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«Speech, Silence and Epic Performance: Alice Oswald’s Memorial © Stephe Harrop, Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance INTRODUCTION The ...»

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Issue 8 (2013)

Speech, Silence and Epic Performance: Alice Oswald’s Memorial

© Stephe Harrop, Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance


The poet stands behind a lectern, two microphones angling upwards towards her shadowed face. She

wears a dark green jacket over a sombre-coloured blouse (or dress, her whole lower body is hidden).

Her hands rest on the lectern’s top, elbows bent, bracing some of her weight as she leans towards her listeners. The effect is carefully un-theatrical. She might be giving a press-conference, reading a prepared statement. This is Alice Oswald, about to perform Memorial.1 Her voice, as she begins to recite, is measured, matter-of-fact. ‘The first to die was PROTESILAUS’ (Oswald 2011a: 13).2 The published text of Memorial gives the dead man’s name in monumental, funerary capital letters, but the poet’s voice resists the implied drama of this typography. She speaks with assurance, purposefully, but softly. This is only the first death of many to be reported, and histrionics - her posture and pacing suggest - would be out of place. We’re only just getting underway.

This paper is a response to a specific live performance, a unique and unrepeatable vocalisation of ancient Homeric epic. It presents a series of reflections provoked by the complex, creative interplay of speech and silence in Alice Oswald’s Memorial, both on the page and in the poet’s live re- performance of her own work. Drawing on recent debates and insights in the fields of oral poetics, theatre studies and classical performance reception, it explores the links between Oswald’s ancient models of epic poetic performance, the modern poem on the page, and the complex dynamics of live vocal performance.

Oswald explicitly describes the poem as ‘vocative’, citing the antiphonal lament of Homeric funerary ritual as an influence upon her re-inscription of the Iliad (Oswald 2011a: 1-2). Her own re-performance of her poem, however, draws on very different models of performance and spectatorship, creating a tension between ancient and modern modes of memorialisation, and changing relationships between the poet and her live audience. This paper begins by exploring this apparent contradiction, and considering related questions of poetic composition and performance genre. It then explores the idea of ‘Voiced Text’ as site of generic hybridity, and as a catalyst for the transformation of poetic text in performance, before moving on to consider how Memorial’s sophisticated literary interplay of sound and silence can be heightened, or even transformed, in live performance.


As has already been noted, Oswald’s Introduction explicitly invokes the Iliad’s origins in live oral performance, and vocalised funerary ritual. So while Memorial is a modern published text, it is also a composition which ‘entextualizes’ more ancient, and more performative, modes of lamentation and memorialisation (Wilce 2009: 32), a genealogy which profoundly informs the poem’s structure and style.

Before beginning her performance, Oswald characterises the work we’re about to hear as being ‘like a village war memorial... that extraordinary stone list of the dead’ that stands at the centre of a community, suggesting an equivalence between her poetic and vocal acts and the marks engraved on funerary monuments. This is in part an acknowledgement of seasonal preoccupations, since this performance follows close after the sombre ceremonial of Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday.

(As if to highlight this fact, a damp, crumpled poppy lies by my feet throughout the performance.)3 But

this description also recalls Oswald’s Introduction to Memorial, where she describes the Iliad as:

a kind of oral cemetery – in the aftermath of the Trojan War, an attempt to remember people’s names and lives without the use of writing. (Oswald 2011a: 2)

–  –  –

The phrase ‘oral cemetery’ echoes Tatum’s characterisation of the Iliad as ‘a tomb in verse from a vanished civilization’ (Tatum 2003: xv), both descriptions aligning the war-grief of Homeric epic with contemporary monuments of remembrance. 4 Reviewers of Memorial’s published text have been quick to note the correlations between the poem’s

distinctive typography and the iconography of war remembrance:

