It took me three months to wade through Robert Fagles’ 600 page translation of the Iliad. There were days when, exhausted, like the warriors, I felt I could not go on. It is brutal, graphic and relentless in its description of how one after another of the men are slaughtered, and, as each one falls, he is named and often his family and origins recorded in excrutiating detail. Yet something compelled me on. There is Achilles, the loner, a romantic human figure among the automatons, the one whose rage begins the book. There are the gods, whose arguments change the course of the war and whose voices act like the consciences of the protagonists. There is the music of the verse, because this is epic poetry, and whether Homer was the sole author, or whether it is the work of generations, there is a rhythm to the narrative, woven out of repetition, it riffs like jazz, it thunders like techno. Phrases like ‘wine dark sea’ ‘grain giving earth’ and ‘unharvestable sea’ appear again and again, like a chant that lulls the reader into the landscape of the beached ships, the citadel on the horizon, shimmering in the heat. In The Mighty Dead Adam Nicolson contends that the origin of the Iliad can be traced back to as early as 1700 BCE, to the ancestral homeland of Achilles, the steppes between the Caspian and Black seas. We know the Trojan Wars took place in the Bronze Age, just before the mysterious collapse of many eastern Mediterranean civilisations, so the Iliad may have travelled hundreds of years before it was commited into writing by the man we know as Homer. No other work of European literature can claim such a formidably long gestation, so it is no wonder deep and ancient tradition, a civilisation long lost, ‘floats all through the songs like dust through air.’ Fagles’ translation is stunning, and finding my way through it, continually cross referencing protagonists, place names and gods has been one of the most profound experiences of my reading life.
Category Archives: poetry
Don Paterson’s ‘Rain’
I don’t understand poetry. But I’m not sure I know what I mean by the word understand. Poetry doesn’t get me anywhere. I never feel as if I’ve learnt something that I didn’t know before, although I wonder what I mean by know. Sometimes a feeling is captured and held there and for a few seconds at least you think you know what it means. This isn’t to suggest that the poet meant the same things. The poet can only do so much. Yet Paterson’s Rain exists in a class of poetry that does everything for me. I find it intellectually interesting but it has an emotional, almost physiological impact, it gets me in the gut.
‘We come from nothing and return to it’ is the first line of Phantom V. It’s not a particularly illuminating nor original thought and Paterson puts it quite baldly: but this thought is threaded through other poems in this collection with far more nuance and subtlety – and when his own children are the subject matter, the poetry becomes fragile, beautiful and permeated with aching grief. In The Circle Paterson’s son struggles to paint a picture, but at the same time his water jar captures an echo of the universe. In placing the child in such a vast cosmography, his efforts are simultaneously futile and colossal. The Swing touches on a similar theme – the moment of a child’s existence between two eternities:
I gave the empty seat a push
and nothing made a sound
and swung between two skies to brush
her feet upon the ground.
I’ve never read anything so gracefully poignant. My favourite poem of the collection (The Rain at Sea) I am not close to understanding: its power is its mystery.