What will poetry be in ten thousand years? (10)

Bob Perelman

Cueva de las Manos — Santa Cruz, Argentina, ca. 7300 BC

Post-ecopoetics is a guide for thinking the longevity and durability of the poem in deep time. I have asked a number of poets and scholars to serve as additional guides by asking them to respond to the following questions: “What will poetry be in ten thousand years? If you wrote a poem that you knew would last ten thousand years, how would this impact your writing?”

Each of their responses will be posted as an individual commentary linked to this series.

Bob Perelman:               

Josh asks, “What will poetry be in ten thousand years?” I’ll answer that if human beings survive then language will survive, which means there will be poetry, and it will probably be as various as it has been for the last ten thousand years, ranging from everyday slogans to ritual chants to coterie wit to systematic verbal exploration.

As for Josh’s second question, I can’t say I think much about the future at all, let alone ten thousand years of it, as I write. I write to be read in the present as I move through it.

But some poems have already moved through a lot of time. The Iliad has lasted about 2,700 years, pretty much exactly intact in its gigantic dimensions and compositional intricacies and conundrums; and beyond its age and size, it is extremely interesting — better than the movies, as O’Hara might have said. What part its age contributes to its appeal is an open question.

The Iliad emerged from an earlier state of affairs: the preliterate world of oral composition and aural reception. “Preliterate” can connote pristine, naive, young; and Homer has often been Exhibit A of unspoiled folk poetry. But given the complexity and inventiveness of the Iliad, it’s more to the point to think of a highly sophisticated technique ripening after centuries of oral invention.

The oral provenance of the Iliad is there in every line via the ubiquitous formulaic repetitions: rosy-fingered dawn, wine-dark sea, swift-footed Achilles. And on a medium scale, there are the typical scenes with their big clumps of repeated lines — meals, sacrifices, arming sequences, endless duels. Such features are widely shared in oral contexts.

Yet the poem is quite unlike most oral productions, both in its gigantic scale and its elaborate organization. Its tersely edited narrative extends via large scenes still remains unpredictable. The characterological touches can be quasinovelistic, while in some of its long-range patterning it seems positively Joycean. 

The current scholarly consensus is that the Iliad and Odyssey were composed somewhere around 750–650 BCE and that the Odyssey was slightly later. “Composed” there might mean assembled orally, or arranged via writing. Martin Mueller writes, “We do not know whether writing merely preserved them or whether it played a role in shaping them as well. It remains a tempting speculation that ‘Homer’ is the result of a highly consequential encounter of two language technologies during the transition from an ‘oral’ to a ‘literate’ culture.” (Incidentally, this is why I’m not italicizing the poem titles: they’re not quite books, or, more exactly, they weren’t always books.)

In 1795 Friedrich August Wolf suggested that the Homeric poems were assembled from earlier, smaller, folk ballads, thus opening up “the Homeric question,” about which there continues to be no consensus. All the scenarios seem far-fetched. Perhaps Homer wrote, though the technology for managing such huge documents would have been awfully tenuous. Perhaps Homer was an illiterate oral master who dictated — but it’s hard to imagine the specifics of that happening. And perhaps Homer assembled the poems in his head. But then the two gigantic poems would have had to have been carried in the heads, ears, and tongues of succeeding generations for one hundred to 250 years — again, something extremely hard to imagine.

We don’t know very much about what happened between 750 BCE to 560 BCE. At that latter date, a sketchily attested story tells us that Peisistratus ordered the Iliad and the Odyssey to be written down and recited in order each year at the Panathenaic Festival in Athens. Some think that this was the scene of the actual composition of the poems on their current large scale and in their current shape; but others argue that Peisistratus’s call to set the record straight indicates that the poems had already achieved cultural dominance in their current forms.

We do know that Homer was a central cultural fact in Athens from 560 BCE down through Plato and Aristotle (320 BCE), and that the poems existed both textually and aurally. They were pedagogical staples (textbooks — textscrolls — and student recitation); and they were entertainment basics (rhapsodes would recite episodes — see Plato’s Ion). Their presence was more aural than written. 

We also know that around 150 BCE, the library at Alexandria was a center for Homeric scholarship, and that the critic Aristarchus seems to have collated the mass of written editions into the specific text that we now read. Some scholars say that this was where the poems assumed their present form. But whether Homer wrote the poems in 700 BCE or Peisistratus assembled them in 560 BCE or whether Aristarchus collated them in 150 BCE, they’ve since travelled to us in remarkably stable form. Mueller writes, “since the middle of the second century BCE the texts of the Iliad and Odyssey have been transmitted with remarkable fidelity. The editor of the recent and authoritative Teubner text, Martin West, has identified some 160 interpolated passages that add up to just over 200 lines or 1.25% of the text. By contrast, the quarto and folio editions of King Lear differ in more than 10% of their lines.”

