Books, Critical Responses & Links

New & Forthcoming Works:

IMG_0582Ghost Passage was published by Shearsman in February 2022. The collection explores the ways in which we write ourselves in to the landscape, leaving our own trace. From inscribed ancient artefacts and recently excavated writing tablets of Roman London – the earliest known written texts in the city – to tombstones in a remote Kent churchyard, the collection deciphers the hidden texts that weave through our past, articulating lost and often overlooked voices. Outside the usual boundaries of literature, here are graffitied tiles and household jugs, spells written on pewter amulets, stamped beer barrels and medical potions, as well as the everyday accounts and letters, even alphabet practice, of the writing tablets. Ghost Passage offers poetry – and history – from the ground up as it blossoms in unexpected places, resonating down through the centuries, providing the same power to protect and comfort even in the darkest times. These are the untold stories not of a literate upper class but of the diverse, ordinary inhabitants of a great city and beyond; the words we leave behind to ‘score these shuddering, ghosted streets/back into form and place’.

“In Ghost Passage, History and Poetry…meet, not competing for once, but brilliantly fused and celebrated. It is a book worth returning to time and time again.”
W.S. Milne, Agenda [Read more here

All the poems exert the same technical control, a subtle use of rhythm to suggest a speaking voice, a lightly-handled rhyme, each word placed where it feels as if it should be… For the price of Ghost Passage you can wonder the streets of London and eavesdrop from the safety of your own home. The Roman city, familiar yet so very different, comes alive in a swirl of voices.”
Liam Guilar, Long Poem Magazine

“…the text is a delight, pointing to the importance of seeking truths in these excavations and, above all, the value of us all in witnessing and making our mark on the page.”
Belinda Cooke, Modern Poetry in Translation

“Balmer knows that what matters – what always matters – are the people to whom history occurs; to whom history isn’t “history” but the time and place they live in…[her] imagery brings each place so close you feel that you can touch it. In other words, it isn’t just the people that feel alive. Eventually, you start to realise what this collection feels like: an elegy for everything… Each poem is a home; a place where, in that most enlivening of literary paradoxes, imagined people all feel blazingly alive. We can only hope that, when our “achievements are called in requiem”, we have a bard as knowledgeable, as empathetic and as expert to sing us awake.”
Alan Humm, One Hand Clapping

You can hear Josephine Balmer interviewed by Sian Thomas about Ghost Passage (with readings of some of its poems) on WildHart Radio here


The Paths of Survival (Shearsman, April 2017) explores the fragility of the written word; the ways in which it is destroyed and the ways in which, by each fresh miracle, it endures against all the odds. Haunted by the few surviving fragments of Aeschylus’s lost tragedy, Myrmidons, which notoriously depicted the doomed love of the Greek hero Achilles for his fellow warrior Patroclus, the volume moves backwards in time across two and a half millennia; from a tiny scrap of papyrus in a present-day Oxford library to the dying Aeschylus revising his masterpiece in fifth-century BC Sicily.  Poignant and, in our own times of cultural conflict, pertinent, The Paths of Survival unravels the intricate serendipity of ‘what time corrodes and what it spares’.

A Poetry Book of the Year 2017 in The Times  [click to read]

*Shortlisted for the  2017 London Hellenic Prize*

‘Balmer is one of the most consistently fascinating and inventive (as well as ‘traditional’) of contemporary poets’
Glyn PursgloveAcumen  (read the full review here )

‘Every poem is precisely placed…each has its historical and functional position…with the same use of rhyme, assonance and plain speech, all lightly touched, yet tragic in their cumulative effect.’
George Szirtes
New Statesman (read the full review here )

The Paths of Survival confirms Balmer as a creator-curator of immense vision and gifts.’
Lesley Saunders, Tears in the Fence (read the full review here)

“Balmer’s technique (in its full sensuous life and detail) ensures that classical poetry belongs to everyone, not just professional scholars. As D.S. Carne-Ross has argued persuasively: ‘Ancient literature must always be re-created…The sentence, sometimes the word, has to be dissolved, atomized, and its elements then reconstituted in a new form’. This is the very method Josephine Balmer has followed imaginatively in The Paths of Survival, ensuring an intellectual precision and emotional breadth which stands out among contemporary poets.”
W.S. Milne, Agenda (read the full review here )

Drawing on a variety of poetic forms, techniques, meters, and sources, Balmer achieves something rare, a classicizing theory-in-verse of classical (and literary in general) reception — a theory of classical reception in poetic form and through practices of classical reception. This is neither mere reception nor mere theory but a poetic theorization of what goes under “classical reception” in both scholarship and translation.
Vassilis Lambropoulos, C P Cavafy Professor of Greek, University of Michigan, US

(read the full review here)

“It’s a thought-provoking book… a rare modern example of the suitably classical Horace’s belief that poetry should ‘Delight and instruct’. Read it for the pleasure of the voices and learn along the way. You could give The Paths of Survival to any intelligent reader, to someone who doesn’t normally bother with poetry, and they would enjoy it…”
Liam Guilar [read the full review here]

