Edinburgh International Book Festival: Alice Oswald

Review by Keir Hind | 17 Aug 2012

The poet Alice Oswald’s event was a real set piece, as she read out her book length poem Memorial in its entirety. This took around an hour and a quarter, and so she started into it after a necessarily brief introduction. In this introduction the poet did mention that she thought this would be a challenge for a modern audience. Maybe it was for the three people who left together after 45 minutes, but that was all, with the rest of the audience gripped by Oswald’s performance. The poem is a description of the deaths, of the ordinary soldiers in The Iliad, interspersed regularly with Homeric similes. In the way it moved between these modes regularly, and in the measured and clear way Oswald recited, and in the way it used rhythm – which Oswald seemed to regulate by tapping her foot as she read – the poem was mesmerising. Soldiers from all parts of Greece and beyond were named, and even some who died anonymously because, it was said, they died so quickly their ghosts couldn’t hold on to their names. Names that were known, Menelaus, Diomedes, Achilles, flitted around the edges of the text. The poem gained momentum as it moved towards a conclusion, when some slightly odd modern imagery slipped in – motorbikes, and strobe lighting – and closed suddenly, leaving the audience shocked, and seriously impressed. [Keir Hind]


Alice Oswald was appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Tue 14 Aug.