From The Guardian, October 9 2011
Alice Oswald thinks The Iliad has been turned into a public school poem that glamorises war. So she has rewritten it – with the footsoldiers as heroes. The poet explains herself to Sarah Crown
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.