Reading your favourite poetry and having it read aloud to you by its writer are very different experiences, as Alice Oswald’s recital as part of Keble’s ‘Meet the Poet’ series showed me. For the first time I was properly aware of the strong internal rhythms and cross-rhythms of poems I thought I knew inside out, watching from the front row as her bright red boot tapped them out and kept their complicated beat.
I hope that was what she wanted listeners to take away from the performance, given her reply when I ask about the performance aspect a little later on. “I suppose I didn’t really perform my poems at first, but I was always interested in their tunes, and I wanted people to understand a more counterpointed tune than they seem to see on the page.” The intensity of the delivery with which she made these revelations made for a mesmerising hour or so of listening. We’re now crossing Keble’s quad in a dusk that has fallen during the recital, looking for quiet in a tutor’s office.
Had we stayed at the venue, I would have barely managed to get a word in edgeways: Alice was surrounded by fans looking for in-depth discussion from the moment the applause died away. Despite the amount of sheer effort presumably required to sustain that level of energy for so long, she’s wound up with the excitement of the performance rather than exhausted by it.
Her work, especially Memorial, drew me to the Iliad and probably put me on the path towards studying Classics in the first place, so I asked whether she has that accessibility, the idea of bringing classical literature to those who wouldn’t normally encounter it, in mind when she writes. “I think I draw on it because I’m obsessed with it,” she begins, “but part of my obsession is that it’s gathered the wrong atmosphere about it – a stodgy, stuffy, public school atmosphere. I’m always really pleased if people can get back some of freshness that I see in the actual Greek, so I’m really delighted if I can draw people to the Iliad.”
Aware that Oswald recently took part in a 12 hour reading of Paradise Lost in her local community, I enquired about whether she thought that those kinds of projects, which bring poetry into people’s lives, are a poet’s duty as a public figure, or whether it’s more her personal pleasure. “I don’t think poets do have duties – I think each poet finds their own duty. For me, I have a great wish not to become too literary, partly again because of Homer – I feel that literariness is quite deadening – so I’m always quite interested in how people survive from one moment to the next without writing, how people live a whole day without writing about it.
“It’s not something I can do, and I’m really impressed with people who can. Also, I think that what I liked when studying Homer is the feeling that these poems were made by more than one person, and so I’ve always felt that one poet isn’t really enough to make poetry.”
We move on to her rejection of the T.S. Eliot prize in 2011 and the media attention that attracted: specifically whether she sees that kind of attention as a useful platform for bringing issues like the sponsorship of prizes into discussion, or whether she feels that too much focus on the poet as a person can detract from their work. “It’s difficult – of course one has a duty to not shelter in a non-political world. But, frustratingly, anything you say gets distorted, so if you’re not a specialist in those areas, it’s certainly best not to use it as a way of finding a platform. But, at the same time, you just have to do things for yourself.”
I’m so used to hearing her resonant voice on CD recordings or the radio that I’m soon reminded of her latest work, Tithonus, to which I’d listened recently, and its immersive quality; she’d written it over multiple dawns, sat by the riverbank. “I like to be immersed in my subject, but it doesn’t have to be a subject that’s outside in the world. I suppose the reason I focused on the natural world was partly because I was a gardener, but partly because it felt possible to connect to it, and I’m interested in whether it’s possible to grow that and to write about humans.”
Two indications about the next phase of her writing career begin to emerge. Oswald, it seems, would like to go more into the freedom of the mind rather than the concreteness of the world. She also now wants to focus on poems that aren’t necessarily designed for performance, aware that it’s becoming quite limiting to think that whatever she writes must be performed. They go in radically different directions to her previous work, but she is easily capable of managing such a change.
“A voice,” she says, “is something that you have to grow – it’s not a stationary thing. If you write poems, you then have to grow a voice that can get to be big enough to say everything.”