In a squeaky clean lecture room at the top of London’s Southbank Centre, Alice Oswald pokes and prods with words at a rotting swan, a road-kill badger. “What dirt shall we visit today/what dirt shall we re-visit?” hum the flies in another poem from her new collection, “Falling Awake”, which has been shortlisted for the Forward poetry prize.
“I frequently get told I’m a nature poet living in a rural idyll, but just like the city, the country is full of anxious, savage people,” she tells the audience. “The hedges seem so much stronger than the humans that you feel slightly imperilled and exposed, as if, if you stopped moving for a minute the nettles would just move in.”
When I visit her cottage in south Devon a few days later, the nettles have indeed moved in: they bristle from the hedgerows, over lanes trampled deep into the landscape by centuries of rural industry. The village where she lives with her husband and three teenage children sits in a crook of the River Dart, which was the subject of her second, name-making book, and in which she likes to swim all year round.
“Dart”, a book-length poem which won the T.S. Eliot prize in 2002, followed the river from its source — “A trickle coming out of a bank, a foal of a river” — to the sea, where a seal-watcher sees it meet “cave/horrible to enter alone/the fur, the hair, the fingernails, the bones”.
“Dart” was both lyrical and determinedly anti-romantic, tuning into the voices of the people who make a living along the river’s length: a poacher, a millworker, a water abstractor, doing his best to skim and measure and “countervail against decay”.
Among those to recognise that she was doing something a bit special was Jeanette Winterson. “Alice Oswald is making a new kind of poetry,” she wrote. “There is nothing fancy about it — she is doing the job, simple and enormous, of reworking the model for the 21st century ... She turns the countryside into an inner landscape, a place not at odds with the more fashionable beats of the city, or a clichéd antidote to it, but as something which I can only call authentic desire.”
Then in 2011, after five collections centred on nature, Oswald did something that appeared to be completely different: she published another book-length poem, “Memorial”, which was billed as a translation of Homer’s “Iliad”. In fact, it was a palimpsest of the epic, which turned the tablet on the heroic struggle of Achilles and Agamemnon in order to focus once more on the little people — warriors such as Harpalion “not quite ready for life/not quite solid always shifting from foot to foot”, or Euchenor, “a kind of suicide” who “carried the darkness inside him of a dud choice”.
The woman who has excavated these minor characters from millennia of cultural sediment is quiet and serious, determinedly unstarry. “I feel like I’m getting more anonymous,” she says.
At her launch, her editor Robin Robertson praised the patience, diligence and attentiveness of her work, but also an “alchemical, shamanistic power” which is rooted in oral tradition. “Patience is my muse,” agreed Oswald, who described “Falling Awake” as a “rather neurotically measured and metered book”. She instructed her audience to put away their books, as she would be speaking by heart. “Forget the fixed text, because I like the idea of poems being these melting ice shapes that vanish and are only there in the moment.”
There’s a lot of melting, vanishing, dying in her work — whether of warriors, badgers or swans. In one poem, “Severed Head Floating Downriver”, Orpheus’s skull drifts along the Hebron after he has been torn to pieces by the Maenads, “no more myself but a colander/draining the sound from this never-to-be-mentioned wound”.
Is her poetry getting darker? “Oh dear, that’s what my husband says,” she briefly frets, before flipping the thought on its head. “I’m mostly interested in life and vitality, but you can only see that by seeing its opposite. I love erosion: I like the way that the death of one thing is the beginning of something else.”
On a purely practical level, there is a lot of death to observe in the lanes around her house. “I’m quite interested in the corpses you see around here. I really like having something physical that’s not myself.” But her poems constantly tow you from the physical to the metaphysical. Her swan marvels at its own disintegration in much the same way as, in ancient myth, Orpheus’s head continues to sing.
One key to her work is an often-told anecdote about the night she decided to become a poet. She was eight years old and had found herself alone and terrified through the night in “this scary room”. “I saw the dawn coming up and I realised I couldn’t describe it other than in a different language,” she recalls. “I still remember the white clouds in the blue sky and the fact that they weren’t saying anything about what I’d been through, though their actuality was very communicative.”
Born in 1966, the third of four children, Oswald had an itinerant childhood, dictated by her mother Mary Keen’s work as a leading garden designer, which took the family from house to house. “I felt I grew up in a series of gardens,” she says. Along with her two sisters and her younger brother, she went from grammar school to Oxford, where she read classics. All three sisters were at university at the same time and were very close. “We would leave notes for each other in the drain outside the Bodleian library.”
