, to what is the translation faithful? This is not to say that all comparison of the translation to the original be thrown out the window. Rather, the descriptive evaluation of a translation assumes that, no matter how seemingly “faithful,” it inevitably reads the source poem from the bias of specific ideologies—that is, from the viewpoint of the translator’s own social, cultural, and personal belief systems—biases that are often embedded in language itself. Understanding the implications of a translator’s writing project is also about assessing this (often unconscious) ideological transformation.
Alice Oswald lays out her writing project very clearly at the beginning of Memorial, which she has subtitled “A Version of Homer’s Iliad” (the UK edition calls it “An Excavation of the Iliad,” the archeological metaphor lending helpful nuance). “This is a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story,” she begins, explaining her method of brushing away the overall narrative to reveal the poem’s enargeia or “bright unbearable reality.” What’s left are the bones of soldiers’ lives embedded within the dirt of pastoral simile, such as in this section on Isos and Antiphos:
They used to be shepherds they were hill people
Working out of reach of the world
Those were the two boys Achilles kidnapped
Among the wolves and buzzards of Mount Ida
They said it was wonderful to be tied in creepers
And taken to the other side by the gypsy
They said he could talk to horses
They said his mother was a seal or mermaid
And he introduced them to Agamemnon
The great king of Mycenae poor fools
Who came home as proud as astronauts
And didn’t want to farm any more
And went riding out to be killed by Agamemnon
Like a boat
Going into the foaming mouth of a wave
In the body of the wind
Everything vanishes
And the sailors stare at mid-air
Oswald constructs her poem by oscillating between such paraphrased accounts of those killed in the Trojan war and similes that are, for the most part, closely resonant in the way that “a boat going into the foaming mouth of a wave” echoes “riding out to be killed.” Most of the similes repeat a second time, lending the welcome pause of rereading to what otherwise is a very fast-paced poem.
Yet within this set-up, the poem proceeds with the energy and restlessness of constant reinvention. Oswald draws attention to her work of reinventing the Iliad by refusing to settle into her own design. The book opens with an eight-page list of names that marks it as what Oswald calls an “oral cemetery,” recalling monuments such as the Vietnam Memorial’s wall of names. Shorter lists of names return throughout the poem and interrupt the structure, only to be interrupted themselves with the sudden violence of war:
The flash of a spear
Woke them with a jolt
This kind of compression and contrast are key elements of the poem’s flow, which Oswald calls “bipolar” and “antiphonal.” At times she reduces whole biographies to the simple fact that someone died and often compresses vast narratives of the past into a few lines. The repeated similes begin to take over, until the final twelve pages are nothing but similes, now given white space with one to a page. The effect is breathtaking.
What gives the poem power is the thematic amplification that epic simile conveys. Oswald uses it in the spirit of Homer as a tool of contrast set apart from narrative structure. As comparison to the actions of war, the similes present a natural world filled with tumult and danger. The ocean is never peaceful but is always churned up by wind, the rain pummels the earth, the animal kingdom is forever ruled by the order of hunter and hunted, there is always a storm brewing nearby. Even a rainbow is seen as a portent “shining a warning to the world / A bright banner of disruption hung above the fields.” The force of wind quickly becomes the chief metaphor and combines with the fast pace of the poem to give it the feel of a “wind-dictionary” defining the chaos of “bloodfest” that goes on and on.
Oswald is very clear about her sense of authority and responsibility as a translator. “My approach to translation is fairly irreverent,” she writes, “I work closely with the Greek, but instead of carrying the words over into English, I use them as openings through which to see what Homer was looking at. I write through the Greek, not from it—aiming for translucence rather than translation.” While this approach serves her well in capturing the atmosphere of the world that Homer saw, it fails to some degree in conveying his worldview. Historically distant works of art present the biggest challenge when it comes to mediating between distinct worldviews. Oswald’s poem oddly transforms the polytheistic belief system so integral to the Iliad into a monotheistic sense of divine control, revealing a fundamental ideological shift. Zeus is only mentioned twice, Apollo once. It is god, not gods, who control the natural world. God’s actions in the poem almost always imbue the natural world with a sense of beauty that just might, in the end, save man, as in the final simile that closes the poem: “Like when god throws a star / And everyone looks up / To see that whip of sparks / And then it’s gone.”
