As a way of explaining my rationale for engaging with the poetry of Horace, the following is my introduction to ‘Horace on Teesside’ which is my contribution to ‘Living Classics’ (Ed. Stephen Harrison) forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2009.
Click onto ‘Epode Versions’ for my versions of the ‘Epodes’ and onto ‘Epode Process’ if you want to know more about the development of the poems.
There will be a selection only under Chasing the Ivy (my recontextualistion of Horace: ‘Odes Book I’) because this is my current work in progress. Classics students studying my work and who wish to know more about it may email me at email@example.com
“The poems I present here are from my collection, ‘The Works’ (published Biscuit Publishing, 2004) which is the story of one community in working-class Teesside set against the backdrop of the end of the Second World War. Of the fifty-two poems in the collection, seventeen are recontextualisations of the Epodes of Horace.
I was introduced to the work of Horace in 2003, while reading my Ovid poems from Oyster Baby, (published Biscuit Publishing, 2002) at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. It was an opportune time because I was looking for a theme for my next collection. Over the years, I had written several poems which were largely autobiographical, but I had resisted pursuing these on the basis that I should perhaps be moving away from the autobiographical and onto poems which I could regard as more creative.
Tentatively and with Professor Stephen Harrison’s scholarly advice, I started engaging with Horace’s Epodes, (1) The more I read these poems the more I felt they were, as Professor Harrison puts it, ‘a kind of concealed autobiography for Horace – what I did in the 30’s BC’(2) It was very liberating and I realised that what I regarded as personal, nevertheless did contain universal experiences.
The Epodes, with their worldly wisdom and gritty mix of characters resembled for me a world I recognised from my childhood. I began seeing in characters such as Maecenas, Horace’s patron, people like my Mrs. L. who was regarded as a kind of community leader, someone to look up to, part and yet not a part of us. Alfius, the money-lender with no money worries, telling others how lucky they are (Epode II ‘Beatus ille’) reminded me of the rent man who owned the house in which I was raised. At this early stage I was still not convinced that I could recontextualise all seventeen Epodes but at least I had given myself the necessary permission to investigate the possibility. I wanted the poems to be more than a nostalgic walk through the past, but to act as a tribute to the characters and community that helped form me. By now I was wallowing in that world, remembering feelings, people, smells, noises friendships and conflict. I had great fun creating modern curse poems, substituting for example, Horace’s garlic for pigs’ trotters in ‘Grown Up Girls Below the Railway’ (q.v.)
Slowly but surely during the writing, other characters began to emerge. Some, like Billy, who throughout the collection carries the mantle of helpless fatalist are based on several characters rolled into one. The collection became a mix of true memory and creative thought. By the time I came to look at ‘Epode XIII, Horrida tempestas’ which predicts the death of Achilles I felt creative enough to equate this prophesy of the death of an individual with the death of an industry and a whole community.
The Works then is a narrative. It chronicles the demise of Head Wrightson’s Iron Foundry and the surrounding community. In a way, just as Horace’s Epodes, explained who he was and where he came from, so too these poems explain who I am and where I came from. But more than that, these are experiences with which many people can identify. The lives of several characters are followed throughout the book, for example we witness the lives of children through the eyes of ‘The Girls’ and watch them grow up through several poems. I have already mentioned Billy, the Trade Union Leader who takes on the Horace mantle, but we also meet his long-suffering wife Aggie and Billy’s Mistress, The Chapel Street Bike, along with Billy’s foil, Martin, who supported the idea of the Second World War and of course Mrs. L. Maecenas’s equivalent and a rent-man in the role of Alfius.
For me the wonder of Horace, is that his recurring themes remain as relevant today as ever; his wisdom is irresistible which is why I am now setting Odes, Book I into another world familiar to me, that of contemporary poetry. I believe that by attempting to capture the ‘soul’ of an ancient text rather than its literal translation, we can sometimes reach a deeper understanding of both that ancient world and the parallel world of our own time.”
1. West, D. (1997) Horace: The Complete Odes and Epodes. Oxford University Press,:Oxford
2. Harrison, Professor Stephen, in personal correspondence