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This review is taken from PN Review 181, Volume 34 Number 5, May - June 2008.

UNDERSTATED EPIC Simon Armitage, Homer's Odyssey (Faber) £12.99

Commissioned by the BBC to write a version of the Odyssey for radio, one wonders how Simon Armitage weighed up his options: write a straightforward if condensed translation; or put a contemporary spin on the old story? It seems that, dissatisfied with either, he opted for a bit of both. As his introduction points out, 'it is not set in a housing estate in Salford' - very sensible, given the belittling comparisons with Joyce that would invite. However, what Armitage does well is down-to-earth, urban poetry. Furthermore, the story is so famous that he cannot resist the urge to strip the heroic gloss with understatement and cliché. Thus, the invocation begins,

Remind us, Muse, of that man of many means,
sent spinning the length and breadth of the map
after bringing the towers of Troy to their knees...

 He also makes this a drama, which keeps it out of the demesne of 'proper' translations. In performance, this stresses different characters' idioms, especially given that the cast ranges from heroes and gods to swineherds and monsters. This is appropriate for the Odyssey, because its hero is famous for feats not of strength but of cunning, and his ability to flatter and convince. It also applies to the Gods and Odysseus' crew, who debate and argue among themselves: 'Convince us, then. We're listening' could be their motto.

Writing for voices also brings out the ...

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