I first read The Iliad (translated by Fitzgerald) at 15 years old, paired with my study of Ancient History. When I was about three-quarters through, I went to my mom and told her that I needed to take a break because so many people were dying. It’s not that I was a stranger to sad stories, but the death, rape, and pillage of The Iliad is, in my opinion, unparalleled. The language of the deaths is not gruesome or violent, but it is sobering. At times the epic read like lists of the dead. It can be overwhelmingly sad.
In 2011, British poet Alice Oswald deconstructed The Iliad in her book Memorial, a new sort of epic poem that she refers to as an “oral cemetery.” Memorial strips The Iliad of its plot, main characters, and political motives, and what remains is an epic poem in it’s own right – a 112 page list of the dead. Surprisingly, Memorial is not alone in its genre of modern poetic retellings. Two other great books include Weight by Jeanette Winterson and The Odyssey by Simon Armitage. Memorial succeeds because it does not feel too modern, nor does it feel kitschy. It does not feel unnecessary or irreverent. There is a great respect for the source, and a ceremony in the retelling that makes Memorial feel ancient.
Oswald’s book-length poem is a stripped down version of Homer’s story, leaving out what are arguably the boring parts – the speeches and politics and can confuse the reader. Unlike in many modern novel, where I find the battle scenes excessive and distracting, in The Iliad the battle is the heart of the story. The most important takeaway is that people are dying, needlessly but heroically. Reading Oswald’s poem is like reading the list of names on the Vietnam Memorial in DC, like running your hands over the names on the 9/11 reflecting pool memorials. Oswald embraces how violent and horrific the century-old story actually is. In doing so she gives the reader a moment to pause and wonder what the Trojan War, assuming it’s real, must have really been like, before it was immortalized by oral tradition.
I am not familiar enough with every single death in Homer’s epic to necessarily tell how accurate Oswald’s retelling is, but of course accuracy here is not the point. If you are interested in her version versus Homer’s, the NYT review touches on that a bit more. With Memorial Oswald is retelling a translation of a written-down version of an oral tradition based on an event. It does not need to be accurate, it simply needs to feel right. And it does. The basic plot of The Iliad is nowhere to be found in Memorial, so the poem only works if the reader is familiar enough with the source material to enjoy it, and willing to accept a poetic and liberal retelling.
The actual reading of the poem is smooth and works especially well when read aloud. There are stanzas which are repeated over and over, helping the reader internalize the words like in oral tradition. Each life lost in The Iliad is given their own stanza, with their name, their family, their lasts moments before death.
Beloved of Athene PERICLES son of Harmion
Brilliant with his hands and born of a long line of craftsmen
It was he who built the cursed fleet of Paris
Little knowing it was his own death boat
Died on his knees screaming Meriones speared him in the buttock
And the point pierced him in the bladder
Memorial gives all the forgotten soldiers and side-characters their moment, their deserving memorial. Oswald immortalizes the meaningless deaths that I found so overwhelming as a teenager, and she gives them this new life from death in a beautiful, and respectful way.
Sarah V Diehl