The unbearable brightness of speaking

Fixated by Homer since the age of 16, Alice Oswald has now written her own version of the <em>Iliad<

If you put a real leaf and a silk leaf side by side, you'll see something of the difference between Homer's poetry and anyone else's. There seem to be real leaves still alive in the Iliad, real animals, real people, real light attending everything. Goethe put it like this: "Ancient writers represent real existence, whereas we usually present its effects." All the Iliad translations I know are full of silk leaves, dictionary leaves. Plenty of them tell the story well or give vivid equivalents of Greek phrases, but they don't translate the Iliad's manifest reality.

How might that be done? How is Homer's kind of poetry made? Is it only oral poems that can carry the living powers of things, or might
a literary poem (or a literary version of an oral poem) learn how to do it? I've been trying to answer those questions for years.

When I was 16, I was taught by a wonderful teacher who let me ignore the Greek syllabus and just read Homer. On Friday afternoons, we'd meet in a tiny room and spend 80 minutes reading the Odyssey. Then I'd go home and see how far I could get by the following Friday. Perhaps it was the exhilaration of being allowed to plan my own lesson, but what impressed me was the unbossiness of Homer's language, an absence of authority that allowed everything in the poem to be strongly and strangely itself. Compare the trees on Kalypso's island:

Alder and black poplar and sweet-
smelling cypress
Where long-winged birds have their beds
Little owls and hawks and honking sea-crows
Whose families work the waters . . .
to the ones that appear in Paradise Lost:
. . . the roofe
Of thickest covert, was inwoven shade
Laurel and Mirtle, and what higher grew
Of firm and fragrant leaf; on either side
Acanthus, and each odorous bushy shrub . . .

I love Milton, but his trees are Miltonic. They are shaped by the prevailing wind of the poet managing his breath across the subject. Homer's trees, even in the original hexameter, still have some of their own spirit. According to their position in the line and their case-ending, they will come accompanied by an adjective that fits the rhythm, but it won't be the outcome of one poet's mind; it won't be marked by one poet's accent.

An oral poet - and Homer was one (or several) - works in chorus with his predecessors, learning from them a repertoire of rhythmical phrases that enable him to compose spontaneously in metre. The tendency of his grammar is therefore cumulative, like a cairn. Each clause is a separable unit. It might be placed loosely on another and held there with a quick connective, but it never loses its essential singleness; which is why you often find that one end of his sentence turns away from the other. In the earlier excerpt, the trees barely notice the birds, the birds are focused on fish, the sea has no awareness of the trees - it's as if the eyes of the clauses are looking outwards, elsewhere. But in Milton's passage, the control is absolute, and the clauses' eyes are exchanging glances. There are no loose nouns, always the right number of finite verbs; and the result is that the trees don't move, don't live. They seem to be stuck into position in a kind of poetic cement.

This might sound a bit technical, but it's just a question of patterns. As a teenager, I couldn't get Homer's self-regulating patterns out of
my head. When I walked out of that tiny classroom, along the streets to the station, then uphill through the woods, past the barking dog and the old buses, past the church, past Miss Waters hanging out her rectangular underwear, down the wet field home avoiding the ram, through the iron gate that always groaned when opened and into my mother's flower-governed garden, everything I saw seemed to be powered by its singleness. Everything stood next to something else but had its eyes turned away.

All my poems have been translations of that pattern, but a couple of years ago I decided to confront it head-on by translating the Iliad.
It was vital to me that my version should offer some equivalent not only to Homer's words but to the cracked texture of his syntax; which is why (despite the attractions of the storyline) I grew more and more fascinated by the poem's double-life, the way it kept breaking in and out of simile. "As many as the millions of drifting flies that gather in sheds in springtime when the milk splashes in the buckets, that's how many long-haired Greeks stood facing the Trojans imagining their blood . . ." The space between those worlds, at the point where I've placed a comma, is identical to the space between Homer's clauses. It's as if the similes are his grammar's inflorescence, just as loose and lateral in their connections.

The wrath of Achilles (with accompanying lyre and shining limbs and flowing hair) has been so glamorised in western culture that it dominates people's reading of the Iliad. Translations and reworkings seldom remind people that the story happens against a background of dazzling discontinuity. After a certain amount of worrying, I decided to honour this by removing the main narrative. I wanted to make a poem whose pauses were unmistakably exposed.

Stripped of its plot, the Iliad is a scattering of names and biographies of ordinary soldiers: men who trip over their shields, lose their courage or miss their wives. In addition to these, there is a cast of anonymous people: the farmers, walkers, mothers, neighbours who inhabit its similes. Memorial is a collection of these anti-heroic stories, an Iliad of minor characters. Its divided structure, moving abruptly from the soldiers' world to the simile world without the distraction of a narrative, is my response to the Iliad's porousness - an attempt to make space for what the earliest critics called its "enargeia".

Enargeia is hard to define. There is disagreement about whether it derives from argos, the word for "bright" or en ergo, meaning "real". Hera, in book 20 of the Iliad, says: "When gods appear in their actual forms [enargeis] they are hard to bear." Years later, the philosophers (Democritus, Plato and in particular Epicurus) used the word to mean "self-evident" or "unmediated by the mind". The Hellenistic critics took the term from philosophy and applied it to Homer. They might have been referring to the clarity of his similes, but perhaps they were also remembering Hera's word - that sense of "difficult brightness" or "unbearable reality".

There is certainly a radiance to Homer's similes. When I started translating, I kept missing it. Like an eclipse, my body seemed to slide between the colour-source and the language. It was not until I lost my notebook and spent two months working without notes that I discovered how to realign myself so that not just the poem but the brightness beneath it was visible. When my notebook returned, I found that my whole method had changed. Instead of worrying through dictionaries looking for reasonable words, I would scribble the Greek on to a scrap of paper and then walk and wait - sometimes days - until the image underneath showed clear. Then I'd translate it.

It was this practice that showed me how to manage the other half of the poem: the litany of deaths. Homer's soldiers come from a warrior culture, very different from ours (or at least mine). To translate them without putting on a voice seemed impossible. But when I peered beyond their descriptions, first believing in and then attending to the people themselves, I found myself caught up in something horribly powerful - something real. One of the rules of Greek lament poetry is that it mustn't mention the dead by name in case of invoking a ghost. Maybe the Iliad, crowded with names, is more than a poem. Maybe it's a dangerous piece of the brightness of both this world and the next. If that isn't what the critics meant by enargeia, it is at least what I mean.

Alice Oswald is an award-winning poet. She writes the nature column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B

Almeida Theatre
Show Hide image

Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.