We’ve been having a busy time with Iliad book promotion recently, in large part thanks to our gifted, energetic and absurdly generous friend Michael Pollak.
This coming Wednesday, May 23 7pm-9pm there will be an informal event at the Red Room of the KGB bar at 85 E 4th St, New York, NY 1003. If you are in New York, please come!
On May 2 the NYU Liberal Studies department hosted a symposium on John’s version of The Iliad. The event was brilliantly organized and chaired by Clinical Assistant Professor Elayne Tobin, author of Fearing for Our Lives: Biography and Middlebrow Culture in Late Twentieth-Century America. She also regularly writes for The Nation and Genders Journal, and appears on NPR and Studio 360.
Despite feeling green around the gills (and in fact puking in the Liberal Studies bathroom just before going on), John gave an inspired talk, which was lucky because at least 40 people had made the ‘schlep’ downtown on a hot day to see him.
While John was away evicting his hotdog, Michael killed time by introducing the book with characteristic suavity and eloquence. The packed room listened attentively but unfortunately I only caught the tail end of it as I was waiting to see if John would ever emerge, but I think the gist of it was that John’s version—in terms of tone and content–does not radically depart from the original; he has simply rendered the Bronze-age poem in a way that is accessible for a 21st-century audience, which is exactly the kind of adjustment the early singers might have expected.
The scholar of epic poetry Milman Parry, and his student Albert Lord argued that ‘our concept of “the original” of “the song” simply makes no sense in oral tradition’ (The Singer of Tales, 2000, p.101). Parry noted that formulaic phrases are characteristic of oral composition. The scholar Peter Jones estimates that about a fifth of the Iliad is repeated. (Homer, Iliad, translated by E.V. Rieu (2003) xxviii).
A modern reader will notice (with some irritation) all the repeated epithets (rosy-fingered Dawn, swift-footed Achilles, lord of men, Agamemnon). Such stock phrases assist an improvising bard by fitting neatly, tetris-like, into the structure of dactylic hexameter.
And the ‘formula’ aspect goes further than epithets. John Porter’s words:
“In contrast to literate poets such as Vergil, Milton, Shakespeare, or Eliot, the oral poet is not going to display his skill in his selection and placement of individual words, or in the originality with which he renders particular passages. His virtues are going to lie elsewhere: in the skill with which he employs the traditional formulae and the manner in which he molds his traditional theme.”
Very early on in the translating process (back in 2015 when he was typing out notes in Gloria Jean’s café in Dili), John realized that there were obvious tonal cues in the story. Some scenes—such as Hector’s farewell to Andromache were clearly meant to be tragic. But other parts could only work as comedy. He said that as long as he thought of the poem in terms of what made sense and what would most entertain a live audience, the tonal choice was easy.
Apart from this, John always had an eye on the readership he wrote for in the character of his nom de plume the War Nerd. What would they enjoy? What would they skip? So he did away with the epithets, the tautological amplification, the catalogues and—most of all!—the poetry. As Ramon Glazov says, “Our modern idea of poetry is cerebral and refined, a niche product created by word-nerds for fellow word-nerds to contemplate. The Iliad and Odyssey may technically be ‘poems’, but they’re also full of slapstick, lowbrow humour and grindhouse gore. Given such content, it’s easy to imagine why oral epics were such a hit at feasts and banquets.” In short, at least in the early twenty-first century, poetry and The Iliad are a bad match.
Anyway, back to John’s speech. He dedicated the event to the memory of Alice Provensen, who had died just the day before at the great age of 99. Provensen was one of the illustrators (with her husband Martin) of The Children’s Book of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the book that had drawn John to Troy in the first place. He’d brought the book with him and mentioned how he’d spend a long time choosing which of the shields on the cover he would choose for himself.
Professor Tobin first asked John about the trajectory of his career and how that had led him to tackle this project.