The surgery Oswald performs on the Iliad only works because it is a historical poem with a long tradition of translation. A reader will not lack for other versions to consult and compare, which is the best-case scenario when approaching a work of literature in translation. In the end, Memorial successfully answers the question of why we need yet another translation of Homer by building thematic resonance with today’s political realities. As a comment on war, it is devastatingly elegiac, all the more so for the implicit understanding that war has been a reality for thousands of years. Oswald’s active participation in the creation of new meaning from an ancient poem draws attention to her agency in the process of translation and shows great respect for the original—after all, respect is different from fidelity and can include confrontation and revision. Those who want a more conservative translation have plenty of places to look elsewhere. - Mira Rosenthal

Alice Oswald's childhood resolution to become a poet was born out of the trauma of a single, sleepless night. "We lived in a big, creaking house," she says, "and I used to get really frightened. One night, I lay awake for hours, just terrified. When the dawn finally came up – the comfortable blue sky, the familiar world returning – I could think of no other way to express my relief than through poetry. I made a decision there and then that it was what I wanted to do. Every time I pulled a wishbone, it was what I asked for."
And sure enough, she went on to do it, taking a job as a gardener the day after finishing her degree at Oxford "because it would leave my mind free, I'd get a house and a wage, and it would be completely compatible with poetry". She was shortlisted for a Forward prize at the age of 30 for her first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, took the TS Eliot prize with her second, a remarkable book-length poem about the river Dart, and is now, 15 years later, widely hailed as one of British poetry's finest, brightest voices. The quiet purposefulness with which she has shaped her own life is evident in her poems, too: delighted evocations of the natural world that express themselves through exquisite attention to detail and perfect, breath-like cadences.
Oswald lives in south Devon with her husband, the playwright Peter Oswald, and their three children. I've come to talk to her about her latest collection, Memorial, and she picks me up from Totnes station, a calm and formal figure in a singularly mucky blue car. Autumn has yet to reach here; the leaves are still green and unfallen, and when we sit at her kitchen table, the back door is left open for the cat, the dog and the breeze to blow in and out. On the surface, the book looks like a change of direction: the familiar, meditative poems on moonlight, plant life and water have been substituted for an extraordinary retelling of Homer's Iliad. But this is very much Homer via Oswald: there is a lilting river of back stories, from which the central narrative of Achilles's and Agamemnon's great quarrel has been lifted clean out.
"I've always felt, with The Iliad, a real frustration that it's read wrong," Oswald says. "That it's turned into this public school poem, which I don't think it is. That glamorising of war, and white-limbed, flowing-haired Greek heroes – it's become a cliched, British empire part of our culture. Every translation you pick up is so romantically involved with the main story that the ordinariness of Homer, which I love so much – the poem's amazing background of peculiar, real people, just being themselves – is almost invisible." In her version, the absence of the monolithic main characters leaves the histories of the footsoldiers who died in their shadows exposed and gleaming, like rocks at low tide.
What's more, Oswald says, Homer is anything but a diversion: her poetry has been haunted by his for as long as she's been writing. She first encountered him at grammar school, in snatches and snippets at O-level, and then through The Odyssey in the sixth form. "I completely fell in love with it," she says. "I asked if I could forget about the rest of the syllabus and just do Homer, and amazingly, my teacher said yes. After I left school, I spent my year off reading The Iliad, which was almost better. Shockingly good."
Such an immersive experience proved formative. "All the poems I've written have been more or less responses to my initial delight at reading him," she says. "As an oral poet, he has a different way of putting clauses together: where a literary poet would strap them all to one finite verb, and make a line that's all plaited and twisted and controlled, an oral poet will grow the clauses out of each other. He'll have one rhythmical phrase and fit another to it, and another. There's a freedom between the clauses that means there's somehow more space for the things that are described to be themselves. A tree in a Homer poem really is a tree – not Homer's tree, but a green, leafy, real thing. The puzzle I've spent my writing life trying to solve is, how does he do that? Every book of mine has been an attempt to work out how you can put a tree into a poem."
The experience of returning to her touchstone text was both luxurious and painful. "Mentally, I never really left, but to read the whole thing through again was lovely. It was such a treat getting my dictionaries out and going back to it. And yet it was hard, too, because of the stories. I found myself both heartbroken and literally haunted by it: I couldn't sleep at night; I'd get bits of the poem and the soldiers' faces in my head."
