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Creation by Reduction: Alice Oswald’s Use of the Iliad in Memorial

Carolin Hahnemann

The 2012 publication of Alice Oswald’s “Memorial” in America met with a mixed reception: while NPR’s Alan Cheuse rated it among the five best books in fiction and poetry of the year, the reviews by Peter Green for the New Republic and by William Logan for the New York Times were rather negative.  In my opinion, the poem richly rewards attention, especially from readers who are trained in the Classics.

Memorial is a continuous poem that can be divided into three parts: (A) a litany of the names of 213 men and one horse killed over the course of the Iliad (pp. 1-8); (B) an alternation of biographical vignettes of these men interspersed with similes inspired by the Iliad (pp. 9-69); (C) an uninterrupted sequence of 11 such similes (pp. 70-81).

For an illustration of my approach, let us look at Oswald’s subtitle for the original English edition, “An Excavation of the Iliad”.  Logan’s (mis)understanding of this phrase as a confession on the part of the poet to “cheeky strip-mining of the ancient epic” must come as a shock to anyone familiar with the pains-taking practices of archaeology.  Instead, we do better to interpret the term in light of Proust’s statement that “excavation is necessary” in order to recapture our past by finding within ourselves “fixed places, contemporaneous with different years” (89f.).  The fact that Oswald varies her spelling of the Greek names --more or less Latinized forms, cases of Ionic dialect, apparent errors– shows that the Iliad she means to evoke is such a contemporaneous place.  What may seem like careless inconsistency at first, in fact serves to signal the epic’s continuous and multiform presence in our culture. 

My investigation of the relationship of Memorial to the Iliad proceeds from four angles: (1) the criteria by which the poet has selected the named casualties, (2) the order in which she lists them, (3) her rendering of the similes aiming for “translucence rather than translation” (x), and (4) her practice of lifting the similes out of their original context (which Green deems arbitrary and Logan dubs a “Frankenstein transplant”).  A chart tracing all similes in Memorial to their source passages in the Iliad will be included on the handout. 

Oswald’s use of the Iliad makes Memorial a challenging poem to everybody: the general reader must stand firm in the face of a tidal wave of foreign syllables, the Classicist remain flexible in the face of a radical reduction and reconfiguration of the epic he knows and loves.  Thus, a person who has read the Iliad many times may notice with dismay that the omission of the narrative context leaves him unable, in most cases, to tell whether the dead man in question was fighting for the Greeks or for the Trojans.  But such alienation is productive.  It is a defining characteristic of the Iliad, as well as much other art, that it calls into question the distinction between friend and foe on which any war is based (Tatum 22).  Yet, I cannot think of a work of art that makes this point as boldly as does Memorial.

Session/Panel Title

Unhistorical Receptions of Ancient Narrative

Session/Paper Number

42.4

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