Once upon a time she tried to tell a story. But she couldn’t. There were too many wars, and then there was an earthquake, and the murder of a boy in the street in a city where she lived. Then, she walked outside to get the mail and 2 birds lay motionless on the deck in front of the windows. They had smashed themselves against the glass. She fell asleep thinking of those birds whispering i’m sorry i’m sorry i’m sorry.
Friends — Prose- stories are wondrous things, but sometimes we just need poems.
Poems are amazing because they tell the story of a civilization as well as of an instant, outline the epic of dynastic rulers or of one British guy looking at a ruined monastery, racount the history of the feelings of hundreds of people or of hundreds of emotions in one single person.
Poems delve razor sharp into the small, jump up into the big and come back down again to remind us of ourselves.
And always they ask the big, basic questions.
Who are you? What do you value? What matters? Why?
Like in the Iliad. Did you know that it’s a great anti-war poem? Yup. Simone Weil argues as much, because in her opinion the Iliad shows – without any question – the seductiveness and horror of force:
Here’s a famous moment in the poem:
Priam finished. His words roused in Achilles
a desire to weep for his own father. Taking Priam’s hand,
he gently moved him back. So the two men there
both remembered warriors who’d been slaughtered.
Priam, lying at Achilles’ feet, wept aloud 
for man-killing Hector, and Achilles also wept 630
for his own father and once more for Patroclus.
The sound of their lamenting filled the house.
Isn’t it interesting that in this most famous of heroic narratives, one that seemingly celebrates war, this scene — the enemies who weep together and who eventually break bread together — finds a place?
And isn’t it something that on Achilles’ shield there is a depiction of 2 cities?:
Here’s the first city:
Strife and Confusion joined the fight,
along with cruel Death, who seized one wounded man 660
while still alive and then another man without a wound,
while pulling the feet of one more corpse from the fight.
The clothes Death wore around her shoulders were dyed red
with human blood. They even joined the slaughter
as living mortals, fighting there and hauling off
the bodies of dead men which each of them had killed.
To the city of war, the Homeric poets compare this city:
Then the people gathered
in the assembly, for a dispute had taken place.
Two men were arguing about blood-money owed
for a murdered man. One claimed he’d paid in full,
setting out his case before the people, but the other 
was refusing any compensation. Both were keen
to receive the judgment from an arbitration. 620
The crowd there cheered them on, some supporting one,
some the other, while heralds kept the throng controlled.
Meanwhile, elders were sitting there on polished stones
in the sacred circle, holding in their hands
the staffs they’d taken from the clear-voiced heralds.
With those they’d stand up there and render judgment,
each in his turn. In the centre lay two golden talents,
to be awarded to the one among them all
who would deliver the most righteous verdict.
What always gets me about the above description is how unidealized the “good” city is. The Homeric poets don’t show us a utopia. It’s not that war/peace binary that we’re used to thinking about. The city at “peace” isn’t perfectly peaceful – that’s for sure. But it’s a city were weddings are held and not funerals, and as the above lines show it’s a place where justice – a radically social event – is deemed so crucial that it finds its place on Achilles’ shield.
Simone Weil believed that the ethical questions raised in the Iliad look forward to those of the Gospels.
But really, you can see these sorts of questions raised by poems in lots of places:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
Categories: Art and Literature