I know very few poems by heart. We never learned that way in school and, save for readings on certain ceremonial occasions (my sister’s wedding, my grandfather’s funeral), I have rarely felt compelled to.
One exception is Alice Oswald’s ‘Memorial’ (2011), my companion through many white insomniac nights. An ‘excavation’, as she calls it, of the ‘Iliad’ (c.8th century BCE), the poem strips away Homer’s narrative sinew and unearths the bones, recollecting in starkly luminous stanzas the fallen dead of Troy’s fields. For years now, in pre-dawn sleep-stolen interludes, I have been memorizing the poem in reverse – we already know how the story ends: working backwards from Hector who, as Oswald puts it with typically disarming simplicity, ‘died like everyone else’. (Distilling, in the process, the whole truth of the futility of war and of the nature of being.)
I saw Oswald recite ‘Memorial’ in its 71-page entirety at London’s Southbank Centre in 2012. Spotlit in a hushed room, she read from memory, guided, as is said of the Homeric bards, by cadences and the repetition of certain mnemonic similes. She told us she didn’t mind if we fell asleep; I was totally transfixed.
Oswald is master of compound adjectives and nouns (‘shadow-swift’, ‘death muscles’, ‘land-ripple’). This is partly a technique of translation – resoldering ideas enjoined in classical thought that have since come unstuck – and of efficiency – creating word-images that are greater than the sum of their parts. (The opening lines of ‘Memorial’ refer to ships setting off from ‘flower-lit cliffs’. What more to say?) Hyphenated compounds are also about rhythm, about pulse. I spend my life as a writer trying (failing) to approximate, in prose, Oswald’s verbal economy of means. But perhaps the most important thing that she taught me is about voice: that the best texts speak.
Main image: Alice Oswald’s ‘Memorial’ performed at Barbican Theatre, London, 2018. Courtesy: Barbican Centre, London; photograph: Shane Reise
First published in Issue 200