John explained that he’d spent many years learning and teaching in the Rhetoric Department at the University of California, Berkeley. This trained him to approach texts by focusing on their rhetorical purpose according to their cultural context. He mentioned particularly loving Lysias, the sleazy Athenian lawyer who effectively advocated for anyone who’d pay him—the text was not to be taken at face value but was an example of the fine art of persuasion.
John’s interest in the rhetoric of poetry led him to publish the monograph Poetic Occasion from Milton to Wordsworth (2000). The thesis of that book was that after the English Reformation readers demanded ‘truth in poetry’, which led to verse having to be grounded in a specific public occasion. In the late 1700s this requirement changed to include private, mental occasions. He contends that Victorian England chose Wordsworth’s childish, solemn introspection over Byron’s comic, adult extroversion (as in Don Juan), and that English poetry has suffered ever since.
As a poet (he has published three volumes of poetry – Slave, Stuck Up and People with Real Lives Don’t Need Landscape ), John had a bruising personal education in twentieth-century poetics. Coming up in the 80s, an era that valued minimalism, cryptic language, high seriousness and lurid confessions, he was the odd man out. He wanted to write gory, funny rhyming poems and there was no audience for that. When he wrote his memoir Pleasant Hell he found that everything he could do in poetry, he could do in prose—with the difference that a lot more people would read prose.
This hard-won epiphany was followed by the realization that there was far more reward writing prose in the vernacular rather than in bland academic prose. This lesson was illustrated vividly by John’s friend and former student Mark Ames, who had gone to live in Moscow in the 1990s. At a time when Russian society was changing rapidly after the trauma of political upheaval, war with Chechnya and rapine economic reform, no one was looking to censor an English-language newspaper. Ames and another expat American Matt Taibbi took advantage of this to create The eXile, a bi-weekly newspaper that took punk-like risks in tone and content. They satirized contemporary news events with a savagery and wit that would have been unacceptable on North American soil. A lot of people were (and still are) outraged by it, but a lot of people appreciated its courage and skill in exposing the hypocrisy of the powerful American figures helping to manipulate and destroy the Russian economy.
After the Twin Towers tragedy of 9/11, military pundits started popping up like mushrooms after heavy rain. John, who had spent his youth reading everything he could about war, recognized that a lot of the analysis was wrong and in sleazy ways. Mark suggested he write his own analysis but in the character of an angry, fat loser. They decided on the name Gary Brecher from Fresno, and the War Nerd was born. Writing the War Nerd column allowed John to use his ‘real’ voice, what he calls the northern-California ‘sowbug dialect’, the speech he grew up hearing from his working-class Oklahoma neighbors—profane, funny, clear.
John quit a teaching job at Otago University in New Zealand and went to join Mark in Moscow as co-editor for The eXile. After that, John and I travelled a lot, which is an education in itself. Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, East Timor…these are all places where you can see the aftermath of war, the mechanics of tribalism, the reality of patriarchal society first-hand. Living there, you start to understand some of the attitudes of ancient Greek society. A Kuwaiti student I taught related the plot of the movie Troy from a purely tribal point of view: ‘Paris stole Agamemnon’s wife—very, very bad. Hector was angry because he didn’t tell him. It caused many problems.’ And the attitude to war for those who experience it is pragmatic, sometimes even cheerful.
I think, instead of badly paraphrasing the rest of his talk, I will encourage you to listen to a radio interview he gave with Adam Bulger of BTRtoday, where he talks very entertainingly and covers a lot of the same ground he walked at NYU.
Those in attendance included Jan Frel, executive director of the Independent Media Institute and the person who supported the project to John in the first place and who negotiated on his behalf with the publisher, Feral House. Also there was Christina Ward, who is in charge of Marketing/Promotions. Sadly Adam Parfrey, the founder of Feral House, passed away only eight days later, on May 10. He was a courageous person and we are deeply grateful that he chose to take a risk by publishing this version in modern vernacular of the world’s greatest poem.