Poetry News

PN Review Slays Alice Oswald's Memorial

By Harriet Staff

Homer aficianados love to split hairs over different translations of their favorite war epic, The Iliad. Some argue the Loeb translation is the truest, some prefer the Lattimore, others retort that the Fagles translation is the most lyrical. But when somebody decides to take major risks in translating "the wrath of Achilles," they're likely to face some wrath themselves. Take Jason Guriel's recent review of Alice Oswald's Memorial, published in PN Review:

Alice Oswald's Memorial is a translation of The Iliad that chucks the dull stuff (the plot points, all that talking) and retains the choice bits (the violence, the similes). It is Homer cutting to the chase - Homer cut to the quick. Thin, with a blood-red cover, you can read it in an hour. Swear.

...Oswald says she's stripped away Homer's narrative to 'retrieve the poem's enargeia', which she translates to mean 'something like "bright unbearable reality"'. Surely the run-ons and lack of punctuation have been deployed to blind us with brilliance or, at the very least, get all up in our helmets. But these are the sort of easy, go-to solutions a poet will grab for when she's after some violent spontaneity. They assure some fantasy of a complacent reader that what he's supposed to be experiencing is discomfort, what with all the Brutal Hyperreal Lyricism going on.

If I call Memorial 'Anne Carson-lite', it is not to suggest that Carson, the Canadian poet and classicist, is especially weighty; it is to suggest, rather, that Memorial updates the classical world with but a touch of the weirdness that is often attributed to the not-very-weird poetry of Carson. Oswald, less radical than rascal, slips in references to 'parachutes', 'god's headlights', and 'astronauts'. Near the end, Hector is compared to a man 'in full armour in the doorway' who leaves 'his motorbike running'. The problem is not just that Hector was a convertible man; it's that there's something predictable, even calculated, about Oswald's choices.

Ouch. Guriel reveals himself as a Fagles man in the end, though, so what else could we expect? Read the full review here.

Originally Published: September 21st, 2012