lyric/epic modes and the recognition of persons

April 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

In the poem as trace of an event 2 I mentioned that the American poet and theorist Susan Stewart in Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (2002), offers an interesting discussion of the ethical element of lyric when she distinguishes between lyric and epic poetry: she suggests that epic poetry is the voice of the nation (it voices the official perspective of the nation at war) while lyric poetry is the voice of the individual, who may be caught up in that war, but speaks alone, as one:

“I would like to take seriously [Rorty’s] suggestion that literature is a vehicle of moral progress if by such progress we mean an increasing recognition of individual persons and a reciprocal attention to the consequences of actions in relation to intentions. But I would argue that we can as readily find an analogue to the contrast between the abstracted and sublime view of human suffering and the immediacy of first-person experience in the contrast between two poetic modes: the first associated with public representations of war and the expression of tribalism and nationalism — the epic — and the second associated with the expression of the senses and emotions out of first-person experience — the lyric.” (p.296)

She goes on to argue that the lyric mode is best able to present the idiosyncratic consciousness of an individual, those “senses and emotions” that arise from first-person experience, over the engineered ideological pronouncements of the state. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the Iliad, and Alice Oswald’s Memorial (2011), which could be described as a reworking of Homer which attempts to rescue the individual soldiers and their deaths from the relentless (at times cinematic) narrative of battle in the original poem.

Oswald writes in her preface to Memorial, that

“ancient critics praised [the poem’s] enargeia, which means something like ‘bright unbearable reality.’ It’s the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves. This version, trying to retrieve the poem’s enargeia, takes away its narrative, as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping. What’s left is a bipolar poem made of similes and short biographies of soldiers, both of which derive (I think) from distinct poetic sources: the similes from pastoral lyric (you can tell this because their metre is sometimes compressed as if it originally formed part of a lyric poem); the biographies from the Greek tradition of lament poetry [….] I like to think that the stories of individual soldiers recorded in the Iliad might be recollections of these laments, woven into the narrative by poets who regularly performed both high epic and choral lyric poetry.” p.1-2

Her “translation” then is based on her interpretation of the Iliad as “a kind of oral cemetery — in the aftermath of the Trojan War, an attempt to remember people’s names and lives without the use of writing.” p.2 As such, and in light of Stewart’s comments above, Oswald is working against the grain: to salvage the individual perspective by lifting it from its surrounding epic (state) narrative, to give us tiny glimpses of individual soldiers at their deaths, of who they were, their preoccupations, their loves.

In practice, Oswald constructs the bulk of Memorial by presenting first a description of a soldier’s death, followed by an epic simile, which is repeated twice. The repetition suggests a certain ceremonial, religious aspect, as in a litany or a prayer for the dead. It also suggests the ways in which memory circles back, returning again and again to recall the ones we have lost. As example, I’ve selected her description of the death of Skamandrios (Scamandrius in Oswald’s version):

First, here is the death of Skamandrios, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation:

The henchmen of Idomeneus stripped the armour from Phaistos,
while Menelaos son of Atreus killed with the sharp spear
Strophios’ son, a man of wisdom in the chase, Skamandrios,
the fine huntsman of beasts. Artemis herself had taught him
to strike down every wild thing that grows in the mountain forest.
Yet Artemis of the showering arrows could not now help him,
no, nor the long spearcasts in which he had been pre-eminent,
but Menelaos the spear-famed, son of Atreus, stabbed him,
as he fled away before him, in the back with a spear thrust
between the shoulders and driven through to the chest beyond it.
He dropped forward on his face and his armour clattered upon him.  Bk. V. l.48-58

Here is Oswald’s translation or version, including the twice-repeated simile she adds to the biography:

SCAMANDRIUS the hunter
Knew every deer in the woods
He used to hear the voice of Artemis
Calling out to him in the lunar
No man’s land of the mountains
She taught him to track her animals
But impartial death has killed the killer
Now Artemis with all her arrows can’t help him up
His accurate firing arm is useless
Menelaus stabbed him
One spear-thrust through the shoulders
And the point came out through the ribs
His father was Strophius

