At the examination schools in Oxford, a large turn-out of litterateurs, and attendant laity as the event is open to members of the general public, were gathered last week at 5.30pm on the kind of tonic, nippingly cold, clear evening that’s a mid-November speciality. In their good-humoured mixture of hopeful chatty confidence and tense expectancy, the assembled crew ran the gamut from the male undergraduate with the lanky pink candyfloss hairdo and the black PVC miniskirt to the retired academic brigade who were done up like jaunty immersion heaters. We were there to attend to an epoch-making and thrilling occasion.
Alice Oswald was about to deliver her inaugural lecture, entitled “The Art of Erosion”, as the first-ever female professor of poetry in the chair’s history, which was instituted in 1708. A don asked us to be upstanding. Making their way down the central aisle of the T-shaped, part-panelled, portrait-hung room came a bustling posse of dons in the black and red “drag” of formal academic dress. In their midst was the woman of the moment – apprehensive and self-possessed.
The 54-year-old Oswald read classics at this university. Now she is back, having been inundated with prizes for her brilliantly audacious reworkings of Homer’s two great epics. Memorial (2012) is an “excavation” of the Iliad. It has no bones about discarding the narrative in order to lay out the 200-odd war dead. It feels, awesomely, like a march-past of unwittingly foredoomed warriors within an “oral cemetery”. Oswald talks about how, rather than directly translated, the words of the original function as the peep-hole “openings” through which she peers “to see what Homer was looking at”.
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