Certainly, the passage of two millennia does nothing to soften the impact of all those lost lives, significant and unique and suddenly ended, which pile up as the poem progresses: "EPICLES a Southerner from sunlit Lycia" who was "knocked backwards by a rock/ And sank like a diver"; "AXYLUS son of Teuthras" who "so loved his friends" but "died side by side with Calesius/ In a daze of loneliness"; "POLYDORUS … who loved running/ Now somebody has to tell his father/ That exhausted man leaning on the wall/ Looking for his favourite son". The poem is structured like a lament, the soldiers' epitaphs interspersed with direct translations of Homer's extended similes, each of which is transcribed, lullingly, twice over. "One of the reasons I repeat the similes is that you need time off from the grief," Oswald explains. "My hope is that the similes will repair what gets broken by the biographies, in the same way that the natural world does. I think of simile as a healing art."
Was Memorial an act of translation or creation? "Both. In fact, I go about my other poems like a translator. I try not to invent; I try simply to translate the weird language of the natural world. And I'm not into absolute ownership of things. Homer himself is a collection of poets, one of many. Even when writing your own poems, you need to talk to people, you need to magpie around, getting words and things. I'm very against the celebrity culture that wants to say: this is a genius, this is one person who has done something brilliant. There are always a hundred people in the background who have helped to make it."
It's a seductively democratic position, which also serves as a pitch-perfect description of The Iliad that Oswald has created: not the single, towering legend of Achilles, but the many small stories of the people whose lives formed the fabric of the poem. In Oswald's view, this is atmospherically closer to the poem she first read as a teenager, and having revisited it so comprehensively, she feels she may, just possibly, now be able to leave it behind her. -

Stephe Harrop: Speech, Silence and Epic Performance: AliceOswald’s Memorial (pdf)

ALICE OSWALD IS A BRITISH POET WHO LIVES IN DEVON with her family. Newspaper profiles will inevitably mention the fact that after studying classics at Oxford she worked as a gardener. In fairness, her time working as a gardener was hugely important to her poetic development.

Oswald speaks passionately about her engagement with the land, hard work, plants and natural rhythms, but takes issue with labels such as ‘nature poet’. From her first collection of poems (The Thing in the Gap Stone Stile, Faber, 1996) to her most recent (Memorial, Faber, 2011) Oswald has been acclaimed, won prizes and consistently sounded unlike anyone else. She has written multi-voice poems of British rivers (Dart and Sleepwalk on the Severn) weaving oral history, drama and social documentary. She has written quiet, tender but unsentimental poems about parenthood and love. She has written bracingly violent poems about war and death. Oswald has worked on anthologies including selections of Thomas Wyatt and Ted Hughes. She has collaborated with artists, musicians and playwrights and increasingly works away from the conventions of the printed book.
Alice Oswald seems genuinely uninterested in celebrity poet status, whilst grateful for the support that prizes offer, and has been unafraid to distance herself from causes or trends she finds disquieting. Her ninety-minute long recitals of Memorial received standing ovations. Rather than being tempted to exploit or over-extend the acclaim those performances generated, Oswald is keen to be back at work on various new projects. The defining characteristic of her poetry, as well as her conversation, is honesty.
Q— It’s a slightly preposterous first question, or only question, but as a reader and re-reader of your poems over the years I wanted to ask very straightforwardly what you are doing?
A— Now? Or Generally?
Q— Both, but let’s start with now. In relation to the ‘dry stone walling with words’ of your early work, or the ‘aiming for translucence’ in your devastating recent Iliad poem Memorial.
A— I’m interested in trying to push against my own principles. Each book I make marks a frontier, and then I move into the next country. I had a certain amount of post-traumatic stress after Memorial. It was a haunting thing to do. But in the autumn, I started re-reading the Odyssey, and I can’t help beginning to think how one might translate it. Something very different from Memorial, certainly.
Q— Irreverent?
A— Yes. Exploring. A kind of ballad version, totally disloyal to the text. Because it’s so much a poem about the sea, I’m interested in its dislocated way of working. I’m intrigued by American poetry at the moment, and somehow (and I can’t do it, so I’m fascinated) they manage to fit thinking into poetry. For me poetry is about making a whole thing that has a life of its own, and then it gets moving outside of itself. But the Americans have this extraordinary capacity to think within a poem, to channel the essay. I really want to find out how to do that.