Like when a mother is rushing
And a little girl clings to her clothes
Wants help wants arms
Won’t let her walk
Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip

Like when a mother is rushing
And a little girl clings to her clothes
Wants help wants arms
Won’t let her walk
Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip


Some of the personal information of Skamandrios is in the original, including the irony of the hunter now becoming the hunted and the slain.  Oswald draws more however upon the senses and emotions Stewart points to as the province of lyric; it’s as if we see through his eyes (what he used to hear in the “lunar/No man’s land of the mountains”). And the shorter line is more familiar to us than the original hexameter of epic poetry. But it is in the simile where Oswald diverges widely from Homer. The simile itself isn’t in the original, at least, not attached to Skamandrios’s death; rather, it appears at the opening to Book 16, when Patroklos comes to Achilleus:

and stood by him and wept warm tears, like a spring dark-running
that down the face of a rock impassable drips its dim water;
and swift-footed brilliant Achilleus looked on him in pity,
and spoke to him aloud and addressed him in winged words; ‘Why then
are you crying like some poor little girl, Patroklos,
who runs after her mother and begs to be picked up and carried,
and clings to her dress, and holds her back when she tries to hurry,
and gazes tearfully into her face, until she is picked up?
You are like such a one, Patroklos, dropping these soft tears.

(Bk.16, lines 3- 11)

Achilleus is not so sympathetic to Patroklos and his sorrow for the wounded Greeks; the implication is that such “soft tears” are not the appropriate response of a warrior; rather, they are the response of a child — a girl child no less, who seeks the comfort of her mother. Yet we know that Patroklos will in fact take on the heavy responsibility that is Achilleus’s to bear, and lose his life for it.

Oswald takes (or maybe rescues) this simile of a young child who desires to be picked up and carried by a mother and attaches it instead to the death of Skamandrios, and in so doing, transfers the emotions of the young girl-child wanting her mother to those of the soldier at his death. She is true to the original simile, but adds some lovely details: in the truncated grammar from the child’s perspective, its entire being suffused with wanting the mother (“wants help, wants arms”); in the idea of “wanting to be light again,” lifted from the heaviness that life has become; and in that final realistic detail, missing in the original, but so true to a mother’s experience, wanting to be “carried on a hip.” I envy her these lines.

Other adapted and transposed similes in Memorial come equally from the human world of labour, and the natural realm, each simile drawn from the original poem, but now married to the description of a soldier’s death. For example:

Like a wind-murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land-ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn-stalks shake their green heads. (Memorial p.14)


Like when the wind comes ruffling at last to sailors adrift
Trying to manage the broken springs of their muscles
And lever and lift those well-rubbed oars
Making tiny dents in the ocean (Memorial p.43).

The strength of Oswald’s technique in Memorial is in the particularized description of each death, lifted out of the original narrative of war; each soldier and his death is given equal weight, no longer subsumed by the larger story of Achilles. And each death is then attached to a simile, as if a ritual mourning for that death. At its best, as in the example of Skamandrios above, lyric’s potential to tap into emotion and sensual experience is used to particularize the soldier’s death and present him as individual.

Yet, sometimes I feel that the similes drawn from the natural world — by which the soldier is transformed into grain, into waves, into earth, into sounds — begin to naturalize and thus possibly even sanction such deaths, these bloody deaths in the service of the state. That is, that Oswald attempts to resist the ideological ‘gravity’ of the Iliad by using lyric elements to lift the soldiers’ deaths out of the epic narrative — to carry them on the hip — but that Memorial is ultimately dragged back down into the Iliad’s heavy ideology because of the naturalizing similes, and may become complicit to some extent with the viewpoint of the state embodied by the epic form of the original. It’s as if the similes at times in Memorial erase the event’s trace, and the death is made clean. In this, the similes work against the particularizing force of the initial description of the soldier and his individual death; it is his death, yet it is given without question to the state.

