Judges praise 'imaginative and intellectual ambition' of Memorial, British poet's reworking of Homer's The Iliad
Alice Oswald has become the first poet to win the £25,000 Warwick prize for writing. It was for Memorial, her reworking of Homer's Iliad, in which she aims to rescue the work from its popular status as a "public school poem" and a "cliched, British empire part of our culture", according to a Guardian interview.
Oswald said she was "surprised and grateful, both to the judges and to Homer", on winning the prize. Memorial retells Homer's epic poem by way of the back stories of its doomed soldiers, remembering each one and "filleting" seven-eighths of Homer's narrative.
The bodies pile up as the poem progresses: "EPICLES a Southerner from sunlit Lycia" who was "knocked backwards by a rock/ And sank like a diver"; "AXYLUS son of Teuthras" who "so loved his friends" but "died side by side with Calesius/ In a daze of loneliness"; "POLYDORUS … who loved running/ Now somebody has to tell his father/ That exhausted man leaning on the wall/ Looking for his favourite son."
Oswald was shortlisted for a Forward poetry prize at the age of 30 for her first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, and won the TS Eliot prize in 2002 with her second, a book-length poem about the River Dart in Devon. After leaving school, she spent her year out reading The Iliad, and has said all her poems "have been more or less responses to my initial delight at reading Homer".
Professor Ian Sansom, chair of the judges for the Warwick prize, said: "It was a unanimous decision to award the Warwick prize for writing 2013 to Memorial: this is a book that forges its own unique medium of expression. Memorial is a book that looks to the present as well as the past, which combines the personal with the political, and my fellow judges and I were thrilled by its imaginative and intellectual ambition."
The other books shortlisted for the prize were Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways, Jim al-Khalili's Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science, and Delusions of Gender by neuroscientist Cordelia Fine; and in fiction, Etgar Keret's short story collection Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, and the novel Sufficient Grace by Amy Espeseth.
The Warwick prize is awarded once every two years for a substantial piece of writing in English in any genre or form. The previous winner was Peter Forbes for Dazzled and Deceived in 2011, and the inaugural winner, in 2009, was Naomi Klein for The Shock Doctrine.