We’re big fans of Alice Oswald’s poetry, so when we saw that she was delivering this year’s annual reading from the Bristol Poetry Institute, we leapt to get tickets.
Though it’s not just her poems we love; it’s the way she performs them too. The previous time we heard her read, at Bristol Watershed in May 2013, it was from ‘Memorial’ and ‘A Sleepwalk on the Severn’, Alice grabbed the audience by the collective scruff of its neck and addressed it with her work, which she read from memory. It was intense, dramatic and mesmerising; the best reading either of us had ever been to.
This time she read her long poem, Nobody, which is ostensibly about a bit-part player in the Odyssey: the poet who was charged with guarding Clytemnestra by Agamemnon, and subsequently marooned on a rocky island in the middle of the Mediterranean by the queen’s lover, Aegisthus. Really, though, it’s a paean to the ocean, and as Alice recited it by heart in the darkness of the Great Hall at Bristol University, we found ourselves rocked in its rhythms. Nothing disturbed the swell of the narrative, and when, after an hour, it ended and we could finally fidget, I found I could barely shift for the pain of having sat so still for so long, without really having noticed.
The reading was followed by a very interesting question and answer session. Particularly fascinating was answer to the chicken-and-egg question of how much the poem is shaped by the effort of memorising it. Alice said her memory is her editor; if she can’t memorise a section, she is liable to expunge it as not working.
Arthritis notwithstanding, it was a fabulous reading in the truest sense. If you get a chance to go and hear Oswald, seize it. It’s an experience you’re unlikely to forget.