I’ve had a vivid and unscholarly interest in the Homeric stories since I was a boy. In those days both the battles of the Iliad and Odysseus’s wanderings among monsters and goddesses filled me with a simple, childish sense of wonder.
In my early twenties I discovered Patrocleia, the first section of Christopher Logue’s Homer adaptations. That gave me a different kind of excitement, adding the brilliance of great modern English poetry to the sheer wonder of the ancient ideas. A good many years later, the introduction of coursework at GCSE gave me the chance to teach sections of Logue’s Homer to English Literature students and I found that my excitement was something many of them could share.
Of course, a huge number of writers have been inspired by Homer almost since the Homeric poems were composed. He inspired new tales that expanded on those he told himself. His heroes were sources of inspiration to ambitious warriors like Alexander the Great. At the same time, the fall of Troy gave writers material they could adapt to express the horrors and futility of contemporary wars. Odysseus became the archetype of the adventurous voyager and also of the exile yearning for home.
Yeats describes Homer as “many-minded” and I think this is the secret of his appeal and what makes him so fruitful for later writers. It’s not just that he invents so many situations that seem to express fundamental aspects of the human condition, aspects that endure in changing circumstances and so lend themselves endlessly to modernisation and adaptation, but also that the poems themselves contain such a rich variety of attitudes. Where one person will see a cause of simple wonder, another will find sophisticated humour, another deep pathos, another a blend of all three and more, and all of them will be right.
Homer’s characters themselves are never cardboard heroes or villains; some may possess superhuman physical strength but in terms of their emotional constitution they’re volatile, all-too-human figures driven by conflicting passions we probably all recognise in ourselves even if we express them in a more tamed and inhibited way. So the Odysseus of Michael Longley’s short poems is sometimes a vehicle of the most tenderly humane and loving feelings and sometimes of the most brutal and violent tribalism.
On my upcoming New Homers – a Reading & Writing Course, we will look at a few modern adaptators of Homer – mainly Christopher Logue (passages from Patrocleia and Pax), Alice Oswald (passages from Memorial), Derek Mahon and Michael Longley (short poems condensing or developing from episodes in the Iliad and the Odyssey). I plan to spend roughly the first half of each session (the whole of the first session) looking at these passages, and the second half discussing poems members of the class have been inspired to write in response to Homer, or to the passages and poems we’ve looked at together. Of course, there won’t be any pressure on people to put their own work forward for discussion if they don’t want to. I would hope that looking at how other members of the class are responding will be illuminating and enjoyable in itself.
I hope some people will leave full of ideas for their own poetry. I hope others will find that the stimulus to their reading is enough to make the course feel worthwhile – both the stimulus of the stories and poems in themselves and the stimulus of sharing the very different ways of seeing them that we find in the published texts we discuss and hopefully in our own writing. No previous reading really does mean that – I’ll supply photocopied materials for specific class discussions.
However, for anyone really interested in wider reading in this area, going way beyond what we’ll have time for in the course, Nauplion has a wonderful mass of material inspired by Greek literature, with a page of links to poems inspired by Homer at http://nauplion.net/homer.html. This draws on Nina Kossman’s massive anthology, Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths, which includes English translations of a huge range of European authors who have responded to the ancient Greek stories.
For anyone who wants to look at Homer independently, my own favourite modern translations of the Iliad are those by Robert Fagles, which conveys the violent narrative sweep of the poem with great power, and by Robert Fitzgerald (Oxford World Classics). My favourite Odyssey is Fitzgerald’s.
Christopher Logue’s War Music, particularly its first and third sections, Patrocleia and Pax, is a series of extraordinarily compelling narrative adaptations of different books of the Iliad. It’s available as a number of separate books, all but the last two brought together as a single Faber volume published in 2001, though to my mind Logue’s Homer work is seen at its very best in the shorter King Penguin War Music of 1984.
Alice Oswald’s Memorial brilliantly distils Homer’s narrative into a single book-length lyric. It’s published by Penguin and you can hear Alice Oswald reading from it at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/prizeforwriting/2013/winner/. Longley’s and Mahon’s Homeric poems are scattered through a number of volumes.
This course is suitable for a wide range of people – anyone who likes reading poems and stories and talking about them in a lively way. Both teaching in school and with adult groups I’ve found that the best discussions are those which move easily between simple sharing of responses and more analytical observations which can be probing and technical without being at all academic. The fact that many of the people in the group will, I hope, be writers themselves is one way of keeping the discussion concrete and practical.
I think people who already know Homer, or the modern poets we discuss, or both, will find themselves looking at them in new ways as we share ideas and cross-fertilise each other’s imaginations. At the same time, experience has shown me that all the poems we’ll be looking at are very accessible. No previous knowledge of them or of Homer and no great knowledge of poetry in general is necessary before people can enjoy them and talk illuminatingly about them. I also hope and believe that writers of quite different levels of technical expertise will find plenty to stimulate and challenge them.
If you fancy embarking on your own poetic odyssey with Edmund in Manchester, then book your place on New Homers – a Reading & Writing Course via our website, or ring us on 0207 582 1679.