The opening pages list the names of more than 200 dead. Reading them is equivalent to the poignancy of skimming surnames on a war memorial. (Kellaway 2011) When Oswald comes to the end – “AINIOS / OPHELESTES / HECTOR” – the blank page after those two final bold syllables is heartbreaking. The rest is silence. There is no need to know the epic or its use of similes – here are names, with their own magical resonance, side by side; it doesn’t matter if they are Greek or Trojan, what matters is that they were men, and that they are dead. (Womack 2011) This, then, is a poem profoundly responsive to modern iconographies of remembrance. But Oswald’s emphasis on the Iliad as an ‘oral cemetery’ suggests that Memorial is also concerned with different modes of memorialisation, and specifically those which draw their authority from active processes of vocalisation.

In the public ceremonies of contemporary war remembrance, we mutely contemplate ranks of unvoiced names. But by contrast, the kind of remembering to which Oswald appeals in her Introduction derives from a different ritual; an active process of recall and repetition in which the

names and feats of the dead are vocalised and memorialised in a shared oral/aural experience:

There are accounts of Greek lament in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. When a corpse was laid out, a professional poet (someone like Homer) led the mourning and was antiphonally answered by women offering personal accounts of the deceased. I like to think that the stories of individual soldiers recorded in the Iliad might be recollections of these laments... (Oswald 2011a: 1-2) The type of antiphonal lamentation the poet describes is characterised by the collective vocalisation of grief for the fallen, with the labour of lamentation divided between specialist performers and the female relatives of the deceased. This formal funerary performance is represented within the Iliad itself in the epic poem’s account of Hector’s prothesis (Homer, Iliad 24.718-776), where the improvised lamentations of Andromache, Hecuba and Helen are supported by ‘the singers / who were to lead the melody in the dirge’, and who ‘chanted the song of sorrow’ (Homer, Iliad 24.720-22).5

Alexiou analyses the passage’s performance-dynamics as follows:

There are two groups of mourners, professional singers and kinswomen. The singers begin with a musical thrênos, answered by a refrain of cries, and then the lament is taken up by the three next of kin, each singing a verse in turn and followed by another refrain of cries. Their verses are an answer to the lamentation of the professional singers. (Alexiou 2002: 12) Even if, as Alexiou argues, the antiphonal element of this ritual ‘is becoming obscured’ and ‘reduced to a perfunctory formula’ by the time of the Iliad’s writing (Alexiou 2002: 13),6 the call-and-response dynamic of antiphonal lamentation is deeply embedded within the structures and repetitions of this passage.

This, then, is the ancient tradition of vocal lamentation to which Memorial’s Introduction appeals, and which clearly influences the poem’s distinctive alternation of ‘memories and similes laid side by side’ (Oswald 2011a: 2). But equally clearly, this is not the tradition within which Oswald’s poem is performed. 7 While antiphonal lamentation may be one of Memorial’s influences, it is not its performance-genre. The terms of Wilce’s interrogation of Donald Hall’s elegiac Without (1998) are

relevant here:

–  –  –

Are his poems laments? Yes and no. They are entextualizations of grief (grief channelled into memorable discourse), yes; but they were not spontaneously improvised for tearful public performance. Hall wrote his poems in the privacy of his home for later circulation to a mass public readership. (Wilce 2009: 23) Wilce reminds us that the performers of traditional lament ‘sing/weep for or with a live audience’, more accurately designated ‘co-participants’, and that ‘as a genre performed in face-to-face settings, bodies play an important role in lamentation’ (Wilce 2009: 23). This is very far from the process by which a modern poet’s text is composed, transmitted and received. Oswald’s voicing of her poem is a solo recitation of an individually-authored poetic text, a virtuoso feat of individual creativity, memory and concentration. The poem’s audience are positioned as auditors, respectful listeners rather than participating voices. 8 Memorial’s structure and mood may be informed by traditions of antiphonal mourning, but the poem’s composition and performance clearly align the poem with one half of lament’s equation; the threnōs, the ‘commissioned work of professional outsiders’ and ‘the kind of formal, enduring artwork that the Iliad and the Odyssey see their events as turning into’ (Murnaghan 1999: 205).9 The poet writes and speaks as the latest in a long line of artists - ‘someone like Homer’ (Oswald 2011a: 1) - whose ‘entextualizations’ have re-presented the collective, participatory performance of lamentation through the medium of individually-authored texts.10 As Oswald has noted elsewhere: ‘to create an oral poem in a literary tradition has been one of my driving impulses’ (Oswald 2003).