Q— Could you name some American poets who typify that thinking in the line? I read an interview with a young poet recently who talked about her ‘permission givers’. Who are the permission givers in this context?
A— Ashbery always sounds as if he’s thinking, even when you can’t quite get at the thoughts. Jorie Graham uses those expanding and compressing lines, which defeat the eyes and jumble the body’s rhythms so that your mind sort of breaks open. Dickinson actually exposes the pauses in the brain. They all seem to articulate indecision, as if the poem was writing itself in an unfinished moment. I find that quite invigorating. Poetry has this close relationship with tradition, so it’s interesting that the English language has two poetries, one of which (the American) is determined to escape its tradition. It’s like an open window in the work-room. Whenever I sit down to write, I have to think through certain questions about form – am I or am I not going to write a sonnet? If I don’t count syllables how do I communicate a tune? If I rhyme, whose voice am I putting on? And sometimes the whiff of America through the window gives me permission to ignore those questions. And then sometimes that permission can become a tyranny. Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara for example are quite pressurising and impatient with their invitations to freedom.
Q— Is British poetry, by comparison, stripped, or less idea-heavy?
A— It’s impossible to generalise, and of course there are very many brilliant people writing poems, but if one is allowed to make ignorant un-backed-up statements…
Q— Please!
A— British poets might put thoughts into their poems, but they pour them in as if the poem is a container and the thought drops in. Something about the American line just incorporates thinking.
Q— Particularly the new school of American poets you might class as Ashberian, are all busy, busy in the line thinking and over-thinking, frenetic, and it’s often labelled or received as a kind of nerd-lit, but it’s unavoidably Whitman’s lineage isn’t it?
A— Yes. It’s odd because I’ve sort of set myself up against that because I’m so in love with what Homer does. He just transmits life. No mediation. He describes a leaf and you don’t get a description of a leaf, you get a proper leaf. That’s always been my principle. You’ve got to make something living, and thinking isn’t living.
Q— But that’s kind of wishful thinking too, isn’t it? Because when Homer’s leaf gets to you it is so heavily annotated by the text’s journey, so the question is can you reinstate the journey into the leaf without losing the pure poetry of describing the leaf?
A— That’s a lovely way of putting it, but I feel that with Homer, and I don’t feel it with any other poet (beyond flashes of it in, say, Hughes, or Clare or folk poetry), it really does feel as if something – and it’s a lazy word, but – magical has happened. Beyond cleverness, beyond annotation.
Q— Alchemical.
A— I think it is. Of course you can theorise, or deconstruct, or show how it has passed through the ages, but there is some bizarre vital force that takes you by surprise.
Q— Your poems have it.
A— Well, thanks, but they may lose it now that I’m pondering the American line!
Q— Do you interrogate the links between you and these others? I have felt that it isn’t quite good enough to recognise a connection; the links are only fruitful if they’re picked apart and listened to. So, Hughes. If I think of Hughes, which I do probably daily, the imagery is dry-hand physicality, violence, crushing, shaping, but it’s basically penetrative, an act of aggression surface to surface… Do you have a shaman thing?
A— I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. I’m fascinated by it.
Q— But he was very presumptuous.
A— He was allowed to be. He’d earned it.
Q— It was beautifully unfashionable, wasn’t it? The horoscopes and the ancient symbols. These days, certainly, we would really punish a poet for those opinions. I think it’s one of the great problems of our culture that we aren’t allowing people to think in certain ways outside.
A— Absolutely.
Q— Well, can I ask you that? What do you think we allow poets to be?
A— We allow them to be marketable, which means they must be categorised in order to be sold. I mean you get told you’re a nature poet, so you really have to behave like one. You must be sitting under that tree looking wistful… I have quite a problem with the nature poet label, mostly because it might become a name I could wear comfortably and never have to face the confusions that spring up between poems. I’m not a nature poet, but I admit, I do love the company of plants. They are so expressive and patient. There’s an estuary walk which I do almost every day at different times according to the tide (sometimes I have to do it at night), which gives me a very intimate idea of the lives of plants. I can watch every movement of the gesture of a leaf uncurling through a week. I’m addicted to this slow performance. It reminds me that the human perspective is partial. So in that sense, nature poetry is just another kind of metaphysical poetry and is exactly what I like. But I think the best nature poets are Homer, Ovid, Shakespeare, because they include the human and the non-human in the same picture. How can you categorise that?