At other times, I think there is something more positively transformative happening in Memorial, as if the Iliad is a cloth of many stitched pieces which Oswald has ripped apart at the seams and then rescued and stitched back together again, these lyric scraps meant to create a new hybrid poem to challenge the original epic, reframing its energeia, its “bright unbearable reality.”

the poem as trace of an event 1

February 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

Many of the poems I currently gravitate towards are those which have a documentary aspect: poems that transcribe an event, a thought, an experience, however fleeting. I confess to a belief in, or desire for, sincerity as a moral constraint on poetry; I’m less moved by poetry that dissembles, ventriloquizes, makes up. I want to insist upon a connection between lyric I and poet, however mediated it may be; this is perhaps against the current of a 20th/21st century poststructural critical imperative to cleave the two, which often severs agency and intention from poet. The poem then that I find most compelling can be read, at least on one level, as linguistic trace of an event that has been observed and experienced by the poet.

An example of this is Ted Hughes’ wonderful Moortown Diary, consisting of a series of “notes”/poems which record his experiences working on his farm in Dartmoor in the early 1970s. He tells us in the preface that he used verse as a form because

“In making a note about anything, if I wish to look closely I find I can move closer, and stay closer, if I phrase my observations about it in rough lines. So these improvised verses are nothing more than this: my own way of getting reasonably close to what is going on, and staying close, and of excluding everything else that might be pressing to interfere with the watching eye. In a sense, the method excludes the poetic process as well” (x).

He then describes being asked once to provide an editor of a magazine with one of these poems, or “notes,” and realizing that although it was raw, he couldn’t rework it without having to “translate” it, thus destroying the original in the process. The original he now saw as “the video and surviving voice-track of one of my own days, a moment of my life that I did not want to lose […] Altering any word felt like retouching an old home movie with new bits of fake-original voice and fake-original actions” (xi). He describes the process of poetic revision as if the introduction of corruption, (“fake-original voice,”) a dubbing over of the raw event, or rather, the trace of this raw event. As if the original note were a snapshot or rubbing, still bearing molecular traces of the experience. I think this is a true description of the experience of writing the first draft of a poem, when the words are still freshly inked.

Here is an excerpt from “Ravens,” on a still-born lamb. Hughes describes how the ravens are eating the lamb’s corpse; this note is framed by the interest of a young child accompanying him in the field. We are asked to see through the child’s eyes.

Now over here, where the raven was,
Is what interests you next. Born dead,
Twisted like a scarf, a lamb of an hour or two,
Its insides, the various jellies and crimsons and transparencies
And threads and tissues pulled out
In straight lines, like tent ropes
From its upward belly opened like a lamb-wool slipper,
The fine anatomy of silvery ribs on display and the cavity,
The head also emptied through the eye-sockets…

The note-like quality doesn’t exclude technique: the use of simile (“like a scarf,” “like a lamb-wool slipper”); the very fine use of metaphor to describe the multiplicity of texture of the drawn-out lamb’s “insides” (jellies, crimsons, transparencies, threads, tissues, tent ropes); the use of polysyndeton, that is, consecutive conjunctions (“jellies and crimsons and transparencies”) so that the cumulative list sounds like a child’s chanted enumeration.

I like his description of these “notes” as being about moving close and staying close: his insistence on paying attention. It suggests a moral dimension to the raw or transcript poem: a paying attention to the world as it is, as it is perceived; to perceive and then document what is seen as closely as possible then becomes a way of sharing that knowledge with others through the lens of the poem.

And inevitably with each poet there is a different kind of seeing; each poem also carries a trace of the poet’s mind with its idiosyncratic ways of viewing and interpreting the world.

More recently in the UK, Alice Oswald’s Dart (2002) and Sean Borodale’s Bee Journal (2012) seem to participate in this kind of documentary project, written at the ‘source’ and aiming for an almost anthropoetical or ecopoetical description.

