Last winter in Chicago was especially trying: relentless, unyielding – all those words we use to express strain. In late February British poet Alice Oswald came to the University of Chicago to do a ‘reading.’ This was a misnomer. Memorial, a version or ‘excavation’ of the Iliad, is an oral poem. Hers was not a reading, but a partial recitation. There was a buzz in the room, something to do with the mic, then the lights. A man was called in to fix it. Meanwhile she stood at the podium gripping its wings and clenching her jaw. By six in the evening the sun had already set and the east-facing windows were pockets of dark. Several minutes passed as cords were rearranged, plugs pulled and reset. Still, the buzz, and now one of the fluorescents was blinking. She cleared her throat: “It’s important that we get this right, because once I start I can’t very easily stop.” She said this forcedly and with what read as a trace of resentment. She seemed to be working under incredible duress. Which struck me as mysterious. Until she began.
Youtube is replete with video recordings of Oswald performing Memorial which may or may not capture the effect (relentless, unyielding). A partial audio recording can be found at Poetry Archive. A CD of the whole is available from Faber & Faber, a print version too. Whether by way of introduction or as a return to a familiar name, readers of this blog may take interest in Max Porter’s recent interview with Oswald (featured in the current issue of The White Review). The interview begins by touching down on what is distinctive about American poetry – “this extraordinary capacity to think within a poem, to channel the essay,” in her words. From there topics range from plant life, to musicality, to the self-sufficiency of the poem and the necessity of its beginning “against silence.”