World Poetry Day

Sun, Mar 25, 2018

A belated post catching up on World Poetry Day. Here are two nominations, both inspired by Ancient Greece, the first contemporary and the second around 2,000 years old.

Alice Oswald, Memorial

My most recent discovery and keeper has been Alice Oswald - especially ‘Memorial’, a retelling of the Iliad with only the deaths left in. She was trained as a classicist and sometimes calls this a translation, but it isn’t. It’s an original work inspired by Homer.

Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea

Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea

Like the hawk of the hills the perfect killer
Easily outflies the clattering dove
She dips away but he follows he ripples
He hangs his black hooks over her
And snares her with a thin cry
In praise of her softness

Marvellous, that: ‘And snares her with a thin cry / In praise of her softness’. Or there’s this gory description of just one of the many killings:

And PEDAEUS the unwanted one
The mistake of his father’s mistress
Felt the hot shock in his neck of Meges’ spear
Unswallowable sore throat of metal in his mouth
Right through his teeth
He died biting down on the spearhead

The whole, long poem is a relentless piling of death on death. Oswald has performed the entire thing live from memory on occasion. She’s my nomination for Poet Laureate in a few years.

Ovid, Heroides I - Penelope to Ulysses

This was written around the second or third decade BC, in the era of Augustus. I happened across this when I heard of a book called, ‘Where Troy Once Stood’, which argued, bizarrely, that the historic events on which the legend of Troy are based occurred in and around East Anglia. The river Scamander was the Cam, and so on. I thought the title was such an arresting phrase it had to be a reference to something, but I didn’t know what. So I found out.

Ovid, innovator that he was, wrote a set of epistolary poems in the voices of heroic, legendary or mythical women. Quite a remarkable thing for his time. The line came from the first letter, Penelope writing desparingly to her long-absent husband, Ulysses (Odysseus). She says that for her, Troy isn’t over, it’s still standing, effectively, or might as well be, given that Ulysses is still missing. Here it is in context:

there are fields now, where Troy once stood, and the earth,
beneath the scythe, crops densely, rich with Phrygian blood:
half-buried bones of heroes are struck by the curving plough,

Ovid spent his last days exiled in a small town on the shores of the Black Sea, far away from the cultured Rome that was his natural environment, though there is a suggestion from one bright scholar that this ‘exile’ was itself a poetic conceit, invented by Ovid to allow him to adopt a voice in poems extolling the beauty and delights of Rome as seen from afar by a yearning exile. It’s a minority opinion.


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