Interviewer: Has being an American poet given you a different perspective on that and maybe even been an advantage?
Fagles: I think it’s been an advantage. We are more agile in climbing off our high horse than some other practitioners of English. We like a full run in tone from the high to the low. Robert Frost might even be, I think, what you call a tutelary spirit. There are many things in Frost that come to an American Homerist’s aid. One is his bluntness. That does well for the Iliad, I think. His kind of earthy, ironic savvy has a lot to do with the pastoral parts of the Odyssey, especially with the long powwows between Odysseus and the pigkeeper. When we’re writing well and talking well, there are parts of American speech that are rough and ready on the one hand, “high, wide, and handsome” on the other—strong with a kind of burly courtesy. When I think of those American tones and turns of speech, I think they might serve Homer rather well.
Interviewer: For me that’s been one of the freshest and most daring elements of your translation—the refracting of Homer through American voices and, in some ways, the jettisoning of Shakespeare, whose echoes are so strong in other translations, especially Fitzgerald’s.
Fagles: I tried, in fact, to stay away from Shakespeare. The Shakespearean gesture might be too literary, stilted, too “poetic.” Homer is more down-to-earth than that. I’d like to persuade a reader that Homer is not a writer, strange as that may sound. There’s something paradoxical about reading Homer in a book. He’s meant to be heard—performed, not savored in your brown study, where you can mull over the same passage time and again. Nothing should get in the way of Homer’s immediacy, his headlong pace.
Interviewer: On the other hand, has the lack of tradition in American poetry as public speech been a hindrance?
Fagles: There’s probably no tradition of public speech as poetry, but there’s a lot of public speech in this country that verges on poetry. I’m thinking of Lincoln, of course, and Frederick Douglass too, and all the voices resonating throughout Ken Burns’s Civil War. We’re not short on a commanding kind of oratory. I think again of Oliver Wendell Holmes.
—Robert Fagles, “The Art of Translation, No. 2,” Paris Review (1999)
… if you think The Western Canon is a conservative book, you haven’t read it; Bloom’s argument, with which I have some sneaking sympathy, is that Marxism and its materialist offshoots are the real conservatism …