Sunday, 12 October 2014

Alice Oswald Performs Tithonus: "As Soon As Dawn Appears..."

Susanne Nilsson, Flying at DawnUsed under Creative Commons license

In a literary world where words like "stunning", "powerful" and "unforgettable" get bandied about pretty freely, Alice Oswald's work deserves it more than most. It's safe to say that she is one of the most important English/British/English-language poets now working, and some would call her the most important.

On Thursday night I went to Southbank (the Purcell Room) to see Alice Oswald perform her new work, Tithonus. This was the second time I'd seen her and the first, about a year and a half ago, was a revelation as I was only slightly familiar with her work at that point and had no idea what kind of performer she was. It is more accurate to describe her appearances as "performances" - she recites by heart rather than reading, but "recital" doesn't exactly cover it. When I saw her at the T S Eliot Memorial Meeting, performing an excerpt from Memorial and shorter lyric poems, I was totally mesmerised and knew I had to read more, and hopefully see her again.

Following Oswald's radical reframing of the Iliad in Memorial, Tithonus is another look at a tragic story from Greek mythology. Tithonus was a Trojan who became the lover of the dawn. When she asked Zeus to make Tithonus immortal, she forgot to ask that he stop aging. Eventually he became unimaginably ancient and the dawn locked him in a room, where he sat babbling to himself. In this version of the story, he meets the dawn at midsummer.

I bought my ticket for this event (part of the London Literature Festival) a while ago and it came at a good time in a fairly stressful week. By the time I got to the front of the bar queue, I'd had to listen to the annoying publishing types behind me alternately raving about how marvellous Alice Oswald was when they didn't see her at Hay, and "the horror" of a new novel by a famous rock star. At that point I was more than ready to sit in the dark and listen.

The performance lasted 46 minutes, which was the length of midsummer dawn, and the first five minutes were in near-complete darkness. Oswald was accompanied by Griselda Sanderson on the nyckelharpa, an unusual instrument which I may or may not have come across in the Nordic parts of my childhood. The lights on stage came up very gradually and the effect was beautifully and subtly done to resemble dawn light.

Oswald called Memorial "a trauma" and has said how difficult it was for her to perform it. Tithonus is plainly also about trauma, in part, and an enormous tension ran through the whole performance, counterpointed by the weirdly soothing nature of half-darkness and the sounds of the nyckelharpa. Oswald holds herself totally still while performing and never falters. This had a particularly shocking effect in the passages where Tithonus really lapses into a traumatised babbling ("behind that cloth another cloth behind that cloth another cloth and then another and then another cloth and then another..."). These frantic moments in the piece contrasted with long pauses and descriptions of dawn sounds and sights, along with Tithonus' visions of himself as a sort of dogged survivor in the natural world. These had both a delicate, accurate charm and an almost unbearable sadness.

    and getting accustomed to
surviving like a bramble very good
at growing anywhere you ought to
praise me for this trailing bloom this
must be the heart this is only a dream

It's hard to describe an experience like this and do it justice. I bought a copy of the limited edition pamphlet of Tithonus on sale at the event, and re-reading it allows me to relive it to a certain extent. I think that it is enormously impressive even if only experienced on the page, but the combined effect of the lighting, the music and especially Oswald's performance was overwhelming.

Oswald and Sanderson signed the pamphlet for me afterwards. Oswald looked tired and drained, although she was gracious, so I didn't ask her questions, just said "Thank you, it was amazing", to which she said "Good" and smiled. Her signature was a small diffident scrawl and she said "My signature is disappearing" a bit wryly. The signature might be self-effacing, and so is the poet, despite the almost frightening power of her performances: everything is given to the poem, when she recites. But this is a voice which, in its blend of tradition, avant-garde modernity and simply great art, is likely to outlast that of most contemporary poets.


  1. Wasn't it just incredible? I came across your blog while searching the internet in the vain hope that someone had made a recording of her performance. I'd happily listen to it again and again. I didn't buy the text version on the grounds that it was very much a performance piece - I wish I had done now, as then at least, as you say, I'd be able to relive it a little.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! It was incredible indeed.

      I know that a recording of Memorial is available (I REALLY wish I'd been to one of the performances where she recited it in its entirety), so possibly a recording of Tithonus will become available at some point too? Also, I would imagine that Tithonus will be reprinted in some form too, and that this was just an initial limited edition. But we'll see. I think that if I had picked it up and read it without having seen/heard the performance, it would still have made a strong impact, but reading it with the memory of the performance in the background was quite different and very powerful.

  2. The poem will be performed on BBC Radio4 on 21st December 2014 with the nyckelharpa accompaniment.

  3. Thanks so much for your vivid reporting, Clarissa. Frances Wilson recommends Tithonus in a recent TLS, which prompted my search for it and brought me to your blog. Your description reminds me of performances I've seen by Laurie Anderson, whose presence with her violin adds enormously to her words. Thanks also to the anonymous poster of the upcoming BBC broadcast.

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Michael! It really was an extraordinary performance to which a writeup couldn't do justice. I'm sometimes a bit uncertain about poetry accompanied by music, but the way it was done here was wholly unique and definitely added to the words.

      And I'm not sure who wanted to let us know about the BBC Radio performance but it's definitely good to know!

  4. As someone who has been buried under a morass for an age now, I first encountered Alice Oswald when I heard her perform Tithonus (with a nyckelharpa accompaniment by Griselda Sanderson) as part 4/4 0f The Echo Chamber - Solsticial on Radio 4 on 21st December. I was totally enrapt by her. Such a mesmeric style, such a beautiful recital of this fabulous - in so many ways - work. I have not felt so moved by either the written or spoken word for many a long year, until this tiger's eye of a poet happened upon me. The performance can be listened to on BBC iplayer for another couple of weeks or so, and is being repeated by them on the 27th Dec. I, too, would dearly like to buy this as an audio recording, together with the published work, the latter being available from Letter Press in Exeter.The experience could be called transcendental. I have now ordered copies of many of her other works, having previewed them and found them to offer similar jewels of stunning literary form, hypnotic, unsentimental, saturated with vision. I believe she is an icon...apparently she was offered the post of Poet Laureate in 2009 (?) but turned it down.See Andrew Motion on her.

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I am travelling at the moment but I'll try to listen to it again on BBC iPlayer when I'm back. I want to relive it. I'm so glad you discovered her other work too. Dart and Memorial are especially impressive and the short lyric poems are superb.

    2. Hi Clarissa and everybody else. It's great to read such a wonderful article about Alice's work. I've been creating a website with her to sell the limited edition pamphlets of her poem Tithonus which have been printed by The Letter Press. Please spread the word if you can - the url is

    3. Thanks, Lianne! That's good news and I would love to help spread the word. I'm especially intrigued by where it says on the Letter Press website that Tithonus is "a work in progress"...