Alice Oswald gave an exceptional performance when she appeared at the University of York’s Berwick Saul building on Tuesday evening last week.

Oswald, a 46-year old classicist and poet based in Devon, has won critical acclaim for books such as Dart, an epic poem that follows the journey of the river of the same name, which won the 2002 T S Eliot prize. Her latest book, Memorial, is a reworking of Homer’s Iliad, and a list of soldiers who died during the Trojan War.

Dressed in a green dress coat (Oswald has worked as a gardener) and with a slender face framed by straight dark hair, the writer looked a little like Patti Smith. Tapping her left foot instinctively to the rhythm of the phrases, Oswald’s intent was serious – the performance of Memorial was prefaced by a comment about the 400 men and women who have died in Afghanistan, and it was hard not to hear the ancient tale of war without thinking of more recent follies. Oswald’s remarkable achievement in this performance was to calmly reel off 40 minutes of poetry from Memorial entirely from memory, a hugely impressive feat. Oswald says she was “obsessed” by Homer for years, and was determined to replicate the oral tradition of the Iliad.

Eyeballing the audience, and without once tripping over her words, she told the tale of fallen soldiers in the unflinching brutality of war. The names alone ( Phylakos, Thymbraius et al) would have defeated many. The bloody tale of battle contained a hint of the visceral Crow poems of Ted Hughes – another writer who Oswald admires.

The 150 people who attended this excellent free event won’t forget it in a hurry, but the empty seats seemed a shame. The University of York receives an A for hosting the event, but a D for their marketing.