Josephine Balmer’s third collection of poetry is a captivating read… I must admit, prior to reading this collection, I had never heard of Aeschylus or his controversial play, but I found myself consumed…”
Larissa Woods, DURA [read the full review here]

‘What makes these poems so compelling is that they are delving in to a mystery, but this is done by a writer who is not only a scholar but also a fine poet.’
Keith Hutson, Poetry Salzburg Review[read the full review here

You can hear Liam Guilar reading the poem ‘The Librarians’ Power’ here

You can buy The Paths of Survival here or here 

Agenda Letting Go coverLetting Go: Thirty Mourning sonnets and two poems (Agenda Editions, July 2017) traces the devastating impact of a mother’s sudden death. Employing both original poetry and classical versioning, Letting Go draws on a variety of sources and inspirations, from Virgil’s Georgics to Google’s Street View. Heart-breaking but healing, these poems re-enact the crushing pain – and final acceptance – of a bereavement which ‘feels like too little love. Or too much’.

‘A body of work in which the boundaries between translation, imitation and originality are blurred to fertile effect. Letting Go…is an intensively personal experience; yet in an equally obvious sense its is a universal experience…the effect is consistently beautiful and moving.’
Glyn Pursglove, Acumen  (read the full review here )

‘[The poems] speak plainly but gracefully, recounting incidents and events in a close relationship but without ever being in the least sentimental…beautiful, modest in language and device, yet far from modest in their concentration and achievement.’
George Szirtes, New Statesman (read the full review  here

“[Balmer] digs deep into literary history to make the present bearable, making what might at first sight seem archaic material come alive, straddling the centuries, making the personal and impersonal coalesce in her art. So what might have been a mere literary exercise becomes fine poetry…I recommend these two books by Josephine Balmer to all those who take an interest in both contemporary poetry and that of the past as a legacy which challenges the ravages of time and barbarism.”
W.S. Milne, Agenda
(read the full review here )

‘…Balmer is a very good writer of sonnets. She can handle the traditional metrical, syllabic and volta requirements of the form well…it is one of the more successful sequences addressing personal grief that I have read for some time.’
Keith Hutson, 
Poetry Salzburg Review [you can read the whole review here]

 You can read an interview with Josephine Balmer on Letting Go (with Fiona Cox & Elena Theodorakopoulos) here

You can hear Josephine Balmer read the title poem here

You can buy Letting Go here (use PoetryBooksDirect on Marketplace to buy directly from the author)

Previous Publications


Piecing Together the Fragments: Translating Classical Verse, Creating ContemporaryPoetry is published by Oxford University Press (October, 2013). This presents new insights into the art of classical translation through an overview of my own work, from translating Sappho and other classical women poets, as well as Catullus and Ovid, to my poetry collections inspired by classical literature. The volume positions this study within the long tradition of translator prefaces and introductions, considering the close relationship between classical translation, creative versioning and original poetry in English; how the demands and strategies required to work on damaged and corrupted ancient texts can inspire new poetic forms and approaches. A unique study of the challenges and rewards of translating classical poetry, Piecing Together the Fragments explores radical new ways in which creativity and scholarship might overlap – and interact.

‘Provides a clear indication of how the classics can still be alive and relevant to modern readers and creative writers’ – Jennifer Ingleheart, Translation Studies
‘a wonderful introduction to the poet’s own poetry but the poet herself… a star in her own right’ – Marguerite Johnson, Bryn Mawr Classical Review
‘Ground-breaking…should appeal to a wide audience within the creative writing and academic fields’ – Journal of Classics Teaching
‘An important book… that combines learning, judgement and creativity’- Barbara H Wyman, The Classics Journal
‘A rich and thoughtful study… of use to anyone interested in time, words and people;- Aisha Farr, Oxford Poetry
‘In Piecing Together the Fragments Balmer composes a tour de force exemplification of the scholarly rigor that translation entails. Balmer breaks new ground: whereas translators of modern languages have written books on the subject of translation, translators of classical literature have not done so, until now.’  James Bradley Wells, Hermathena

You can find more details on Piecing Together the Fragments, as well as a sample chapter, on the OUP website here. Or order it on Amazon here. Brief extracts are also available on this website here and here.

1844712931book.qxdThe Word for Sorrow(Salt, 2009) presents versions of Ovid’s poignant, if often neglected, poems of exile alongside original poems exploring the history of an old, second-hand dictionary being used to translate them. A detective story in verse, it forges unexpected links between past and present, from Ovid’s Rome to the blood-soaked First World War trenches of Gallipoli, and on to the poet’s trail of discovery in the present day. Its poems give voice to the universal suffering of exile, war and grief, uncovering the common humanity that connects us all across countries and over centuries.