Yet Wilce also warns us against assuming the existence of any absolute distinction between collectively performed and privately ‘entextualised’ versions of lamentation, since a privately composed poem may acquire a subsequent, public performance history (Wilce 2009: 23). Foley’s explorations of slam poetry, a high-octane performance-genre in which competitors ‘speak their poetry aloud, to give it living voice with all the power and bravado they can muster’ (Foley 2002: 3-5), lend support to this flexible understanding of the multiple identities of a modern poem which may exist both on the printed page and in live performance, designating this type of work ‘Voiced Texts’: a ‘type of oral poetry that begins life as written composition only to modulate to oral performance before a live audience’ (Foley 2002: 43).

This categorisation avoids conventional dichotomies between ‘oral’ and ‘written’ texts,11 drawing on a recognition that:

... not only a given culture but even a single individual can manage an extensive repertoire of expressive styles and media, so that a person who uses literacy and texts...

may also harness the idiom of oral tradition. (Foley 2005: 206) The category of ‘Voiced Text’ emphasises the fluidity and hybridity of poetic compositions which, like Homeric epic,12 may have many lives both on the page and in live, spoken-word performance.13 This notion of the ‘Voiced Text’, as site of generic hybridity, and as a catalyst for the transformation of poetic text in performance, significantly informs the analysis that follows. The remainder of this paper examines the crucial symbolic role played by vocalisation, and its absence, in the text of Oswald’s Memorial, before moving on to consider how this sophisticated literary interplay of sound and silence functions in, and can be heightened (or even transformed) by, the peculiar and unpredictable conditions of live performance.


Throughout Memorial, the interplay of sound and silence plays a key role in shaping the poem’s moods and meanings. As Womack (2011) notes, a moment’s silence, marked by a sudden expanse of blank paper, is a dramatic feature of the poem’s published text (Oswald 2011a: 55). Memorial’s soldier protagonists are repeatedly forced into confrontation with the inefficacy of their own vocal acts,

or suffer violent trauma to the sites of breath and speech. Pedarus is one such casualty, who:

Felt the hot shock in his neck of Meges’ spear Unswallowable sore throat of metal in his mouth Right through his teeth He died biting down on the spearhead (Oswald 2011a: 20)

–  –  –

Similarly, the blow that kills Pandarus ‘Splintered his teeth cut through his tongue broke off his jaw’, rendering futile his promises of what he’ll do ‘If ever I get home’ (Oswald 2011a: 22-3). Such deaths are recurrently signified by ‘a dull clang’ or the sound of ‘metal banging on the ground’ (Oswald 2011a: 16, 31), the technologies of killing repeatedly subsuming human speech into clattering wordlessness.14 In the Iliad, this identification of the sites of breath and speech with violence is explicitly and

pragmatically marked, as when Achilles considers where best to attack Hector:

He was eyeing Hektor’s splendid body, to see where it might best give way, but all the rest of the skin was held in the armor, brazen and splendid, he stripped when he cut down the strength of Patroklos;

yet showed where the collar-bones hold the neck from the shoulders, the throat, where death of the soul comes most swiftly... (Homer, Iliad 22.321-5) In Memorial, less concerned with the practicalities of killing than with the effects of Homeric violence, damage to the sites of vocalisation, and solders’ loss of vocal efficacy, becomes a key signifier of oncoming death, with its transformation of a breathing, speaking man into an unspeaking object, a corpse.

This process is explicitly enacted in the death of Agelaos:

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