I love English and never shy away from the dramatic, but to say that I wasn’t more than a little nervous and even skeptical about attending my first live poetry reading would be a lie. This said, when I went on the 18th of March to see Alice Oswald and Robin Robertson speak at the Royal Society of Literature’s T.S. Eliot Memorial evening it was an amazing event.
RSL President Colin Thubron opened the night by inviting a fellow to sign their Fellows book with T.S Eliot’s pen. This in itself was an impressive moment; the book was very big, very old and even had authentically tinged and crinkled pages – its looks really did convey its historical and literary significance. Watching a RLS Fellow use T.S. Eliot’s pen, who joined the ranks of Dickens and Byron whose pens had previously been used to sign the book, was also a special moment; being in Somerset house and in the company of contemporary poets of such talent made the start of the night even more atmospheric. However, it was the performances given by Alice Oswald and Robin Robertson that were truly the highlights.
Alice Oswald performed several short poems, followed seamlessly by the last section of her poem Memorial. From the moment the lights were dimmed and she began speaking, Alice captivated the audience completely. Her voice changed and gave dramatic voice to her poetry. The first poems focused beautifully on nature and she impressively moved through them (and the entirety of her performance) without a single note of hesitation. At one moment reality really did seem to collide with art as a woman in the audience coughed and Alice looked slowly towards her declaring “The woman coughed” – only after a second did I realise that this was part of the poem!
Having not previously read Memorial, I was shocked by its beauty, poignancy and skill. Oswald was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize for this collection; she controversially withdrew the book over potentially questionable ethics of the prize’s sponsors. The collection is based on the _Iliad_ by Homer but has a far greater emphasis on the reality of war for the individual characters whose deaths are included in the epic poem. This was certainly nothing like the experience of reading the Iliad for study; Oswald convincingly portrays the brutal tragedy of the legendary battle, personalising the narrative powerfully and melodically.
Robin Robertson provided a change of subject and style, but his performance was no less dramatic and dark. Born and raised in Scotland, Robertson performed poetry that focused on memories of his childhood, moving towards episodes from his later life. The intensity of subject and emotion was balanced with moments of poignant humour and very witty delivery.
I have since re-read these authors works and would urge anyone to not only read them but also to go to the RSL website and listen to the recording of the event, well worth the listen (and less than an hour long!) After going to this I would certainly like to go to more RSL events and would encourage all my friends and literature lovers to do so. It was a fun and easy way to access literature, whose skill and brilliance is there first and foremost to be enjoyed and affect each individual’s hearing or reading it and made a nice change from the academic demands of degree reading lists!