The Iliad casts a spell on Emily.
Last week, in my exploration of the goddess Iris, I wrote about Alice Oswald’s beautiful Hymn to Iris. It put me in mind of a recent conversation I had with a friend about oral poetry and what it might have sounded like. We were trying to imagine how Homeric poems like the Iliad and Odyssey, which were originally sung to music, might have sounded to their original audiences. We even managed to find one attempt to recreate a Homeric performance, which you can listen to here.
Well, my first reaction was that something like that would put me to sleep pretty quickly. How on earth would an audience have been able to listen to something that repetitive for hours on end? But in the Odyssey, in book 8 when Odysseus is visiting the court of King Alcinous in Phaeacia and hears the tales told by Demodocus the bard, the audience is described as being completely entranced by his stories. Odysseus praises the bard as the best of all men; later, he even bursts into tears at Demodocus’ moving rendition of the Trojan War. And on Michael Wood’s documentary 'In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great', modern oral poets are shown on video footage playing to rooms packed full of people listening in enraptured silence.
So what’s the secret to oral poetry? Was it really as good as Homer tells us? Was it just a subtle advertisement from a master of his craft, trying to sell the experience to a few more clients? Or are we numbed to the enchanting effects of poetry in the modern world, with so much information available to us so fast — infinite websites, high-definition films, and endless music and video footage available at the click of a mouse?
Actually, I don’t think so. Thinking back to Alice Oswald’s Hymn to Iris, I was reminded of the way I first came into contact with her poetry. She came to visit Yale, where I’m currently studying as a PhD student, to give a recitation of her poem, Memorial. It’s described as ‘an excavation of the Iliad, and I’d been told it was a compilation of all the lists of the dead in the Iliad. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to listen to a long list of dead people. Moreover, it was going to be over an hour long. How would I ever be able to keep my attention from wandering? But I went anyway, mostly out of a sense of duty and a vague feeling that, as I’m interested in classical reception, I should probably show up.
What happened totally took my breath away. Alice Oswald began with her opening invocation to Iris, which instantly captured me. I mean, starting with a hymn to a classical god? That’s pretty cool. She then proceeded to the poem itself. She had a mesmerising, lilting voice and piercing blue eyes that seemed to stare at me as I listened. Yes, that’s right – she looked at us the whole time. No looking down at the page, fumbling with notes, speaking into her chest. She’d memorised the entire poem by heart. Her head was up, she was looking at us and, it seemed, talking directly to me. The list of dead and dying heroes became, not a dull roll-call of men who had died thousands of years ago. These heroes mattered to her. You had to listen. It felt like a conversation – not a lecture. For over an hour her audience was spellbound, I couldn’t stop listening. It wasn’t just that the descriptions of the dead were beautifully done – similes that echoed Homer and yet were hollowly modern. It was the delivery, the sheer feat of memory and the way she delivered the poem to us, like a gift, a personal offering to each one of us.
So maybe that’s the secret to oral poetry, then. Perhaps the problem with listening to an extract of a person performing Homer online, through an mp3 player, in a foreign language that was spoken two thousand years ago, is that oral poetry requires an engagement, a relationship between the performer and the audience. It requires the awesome feat of memory that is needed to remember – and deliver – an hours-long poem, and the contract that this creates with the audience to listen and respond. It requires poetry that you can understand and engage with, and the intimacy of watching its creation – right in front of you.
So you never know – maybe Homeric poetry really was as good as Homer makes it out to be, after all.
Emily Hauser is an author, scholar and lover of all things ancient. She loves to tell stories and inspire young people with her passion for the classical world. For more information and for details about her new book, For The Most Beautiful, visit her website at www.emilyhauser.com.