Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The T S Eliot Memorial Meeting with Alice Oswald and Robin Robertson

On Monday night I went to the T S Eliot Memorial Meeting, at the Courtauld Institute (Somerset House). I had been going back and forth a little over whether I wanted to buy a ticket to the event, but my dilemma was solved when I won a pair of tickets through the Poetry Society. This also allowed me to bring a friend - it turned out that she was rather starved for some poetry, so that worked out well.

The evening was organised by the Royal Society of Literature, and so I had the added pleasure of seeing my favourite travel writer, the charming and erudite Colin Thubron, introducing the evening. On this occasion, critic and novelist James Wood was also admitted as a Fellow of the RSL. I had no idea that so much ceremony accompanied these occasions, but it seems that a new Fellow must sign the almost-200-year-old roll book, and that this is traditionally done with a famous writer's pen. In the past, Byron's and Dickens's pens have been used, but this year the RSL has a new pen, and a very exciting one: TS Eliot's.

Photo by I've Read That (

A trustee of the T S Eliot estate who presented the pen said: "Before Valerie [T S Eliot's widow] died, it was just known as Tom's pen and she kept it with Tom's wallet, Tom's glasses and Tom's cheque book, and that was its proper home and where it belonged. When Valerie died, it stopped being Tom's pen and became T S Eliot's pen and so needed a home." There was definitely an emotional charge in the air when the pen was presented.

The poetry readings were by Alice Oswald and Robin Robertson. I was only slightly familiar with Alice Oswald's work but I found her quite extraordinary. The lights were dimmed (for both poets, except a small reading lamp on the podium) but Oswald didn't read - she recited her poetry for half an hour, and with great presence and sense of timing. Her work struck me as layered and cumulative, like the interior of a seashell or some beautiful symmetrical form in nature, using language which was both musically poetic, and simple. As well as several shorter poems, she recited a long passage from Memorial, her version of the Iliad, which was powerful and unforgettable, bringing home both the violence of war and the details of the individuals who met their deaths. (On this link, you can read excerpts from Memorial or listen to Oswald reading them herself:

Robin Robertson read poems about (among other things) what sounded like a rather grim childhood in Scotland, about heart surgery and its aftermath (I am now quite grateful that I'm closer to the A&E at St Thomas's, rather than the Denmark Hill A&E, which was described in the poem as an "abattoir" on a weekend night), and invented tales of Scottish mythology. I thought Oswald was a tough act to follow but Robertson reads with great Scottish gravitas and I've always found his readings to be wonderful. He concluded with 'At Roane Head', which was as powerful as ever (I heard a few gasps from people who may not have been familiar with the poem's twists and turns already) and which is likely to become the poem he will be remembered for.

Here is a photo of the stars of the evening - from left to right, Robin Robertson, James Wood and Alice Oswald:

Photo by I've Read That (

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