In Dart Alice Oswald made a transcription of the “songlines” of the River Dart, “from the source to the sea.” At one level we can read it as aural history/transcript of the riverflow of voices; we hear echoes of those fishers, poachers, naturalists she met along the river; and beneath this, a deeper folk song that seems to emerge from the waters — “Dart Dart/Every year/Thou claimest a heart.” Here is a brief excerpt:


and here I am coop-felling in the valley, felling small sections to
give the forest some structure. When the chainsaw cuts out the
place starts up again. It’s Spring, you can work in a wood and
feel the earth turning


woodman working on your own
knocking the long shadows down
and all day the river’s eyes
peep and pry among the trees

when the lithe water turns
and its tongue flatters the ferns
do you speak this kind of sound:
whirlpool whisking round?

There is something of witchy Shakespearean song in her poetry, a voice that Woolf also channeled, most notably in Between the Acts. This contrasts strongly with many of the other voices, such as that of the forester above, who speaks of his work in shaping the forest in a more precise, technical register. Many of the voices in fact come from river and forest caretakers, people who watch and listen closely; the poem at one level functions as audiograph of these voices.

If Dart is an audiograph, Sean Borodale’s Bee Journal functions as a bee-keeper’s notebook, charting the progress of a hive. We are told on the volume’s dust jacket that the “poems were written at the hive wearing a veil and gloves, and the journal is an intrinsic part of the kinetic activity of keeping bees.” All of the poems include a date, and sometimes only a date, in the title, in keeping with the journal-like function of the poems. For example, this is from the opening poem, “24th May: Collecting the Bees:”

He just wears a veil, this farmer, no gloves
and lifts open a dribbly wax-clogged
blackwood box.
We in our whites mute with held breath.
Hello bees.
Drops four frames into our silence.

The air is like mica
ancient with thin flecks;
distance viewed through a filter of thousands.
I am observed.

Each box has the pulsar of its source. Porous with eyes
we wait in the spinning sun. The light is Medusa,
sugar of frayed threads; a mesh, a warp-field, all
the skin of our heads.

Here is a similar use, as in Hughes’ Moortown Diary, of the lineation of verse to make notes, and to frame the poet as observing ‘eye’/I. And as also with Hughes, close observation and careful description become paramount: bee-filled air “like mica/ancient with thin flecks” (what a beautiful image, to describe the frames of light-filled, bee-filled air as a slice of flecked stone); the boxes of bees like pulsars, an image which evokes light and sound as pattern, the thrum of energy emitted from each box; the layering of metaphor as if making attempt after attempt at a thick description of the bee-filled light: Medusa; mesh; warp-field.

I imagine all of these poets tracing at least one ancestral line back to the poetry of Edward Thomas, many of whose poems document knowledge of the countryside, such as folk song, herbal and floral lore, place names, and dialectical words, which also carry knowledge. Even the auditory patterns of local voices are consciously recorded in his poems, the “sound of sense” which he and his intimate friend Robert Frost often discussed during Frost’s year in England before the First World War. (See Matthew Hollis’s richly detailed Now All Roads Lead to France for an in-depth discussion of this friendship and its workings on their poetic practices).

I want also to mention Geoffrey Hill’s amazing Mercian Hymns in this context, each hymn, or verset — to use Borodale’s phrase, like “mica/ancient with thin flecks” — requiring a stratigraphical reading of his lines, which document the archaeology and ancient history of Mercia through the 1930s & early 1940s of Hill’s own childhood.

Michael Longley it seems to me also works in this vein, through the minute accumulation of closely-observed detail in Carrigskeewaun. Any individual poem in one of his collections may seem microscopic in its focus, yet the cumulative effect is a moral one, of an intelligence that is paying attention to a small corner of the natural world and sharing it with others. He tells us of his lyric poems on local flowers and birds in Carrigskeewaun as a counter to the Troubles of his native Belfast: “I want the light from Carrigskeewaun to irradiate the northern darkness.”[1]

[1] Interview with Jody Allen RandolphColby Quarterly, 39.3 (2003), p.305.

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