‘Brilliant and original…Balmer’s meditation on the possibilities of connection and difference across the centuries question individual need. Instead she offers the hope of genuine understanding and the peace of reconciliation’ – Margaret Reynolds, The Times
‘Balmer has created a genre of her own: a kind of historical docupoem, a collage of voices  in which authenticity is as important as art’ – Kate Bingham, Poetry London
 ‘The Word for Sorrow crosses boundaries between poetry and translation…Balmer poignantly reflects T. S. Eliot’s explanations of the ‘mind of the poet’, the sensibility that connects disparities, locating and effecting meaningful wholes.’ – Paschalis Nikolaou Norwich Papers

The Word for Sorrow was awarded an Authors’ Foundation Award and a Wingate Foundation Fellowship

Read an interview with Josephine Balmer about The Word for Sorrow here

Find out more about The Word for Sorrow  here and here

Time WfS**STOP PRESS: As mentioned in The Times, the new paperback edition of The Word for Sorrow nowpublished by Salt**

Balmer_ChasingChasing Catullus: Poems, Translations and Transgressions (Bloodaxe, 2004),ventures into the border territory between poetry and translation, original and text, past and present. It wittily reimagines and subverts ancient texts, overwriting the past like a palimpsest. At the same time, it presents a dark odyssey of the soul, descending in to the Underworld, as the collection’s moving central sequence follows the illness and subsequent tragic death of the poet’s young niece, finding new ways of saying the unsayable, giving new resonance to ancient and modern grief.

‘Wry, lyrical, invariably learned…a gripping read’ – Edith Hall, TLS
‘a moving meditation on bereavement’ – Independent
‘alchemy achieved in poetry’ – Paschalis Nikolaou, London Magazine
‘Balmer’s collection sweeps across the vast palimpsest tradition to overwrite it with a language of immediacy and urgency’ – Olivier Burckhardt, Quadrant
‘a moving and powerful sequence – it is also an exciting read’ Glyn Pursglove, Acumen

Chasing Catullus was awarded an Arts’ Council Bursary.

***STOP PRESS: Chasing Catullus has been reissued by Bloodaxe in a new edition (February 2016)***

Buy Chasing Catullus here

Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate (Bloodaxe, 2004) is an acclaimed translation of the Roman poet’s shorter poems. Sensual, salacious and scurrilous, it highlights both the intense lyricism and the scabrous wit of the originals, bringing Catullus’s vivid cast of characters back to life for new audiences: the refined Suffenus who writes poetry like a goat-milker or Egnatius who cleans his teeth in an alarming manner, and above all, Lesbia, the poet’s teasing, torturing lover. Both elegant and coruscating, here is the poetry of love, of friendship, and of enmity: poetry of passion.

‘superb’ –Christina Patterson,  Independent
‘Catullus was never more alive than in these skilful, naturalist renditions’–  Adam Newey, New Statesman
‘intelligent and sensitive translations’ – Margaret Reynolds, The Times
‘Josephine Balmer’s sassy modern translation…remains true to the original text and is also clever, sexy and contemporary too’ – Keith Richmond, Tribune

Buy Catullus: Poems of Love and Hatehere.

Classical Women Poets (Bloodaxe, 1996) breathes new life into the works of neglected and overlooked woman poets from archaic Greece to the late Roman empire. Fully accessible to all readers, the volume includes biographical notes on each poet, as welll as an iluminating introduction examining the nature of women’s poetry in antiquity. A complete collection for anyone interested in women’s literature, the ancient world and, above all, poetry.

‘hurrah for the heroines of old!’ – Peter Stothard, The Times
‘Exemplary’ – Patricia Monaghan, Booklist
‘It offers surprising and rare insights in to the closed world of women in antiquity… recommended’ Independent on Sunday

Classical Women Poets was awarded an Authors’ Foundation Award.
It was long-listed for the Poetry Society European Poetry Award (now the Popescu).

Buy Classical Women Poetshere.

Sappho: Poems and Fragments (Bloodaxe, 1992), in print for nearly 30 years, has become a modern poetry translation classic. This edition brings together all the extant fragments of Sappho. In addition, a comprehensive introduction discusses the historical background to Sappho’s poetry and its often problematic critical reception, as well as the difficulties – and delights – of translating such fragmentary verse.

‘the best translations I have read to date’ – Christopher Logue, Literary Review
‘one of the best poetry books of the year’ – Fleur Adcock, New Statesman
‘lovely translations’ – Ruth Padel, The Times
‘Poetry Books of the Year’, Vogue

Sappho: Poems and Fragments was short-listed for the inaugural US Lamba Poetry Prize.

Buy Sappho: Poems and Fragments here.

Listen to podcasts of an Open University interview with Josephine Balmer and read the full transcript here

See a video of Josephine Balmer performing her new versions of Palladas at UCL here.

Find volumes with essays by Josephine Balmer on translating classical verse herehere and here.

Read an example of Josephine Balmer’s critical writing here

Find critical discussions of Josephine Balmer’s work herehere or here.

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