David Harsent

Filed under: Poetry

Alice Oswald and Robin Robertson read their poetry.

There are those who contend that poets are not good readers of verse – their own or that of anyone else; and poets are often heard to say that actors can usually be relied on to make a mess of things – hammy, ignorant of scansion, unwilling to mark line-breaks. So, all in all, it might be thought that the chance of hearing a good reading is pretty low. If it is, then the audience at the T.S. Eliot Memorial Meeting were unusually lucky.

Alice Oswald and Robin Robertson read after an enthusiastic and well-informed introduction from James Wood. Oswald came to the podium first. Her reading technique is near-hypnotic. She gives the poems from memory, dispensing with titles and providing no commentary or elucidation, merely mentioning that she will pause significantly as a marker between poems. The lack of book or manuscript led to a deep engagement with the audience; the poet never looked down, never turned or shuffled pages, never, in fact, shifted her gaze from the auditorium except to turn her head to one side, and tilt it slightly, to indicate a break between poems: that slight gesture – that look away – an indication of the journey from this poem to that. In all of this, she neither fluffed nor hesitated. Some new poems were read; they sounded (in both senses) remarkable. Oswald then read from Memorial, her extraordinary account of the Iliad: not a translation, not even a version, but a sort of re-imagining. The pull of her voice and the strength of the poems was evident in the utter stillness of the audience: wholly focused on both reader and what was being read.

Robin Robertson is a no less compelling performer of his work. His delivery, a kind of baritone drawl, carries a dark music, well-matched to the dark music of the poems and to the threatening territory from which his work is most typically drawn. He read from his new collection, Hill of Doors, which has its own re-makings of poems from ancient Greek – the Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Panopolis – though Robinson has been both highly selective (the original is in 48 books) and brilliantly transformative in bringing these accounts of the god Dionysus into English. Among other poems he read were Under Benn Ruadhainn and At Roane Head, the latter a Forward-Prize- winning poem from his previous collection The Wrecking Light. Both these poems trade off the kind of folklorish tale that has its roots in Scottish culture: in myth and landscape. Robinson’s way with narrative – both in terms of the story he tells and the language that serves it – brings that tradition squarely into his territory. Read together, the poems were atmospheric and deeply disturbing.

All the talk at the reception afterwards was of how there’s no real argument between the poem as performance and the poem on the page when a reading is a powerful and affecting as this one. Evidence of that was the full hall and the long post-reading queue of people wanting to buy books.

David Harsent’s most recent collection, ‘Night’, won the Griffin International Poetry Prize.

Meeting: 18 March 2013