Q— Can we talk about Memorial? I saw you recite the whole poem in Edinburgh, and – as I’m sure you’re sick of hearing – it was a shattering physical and emotional experience, quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Certainly it was a million miles from a poetry reading. I was frightened by it.
A— Well, it still terrifies me. It’s very horrible to do. Before I do it I have this feeling of pressure. This line of soldiers queuing up that has to move through my head. I have every muscle tensed. It’s a disaster if I think of other things. I have grids in my head; the tapping of my foot, my clenched hand, they are making visual grids. It’s a safe prison that I have to keep myself in. I actually think of squares of rhythm. In a sense I take no responsibility for what happens in a performance of Memorial. It is shocking because the Iliad is shocking because it is real.
Q — So it’s not like acting?
A — I’m very interested in acting, in the discipline, but I am not acting the poem, because I don’t have a protective mechanism, it is just passing through me.
Q — Do you know Marina Abramović’s work? Editor’s Note: TWR describes The Artist is Present (2010), Rhythm 0 (1974) and Imponderabilia (with Ulay, 1974).]
A — That’s amazing. I love that. That’s something I’m more and more interested in. There’s so much talk of digital this and digital that but there is still nothing like the physical fact of a human offering you something.
Q— And the urgency of the encounter is growing and growing the further we engage with certain forms electronically?
A— It does still work, the human. If you scratch away at modernity it’s only about a centimetre thick. There is something extraordinarily alive and ancient that people recognise when a human is there.
Q— We are desperate to be moved, deeper than language.
A— Yes, it hasn’t been forgotten, or if it has, then poetry can quickly wake it up again. The rhythms of poems travel instantly into that pre-literate part of the mind. I originally took to reading my poems out loud because I found people didn’t read the tunes properly on the page. A tune (to me) is a tension – its ending is stretched from its beginning and you can’t cut it without losing that tension. But I’ve heard people reading poems slackly like loose rubber bands and that’s one of the reasons I almost can’t bear to put poems in books any more. But this is quite different from being an oral poet in the Homeric sense. The Iliad for example was composed in performance, not just performed orally with a text in the background. That’s not something I could ever do but in fact I’m happy to be a hybrid, somewhere between the two traditions.
Q — Will you keep performing Memorial? There are great risks, presumably, to you and the poem?
A— It’s tricky. I’m trying to say no. The poem needs to present itself as a voice, but I don’t want to do it too often.
Q— It’s a trauma. You’ve described it as such. If a trauma becomes a performance piece, worst case scenario a party trick, the emotional function is damaged.
A— I quite agree.
Q— On that note, can you give me any clues as to how and why and in what fashion you arrive back at Odysseus? Would you make it modern, as Memorial is iconographically modern?
A — Yes, oh yes. More so. I’m in mosaic mode now, translating, inventing. If I do tackle the Odyssey, it’ll be much lighter and crazier than Memorial, I think. It’ll infuriate classicists. After all, it is the most amazing love poem. When Odysseus comes back and Penelope doesn’t know who he is and despite herself starts falling in love, with a beggar, with her own husband, not knowing it’s him. It’s just extraordinary.
Q— And the ripple-like disturbance of his arrival back. It is chemical, like a raisin fizzing wildly in coke, or whatever the kitchen experiment is. And I don’t want you to give too much away, but would there be gods in it?
A— I’ve always been in love with Athene. I once had a wonderful dream that I was in a train and Athene was running along, keeping up with me. I love her beautiful non-relationship with Odysseus.
Q— The gamesmanship of testing, and forgiving, when they’re not even lovers, is extraordinary. Would you speak a bit about collaboration?