The Iliad is now, and has been for many centuries, 15,693 lines, those lines, in that order. Long lines, often formulaic and always rapidly compact. By rapidly compact, I mean that great complexities can be laid out clearly in few words. For instance, line 509 of book 24 (quite near the end of the poem): apsamenos d’ara cheiros aposato eika geronta (and he took the old man by the hand and gently pushed him away). This is Achilles’s conflicted reaction to Priam in one of the final scenes. Achilles has been obsessively trying to mutilate Hector’s body in revenge for Hector having killed Achilles’s beloved friend Patroclus. Hector’s father, Priam, has snuck into the Greek camp (magically protected by Hermes), to beg for the return of Hector’s body. A few lines before he is gently pushed away, Priam had knelt before Achilles and kissed his hands, saying that this was an act no one had ever had to perform before, a father kissing the hands that had killed his son. At this moment, then, Achilles taking Priam by the hand is a charged detail. But at the same time Achilles pushes him away, like the whole thing is too much for him; but then again the push is a gentle one … my point is that this line, while it fits into the requisite dactylic hexameter, is far from formulaic. It is not snatched up from the common storehouse of oral motifs amassed in the centuries behind Homer. Here, both the diction and the emotional overlayering are invented. On the local level, the combination of words is unique; and on the large scale, their sense is the result of the long-range narrative trajectory, another invention.

It is commonly assumed that early on the Iliad was chanted or sung to an accompanying instrument. The intense verbal delivery and the rhythmic entrainment would work to produce entranced attention. But the larger narrative fabric, operating across the gigantic dimensions of the poem, calls for a very different type of notice: long-range, detached, comparative. Our default notions of such attention is that it’s textual. It’s hard to imagine listeners keeping track of widely dispersed details across different times of recitation. (Wouldn’t the listeners have to come back over many days?) But, as the following example will show, the Iliad did address such a long-range, multi-stranded utterances to its auditors.

Imagine keeping track of the following set of moments by ear:

In Book 22, Hector is killed by Achilles. As he is dying, Hector attains to a moment of clairvoyance and spells out the precise circumstances of Achilles’s death: he will be killed by the arrows of Paris and Apollo in front of Troy (the same spot where Hector is now dying). Irene de Jong writes, “This is the climax of a series of — increasingly concrete — prolepses [prophecies] announcing Achilles’ death [which is not itself recounted in the Iliad] … At first we merely hear that Achilles is destined to die young (1.352, 415–8); then [his goddess mother] Thetis tells him that he will die after killing Hector (18.95–6); the horse Xanthus is able to specify that he will be killed by a god and a man (19.416–17), while a prophecy of Thetis, which Achilles recalls when nearly drowning, speaks of arrows of Apollo (21.277–8); Hector finally discloses the names of Apollo and Paris and adds the exact location of his death: the Scaean gate (22.358–60).” 

(Before going any further, I should clarify that such sequences are not the norm. The Iliad is not purely Joycean by any means. There is all manner of organizational incoherence: warrior X, killed in Book 5, appears in Book 16, etc.; Book 10 is quite likely an interpolation, etc.)

Nevertheless, the sequence of prophecies gradually spelling out the details of Achilles’s death is clearly an intentional creation. Doesn’t this necessarily imply some actual Homer — whether that means a eighth-or seventh-century-BCE bard or a set of inspired governmental collators in sixth-century Athens?

But an actual Homer won’t account for why the Iliad, at 2,700 years and counting, remains so interesting. That there was a Homer — or, same difference, a communicable ‘Homer-program’ — is only part of the situation. That the Iliad spoke to the desires of its audiences is another part. But the historical audience doesn’t account for its long vitality. While the Iliad is the nationalist poem par excellence (the Greeks are heroic, much more victorious than the Trojans in the individual battles, more manly, etc. etc.,) its plot contradicts that nationalism, since it concludes with the Trojans, who are the sympathetic human beings, cosmopolitan and sentimental, gendered and thoughtful.

What’s interesting about the Iliad ultimately is the result of a mass of agents active in its production and reproduction: poet; audiences; politicians; pedagogues and students; booksellers, librarians, and critics. It takes the whole incommensurate, interactive mélange for the poetic invention of the Iliad to have lasted 2,700 years.


Mueller, Martin. The Iliad. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2009.

de Jong, Irene J.F. Iliad. Book XXII. Cambridge University Press, 2012.