Paul Muldoon and Alice Oswald: Literature Live at The Martin Harris Centre, Centre for New Writing, 3/10/19, reviewed by Georgia Hase
An evening in time, out of time, about time.
Last night the remarkable Alice Oswald and Paul Muldoon gave the Centre of New Writing an evening of laughter and reflection. Both poets chose from a selection of their poems to read aloud to those in attendance at the Martin Harris Centre. Oswald started the evening and, before delving into the shapeshifting Homeric sea that inspired the water-stories of her collection Nobody, she reflected on how poems are clocks. A seemingly odd statement, perhaps, but on reflection, Oswald’s connection between poetry and time created a thread that tied the entire evening together, from her readings to Muldoon’s.
For Oswald poems are not like clocks, poems are clocks. Poems catch time in their words and whilst they might not be in time, time is in them. They capture moments, feelings, images and immortalise them into words. However, poems are unreliable clocks. Poems can stretch out a single moment for infinity or capture a decade in one end-stopped line. It is as Oswald claims, you truly can “get lost in poems”.
Oswald started her readings with a selection of poems that sought to explore the liminal space of dusk. Oswald opened with her poem “Shadow”, which began: “I’m going to flicker for a moment and tell you a story of a shadow” and even though Oswald read other poems, it seemed that we were still following that same story of a shadow at dusk. We are likely all familiar with how the time of dusk can pass in an instant or stretch on forever, like a shadow in the grass, and this liminal space seemed to be at the forefront of Oswald’s poems. After reading “Shadow”, “Dusk”, “Moth” (all ‘dusk’ poems) and “Fox” and “Moon” which explored the time of midnight, Oswald read from her new collection “Nobody”. Here the poems still lingered on time but through the sea. Oswald explained how this collection was drawn out of the Odyssey, how she stared at Homer’s sea and waited to see what emerged from the waves. The audience enjoyed Oswald’s oxymoronic statement of how “Nobody” was an attempt to talk about the sea, but in trying to talk about the sea, Oswald found it impossible to do so, or so she thought, for what is “Nobody” but a dialogue between reader, writer and the sea?
It was at this point in the evening that Muldoon brought the audience back from Oswald’s timelessness through laughter. Oswald had done her readings from memory, except for some moments when she found herself “clock-stopped”. Muldoon, by comparison, said he was making his reading order up as he went along, and he self-interrupted his poems with humorous interjections, much to the audiences’ delight.
While Oswald explored the shape-shifting nature of time, Muldoon’s exploration of time emerged from a more grounded approach. Time wound its way into the Muldoon’s poems like a horse side-stepping its handler, through a “moving back”, which, in Muldoon’s words, “is a lovely way to go.” His poem “Turkey Buzzards” showed clearly how time, through its reflection on memories, can slip unseen into a poem and write itself before your very eyes. Muldoon explained how his poem “Turkey Buzzards”, started in America after WWII and followed the path of the eponymous turkey buzzard as the Eisenhower interstate formed and the bird travelled the country. How the poem began with this idea, but it then merged and melded into another idea altogether. It became a poem to, and about, his sister who was unwell at the time he was writing. This echoed back to what Oswald said at the start of the evening; how poems are clocks, with time inhabiting a space within them.
Muldoon read a selection of poems including “Redknots”, which told the story of his daughter’s birth, “Briefcase”, a witty commentary on the eel-skin briefcase his father had given him, and “Gathering Mushrooms”, which he dedicated to his friend, Ciaran Carson. What all these poems shared with each other, and with Oswald’s, was that they drew aside the curtains to a window that looked upon a moment in time. In reading these poems the audience was invited to look upon this moment, and ‘move back’ in time with Muldoon.
Following this ‘moving back’, the audience and poets were brought back to the present with a short Q & A led by the co-director of the Centre for New Writing, John McAuliffe. Many great questions were asked, and even greater answers given, but one question which John posed to both Oswald and Muldoon really captured the tone of the evening. John asked, and here I paraphrase: “How does the event of reading your poems out loud change the experience of reading?”
For Oswald, the act of reading her poems aloud is an important part of her writing process. For her, memory is linked to writing, and memory self-edits poems through forgetting. She reads, writes and speaks her poems with her whole body and finds she has to inhabit herself physically, not just mentally, to remember, to create memory and to write.
For Muldoon, when he reads his poems aloud, he tries to read them as if reading them for the first time, so as to make sense of the story being told for himself and for any others listening. He tries, though he admits that his success rate may vary, to trying to never read his poems in the same way twice, to allow nuances in the narrative to emerge and take form. Unlike Oswald who tries to read her poems from memory, Muldoon admitted to having done a reading in the past where he tried to do it from memory but ended up forgetting the words he wanted to say – the ultimate self-edit. Muldoon now does all his poetry readings with his book to hand.
The evening was a true success and whilst Oswald’s statement that “poems exist outside of time” is entirely true, through the act of reading them aloud both Oswald and Muldoon located their poems in the ‘now’ of the evening, a shared experience of time created between the audience and the poets, who got lost in time together.