A— Of course. It’s always been my feeling that one mind isn’t enough for a poem. I like to talk about ideas with people. And I really do regard my poems as not my own. That’s not just a false modesty. They come from working with other people. I’ve worked with gardeners. I’ve worked with a trumpeter. He taught me a lot about the gaps in poems and what they are doing. I like that tension between silence and music, or words. And the person I most collaborate with is a typographer who lives near here, called Kevin Mount. He’s a really interesting person, a hidden genius. He’s brilliant at understanding how a poem wants to be set on a page. I feel a poem needs not to assume it will be read. It has to have the energy to create its own necessity. Poems shouldn’t operate within an expectation of poems being passed around. So I get very stuck on the question: why should a poem begin? Why should anything ever start speaking when silence is always more appropriate? This makes me suspicious of the impulse to write themed collections, because I think they dishonestly do away with the struggle against silence. A themed collection can just go on and on saying ‘and one more thing, and one more thing…’ (I’ve written them often enough myself so I know the temptations). What I want to do now is to find a way to raise the status of the single poem – the poem on the tube for example or the poem scribbled on a slip of paper, the poem without any context except itself. I remember at school being given ‘Go, lovely rose’ by Edmund Waller – it was just photocopied on a sheet of A4 and seemed to have floated to me on its own from the seventeenth century. I was really impressed by the strength of the poem’s pattern, which meant that it didn’t need to be in a book or a century, it just supported itself. Of course an oral poem, the Odyssey for example, doesn’t even have the A4 paper, it only has the breath. That would really make the poet concentrate. I’m interested in how one might restore that kind of pressure to a modern poet – take away all the props and categories and let the poems fend for themselves. I think we’d all write much better under those conditions…
Q— Yes. I feel, knowing that we share opinions on it, that we ought naturally to arrive at Crow, now.
ACrow. It’s probably one of my favourite books, ever.
Q— I’m dangerously obsessed with it. I’m always fiddling about with Crow ideas. Crow analysing Ted, attacking Eliot, waging weird wars on poetry, vandalising the text, the twentieth century, myth. Crow being naughty.
A— He’s a scrounger. It’s the most extraordinary… I don’t even know if it’s a poem really. It’s an odd thing. And it was odd for him, it stopped very suddenly.
Q— He says, ‘That’s what I tried to do,’ always speaking of it as unresolved and unfinished.
A— Yes, and I love the fact that it is so enigmatically fragmentary. Broken off. That’s all you have and it makes people so angry! I remember doing a talk about Ted Hughes and all the questions were ‘How can you like Crow?’ It’s not considered very cultivated. Not to be passed round a drawing room.
Q— I heard a very famous poet call it an embarrassment, a disaster, and dated! It’s the least dated, I think, of his writings. For me it’s a staggering act of generosity and danger and starting again.
A— Yes. And he says that, he says the thing about if you burnt down the library, the language that would be left. I love that. The courage of that.
Q— When everything is in tatters, burnt, spoilt. Civilization, family, personhood in ruins, there’s a beautiful dark, clever animal picking through the ruins finding things that shine.
A— And have you seen that photograph of him, with Peter Brook in Persepolis or somewhere? He looks just like a crow. It’s really odd.
Q— Yes. For me at least the full possibility of the lesson is there, between Crow and River. I could lie down between those two collections forever. I root myself there as a reader. Perhaps as an English person too. In rage as much as peace.
A — He provides both. For me it’s the aliveness. The lines, when they are beautiful are so beautiful. Untouchable. And when they are ugly, Crow-lines, they are extraordinarily powerful. And this is what I find in the Iliad and the Odyssey, too. Extremes I hover between where something alive has been created, beyond literature. - Max Porter

River Dart in Devon
It's not long before I can't think how to frame a question. Alice Oswald, the poet, is taking us on her favourite walk – one she tries to do every day – to a point where two tidal rivers, the Dart and the Harbourne, converge. The problem is we are walking along an enchanting path bordered with hedgerows thick with flowers, the bluebells are in bloom in the woods alongside and the pastures on the hills across the river are a heady spring green in the brilliant sunshine. But Oswald has firmly banned words such as pretty or idyllic. We find a compromise – I'm allowed to use the word "beautiful" because in Oswald's view "there's a kind of terror in beauty that I can cope with".
She concedes she is being dictatorial but, faced with the way in which this kind of Devon landscape has been romanticised, she argues she has no option. We are walking through the kind of picturesque nature used to sell dairy products and Oswald's response is fierce.
"I'm continually smashing down the nostalgia in my head. And I am trying to enquire of the landscape itself what it feels about itself rather than bringing in advertising skills. There's a whole range of words that people use about landscape. Pastoral? Idyll? I can't stand them.
"Yes, we were walking through stitchwort, wild garlic, campion, blue bells and buttercups. The most extraordinary colours, but I have to force my eye behind the flower. I have this exercise where I force myself to look out from the flower's point of view at these great walloping humans coming down the path, and try, just try and feel it from their point of view because it's a different world to them, a fascinating hard one."
