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