John Berger on Poems

“Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories.  All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat.  Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.

Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful.  They bring a kind of peace.  Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been.  Yet the promise is not of a monument.  (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?)  The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.”

– John Berger

John Berger on Poems


I met up with a friend who’d I’d not seen in a while recently.  He’d bought me a book for my birthday (Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century) and asked if I’d gotten round to reading it.  I admitted that I hadn’t – that the subject matter was too academic for my current mood.

“So what’re you into right now?” he asked.  “Homer” I replied – at which he proceeded to laugh his head off.

It was only when he started laughing that I realized that in a lot of people’s minds, Homer is THE CLASSICS in all their symbolic weightiness and impenetrability.  But I came to Homer, specifically the Odyssey, very recently and out of curiosity, not because I was ever compelled. And what drew me in at first wasn’t even the story, but the rhythmic, sea-thrumming verse of Robert Fitzgerald’s translation.  When I was first reading it on the bus or train, I found myself book-marking pages so when I could get home, or got a chance to hide in a bathroom compartment, I could read the words out loud, letting the syllables roll around my mouth and off my tongue like stones thrown down a well.

The best way I can describe what I find so compelling in the Odyssey and the Iliad is the reality of it.

Odysseus, long after all of his friends have made it home from the war at Troy, finds himself stranded and imprisoned on Kalypso’s island, 20 years separated from his home, lost at sea.  And when he finally is granted his release, on his penultimate sea-voyage, he’s battered by storms, thrown from his wrecked raft and although he reaches shore, it’s almost too late:

“Then forth he came, his both knees faltr’ing, both
his strong hands hanging down, and all with froth
his cheeks and nostrils flowing, voice and breath
spent to all use, and down he sank to death.
The sea had soaked his heart through”

That moment where you feel you just can’t take it anymore, where it’s all just too much, how do you go on?  There it is.  Beautiful, brutal, real and life-affirming.

Odysseus is a war-hero, the man who engineered the Trojan horse, but he’s also a broken man, wrecked by years of toil and misfortune at sea, driven by bitter and resentful gods.  He’s a “master-mariner and tactician” but he’s also deceitful and manipulative – he draws comparison’s to the countless Trickster gods that litter the history of mythology.  And he’s a father longing to rejoin his family, but he’s also a completely ruthless and bloody murderer: on his return home, he not only slaughters the men who were trying to woo his wife, but the ladies of his household who slept with those men or were even rumored to have done so.

Homer makes no apology for the countless paradoxes and complexities that exist in the characters of his stories – he doesn’t simplify or beautify how messed up and how amazing people and the world can be – he simply presents reality in all it’s pain and glory.  And there’s nothing “academic” about that.

Postscript:  Nice synchronicity – I read the article below minutes after writing this:

“Curating a perfected self might win followers or Facebook friends, but it will not necessarily cure loneliness, since the cure for loneliness is not being looked at, but being seen and accepted as a whole person – ugly, unhappy and awkward, as well as radiant and selfie-ready.”