Seen through Oswald's eyes, this gently rolling Devon countryside is a battleground for survival: each plant fighting for light in the crowded hedgerow; the trees whose roots cling to the river bank engaged in an epic struggle for life. A walk with Oswald is never going to be peaceful – she says she's allergic to the word.
"You say I'm fierce but I think you have to be. We are in the most extraordinary moment [of environmental crisis] and we cannot afford to be complacent. It is a kind of day-long effort to get your mind into the right position to live and speak well."
What irritates Oswald is that when we use a word such as "pretty" to describe it, we strip nature of its independence. "We're colonizing it. We're turning it into something human rather than what it is for itself. That spreads very quickly into the whole of your life and you then can begin to lead a kind of inert life of colonizing other people – colonizing everything. That's what I am working against."
Even the idea of mapping a landscape has become a suspect impulse, she argues. Naming becomes a form of "conquering a place"; once it is named, you don't look at it any more. She once spent time trying to learn the names of stars but realised that having named them, she stopped looking at them.
"This might seem like the river Harbourne but it's really a weird abstract alien stuff called water. I exert incredible amounts of energy in trying to see things from their own point of view rather than the human point of view."
When I point out the intellectual ambition of this and add that Oswald is deliberately trying to unpick over 200 years of the English tradition of the picturesque as the predominant way of thinking about landscape, she laughs.
"There's a lot of rage in my head. I like the friction that means there is nothing relaxing about writing a poem. I can't afford to relax in any area of life. You have to keep your senses awake to all the complacency that kicks in particularly for the English."
As Oswald drove us from Totnes station, we had been talking about this area of Devon's long association with a violent history of piracy and sugar plantations. Some of the surrounding estates were built on the profits of imperial exploitation. Now it's the preserve of the rich and privileged for holiday homes and weekend cottages.
"Peace here was quite often bought at the expense of smashing up some other part of the world. And these beautiful rich rolling estates that we think of as the English countryside are quite often based on illegal activities of some kind."
There was also the struggle of farmers and fishermen to make a living, often with considerable hardship and it's those "democratic voices" which interest Oswald. They echo the struggle of every other living thing from the blackbird hunting for food in winter to the oyster in the river mud.
Disregarding this struggle and hardship endemic in the landscape is the start of a slippery slope:
"I think it is the easiest mentality for a human being to be either colonized or to colonize. The structure of either the slave or the master seems to be the simplest and the most relaxing one to slip into. Either you are a slave and you don't have to think for yourself or you're a master and you don't have to work for yourself. And there's a tiny pinprick point in the middle where you're responsible for yourself, and you understand other people's responsibilities and rights. That is the point that I think you have to attain continually in your conscious mind …"
Oswald stops suddenly and laughs at herself: "I'm sounding pompous."
What's emerging in short, passionately intense bursts during the several hours we spend on the walk is a kind of political manifesto. She mentions that she travelled up to camp with the Occupy movement at St Paul's on London last autumn and is deeply admiring of the left-wing philosopher Slavoj Žižek. So how does all this feed into her poetry?
"I was first drawn towards this understanding of master and slave through being immersed in Homeric poetry. I think you can feel back through it into a much more democratic way of seeing the world where there is a kind of consciousness at the point of energy in each thing you come across."
Oswald describes discovering Homer as a teenager during lunch hours with a remarkable teacher. The inspiration now is as strong as ever – her most recent collection Memorial is a "translation of the Iliad". She wants her poetry to be spoken rather than read so that it becomes an event rather than just words on the page, and as such it can have a physical effect on the listener. Oral poetry such as that of Homer, "exist as forms of breath, of sound".
"My ideal has always been to create a sound world. So I'm continually referring everything to the ears and the voice and the channels between. That's what language is really. The words are the sound recordings of whatever you see or smell or taste."
Her booklength poem Dart was about capturing the sounds of the river and its inhabitants; it is never about image. She says she has "done quite a lot of work trying to get away from the eyes and into the ears." Sound offers more depth and resonance than our eyes can offer.
We have reached the confluence of the river Dart and the Harborne and Oswald likens our short walk to the achievement of finishing a poem. It's an invigorating exposure to a constantly changing landscape of tidal mudflats, surging currents of water and its restlessness, Oswald, suggests makes her feel at home. -