She met her husband, the playwright Peter Oswald, when he cast her and one of her sisters as soldiers in a student production of “Julius Caesar”, thinking they were twins. “I discovered then that I wasn’t an actor,” she says, though theatricality rings through her work. She left Oxford intent on a day job as a gardener and enrolled for a course with the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley. “My dream was to be a jobbing gardener in a park or something, to allow time for writing, but because my mother was quite a well-known gardener I kept being put into these high-powered jobs. I’m not as good a gardener as people think.”
Her own garden is a study in horticultural insouciance, in which bindweed tangles with fuchsia above a tussocky lawn strewn with fallen apples and dominated by an ancient badminton net. In a corner is her study — an unheated shed in which she works surrounded by cobwebs and dead moths. She hates being called a nature poet, though “pastoral” is worse: “That’s an urban approach”.
But Winterson’s claim, back in 2004, that Oswald is “Ted Hughes’ rightful heir ... a Nature poet, a spiritual poet” appears to be at least partially legitimised by the otter skin slung across a beam in her shed: it was sent to her after his death by his widow, Carol.
At her book launch she explained that she had begun to envisage her work not as poems so much as “sound carvings”. “I like the idea that sound carving suggests there’s something there already.” In her shed the concept of a sound carving begins to take shape. A volume of the major plays of Chikamatsu, an 18th-century Japanese dramatist, sits beside a paperweight made from grasshoppers and huge sheets of paper scrawled with charcoal hieroglyphics. Strung along the walls are roughly drawn diagrams of stars and ellipses. One corner of the floor is strewn with scrunched-up drafts, and just outside the door is a brazier, in which her son — at her request — has been incinerating her old work. A constant search for vitality has led to a technique of “scribbling something down on a piece of paper and just walking and writing the image. Today there’s a dead page between you and the world, which the Greek poets didn’t have.”
One of the most memorable poems in “Falling Awake” is among the oldest. “Dunt: A Poem for a Dried-up River”, which took the Forward prize for best single poem in 2007, was written when the family found themselves briefly living with her parents in Gloucestershire after being priced out of the rental market in Devon. It unfolds like a cry of environmental despair, in which “a water nymph made of bone/tries to summon a river out of limestone”.
Was it intentionally political?
The question takes her back to the “polyphonic democracy” of Homer, which she feels has been stifled by centuries of “public school readings”.
“I like to think my work is political on that level, rather than making a plea for the planet. The job of poetry is to change the aesthetic rather than to challenge the system.”
But she points out that the water nymph is also a physical entity — a small, ancient artefact in a local museum. “The Greeks called anything they didn’t understand a nymph. It could be a tree or a river. I don’t think it meant a picturesque woman at all. They lived on this hypothetical level.”
Though Oswald is moored to reality by school runs and by working a day a week at a local plant nursery, she too appears to live partly on a hypothetical level, sitting through all weathers in her shed, obsessively revisiting Homer, Dante, Milton — reconceiving the way they imagined and wrote for the 21st century.
The creation of one long piece in “Falling Awake”, “Tithonus”, involved getting up at 4am for days on end to record the dawn, in her own words, written in real time. She wouldn’t be reading it, she told her Southbank audience, because it had to be performed over exactly 46 minutes with a musician and a stopwatch.
When I remark that it’s a challenging piece, since the words are only a small part of a text that unfolds between pages of metronomic dots, Alice Oswald smiles and says she would be very happy never to have to read it again. It’s no surprise that Samuel Beckett is one of her literary heroes: “Tithonus” resembles Beckett’s “dramaticules”, except that while “Footfalls” or “Breath” are conceived as play texts, this is presented as part of a book of poems.
Her attitude to textual impermanence is linked to a philosophy of forgetting. “It’s good to remember how to forget. I’m interested in the oral tradition: what keeps the poems alive is a little forgetting. In Homer you get the sense that anything could happen because the poet might not remember.”
Such intensity can have physical effects.
At her reading she warned her audience to remember to breathe when she read “Dunt”. “The last time I read it someone had an asthma attack because she forgot to breathe.”
When her children were small, such concentration came at a cost. “When I look back now I can’t understand how I managed: I was very lucky in that Peter was very good at sharing the work, but I still have a note my son slid under the door saying ‘Dear Als I have a tume ache a tooth ache and a everythig ache’.”
But now her family is growing up, she is free to move inexorably deeper into herself. “I’m interested in how many layers you can excavate in personality,” she says. “At the top it’s all quite named. But you go down through the animal and the vegetable and then you get to the mineral. At that level of concentration you can respond to the non-human by half turning into it.”
Just as a tree can be a nymph, a poet can be a rotten swan. “Poetry,” she says, “is not about language but about what happens when language gets impossible.”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd
“Falling Awake” is published by Jonathan Cape.