Alice Oswald revives Homer at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012

This article is from 2012

Alice Oswald

The poet who Carol Ann Duffy votes better than herself brings the Classics to life

‘As your poet laureate, I’m ordering you to go,’ announced Carol Ann Duffy at the Bath Literary Festival this year. She was talking about Alice Oswald’s event the following evening. ‘She’s a much better poet than I am.’ When the laureate says that, you listen. Oswald is performing her book length poem, ‘Memorial’, in its entirety and from memory, at the Book Festival. We can presume that the Bath decree still stands.

The poem is a reworking of Homer’s ‘Iliad’, exploring ways of remembering that epic’s 200 dead soldiers in the present moment. It takes 90 minutes to perform. ‘I get this feeling beforehand of a spool of dead soldiers in my head, queueing up, waiting to be expressed, and it’s actually very, very intense,’ she says. ‘At the end of it I’m always absolutely shattered.’

Aloud is really the way you’re meant to encounter the poem, just as Homer’s original text was never really a text, but a performance. Oswald has saturated her book with repetition and internal music that’s meant to be heard. ‘I do very much believe in poetry as a kind of tune or music,’ she says. ‘But also in a kind of superstitious way, I feel that for those names actually to be sounded out loud is even more than for them to be written on a page. It’s a kind of giving of life back to those people.’

It’s not often that you get to hear a writer recite her entire book. Is it nerve-wracking? ‘There’s a kind of blindness before I do it, of having no idea whether the spool will unravel smoothly or not. Because I do it by heart, I simply hope that it will emerge smoothly.’ Duffy, at least, has faith.

10-14 Aug, 8.30pm, £10 (£8).

Alice Oswald: Death Was Already Walking to Meet Them

Alice Oswald re-imagines the world of Homer’s Iliad in her heartbreaking new book-length oral poem, Memorial, and here she performs the piece in its entirety. Oswald explains that her modern translation treats the Iliad as ‘an attempt – in the aftermath of the Trojan War – to remember people’s names and lives without the…

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