Investigating Omeros

I helped out earlier at an ‘Investigating Options’ outreach day for Year 11 students (15 and 16 year-olds). The general aim was to help students make informed choices about their education post-GCSE and A-Level, so the thrust of my session was to think about ways that studying English in sixth form and at university differs from GCSE English. My not-very-original theme was the value of fostering a spirit of inquiry and curiosity.

My opening unastonishing point was that as I’ve taken more advanced qualifications in literature, I’ve devoted more and more time in the day to studying it until it’s become a career choice linked to my sense of identity. When you continue to study a subject, you gain breadth and depth of knowledge. To illustrate ‘breadth’ I first asked the students when the first book was printed in English (Raoul Lefèvre’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, trans. by William Caxton (Bruges: William Caxton, c. 1473), and to come up with a list of the earliest works of literature. Suggestions included the Bible, Greeks, Egyptians, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens, and I added Beowulf which was written down in Old English before the second millenium, and a few others. I passed on the good advice I once received when applying to university, that I should create a timeline of writers and fill in gaps where possible. English literature doesn’t start with Jane Austen or Shakespeare.

As you accumulate more knowledge of Western literary tradition, I added, you understand better how writers are working within that tradition. This led into my focus on ‘depth’, or close reading. I took a passage from Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990), and asked the students to tell me five things they could tell me about it, and five things they couldn’t. I spent much longer asking the students for their questions. The students generally came up with interpretative problems, some of which would have made great starting points for essays, like ‘Why is Helen like a shadow?’ and ‘Why are Achille and Hector fighting over a bailing tin?’.

It also wasn’t a bad way to encourage students to participate, since if a student said ‘I don’t know’ I could ask them what they didn’t know. I encouraged them to ask questions about who the author was, where the poem was set, what came before and after this section, how the form works, what did difficult words like ‘manchineel’ (a poisonous evergreen Caribbean tree) mean and so on, and showed how these questions were all entry points to understanding the poem.

I punctuated the discussion with audio clips from a BBC World Book Club programme. When reading the passage we discussed(at 3.55-5.32 in the interview), Walcott didn’t follow the stanza breaks precisely, or even read it like ‘poetry’. In the same interview (c.16.33-17.35), Walcott remarks that a reader once told him that when reading Omeros he found himself forgetting that he was reading poetry, which made Walcott think ‘Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere’. It’s a viewpoint consistent with his loose adoption of Dante’s terza rima.

In another clip (6.12-8.00) Walcott talks about the poem’s relationship to Homer’s Iliad as being evocative and associative only, which pulls us back from taking Homer as the key to the poem. I took this idea to make the larger point that there’s no solution to the poem, just a series of encounters between readers and the poem, where we bring our own experiences and insights, and have our own questions to ask. Another student asked how the poem could be so complex, to which I replied that its difficulty arises—as so often in great literature—from small incidents in which the poet perceives deeper resonances and significance that become implicated in autobiography, colonialism, dispossession and other abstract themes.

If I’d attended a class like this one when I’d been in Year 11, I wouldn’t have spoken up much, but was probably too strong-willed to have recognized that collaboration in classes—through questioning, seeking answers from others, developing arguments—is important not just for impressing at A-Level or university, but in any pursuit of what’s true and real. It reminded me of a podcast I’d just heard in which a philosopher called Dan Sperber argued that reason’s primary function is to facilitate collaboration between strangers, and help social division of cognitive labour. By ourselves, reasoning is often rationalizing to justify our own biases, but alongside others, reason provides a basis to hear what someone says and investigate it further. Reasoning doesn’t lead us all to the same answer, but it does encourage us to cooperate and reach an agreed answer through consensus. It creates a common standard by which people can develop and question a line of enquiry pursued by others.

Academic study in general encourages such collaboration, in Britain particularly post-GCSE, where students often learn through classes and seminars. From a literary perspective, Sperber’s brief discussion immediately raised further questions about the role of intuition, who we should collaborate with, how far we should engage with strangers to pursue truth, whether it prohibits discussion if an interlocutor has little concept of reason, and if anything is lost by communicating an argument using reason.

The last question I was asked concerned libraries, to which I answered that as your studies become more advanced you don’t just use public and school libraries, you start to access repositories of knowledge where you encounter everything ever written about a topic. When applying to university, I was encouraged to take a trip to a university library (which I didn’t). As a graduate student, I’m now learning how to master topics quickly through literature reviews. As I gain knowledge in a subject, I become more critically aware of where my information comes from, and hopefully more independent too (though wisdom is another matter).

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