Alice Oswald, though she may not seem it at first, is an opinionated poet of ideas, and her poetry is ambitious in both form and scope. She writes taut poems about nature but refuses to call them ‘nature poems’. Her work is ‘full of hymns’, as Elizabeth Bishop said of her own, as well as pagan shouts and birdcalls. Oswald paints wild, stormy miniatures through which large figures lurch, blindfolded and burdened:
A mouldering man, a powdered and
walking the same so on and so on.
Rutty road. Winter etc.
Poached fields, all zugs and water.
These figures are forsaken and solitary, their minds set against bodies:
I was dying to ditch his head,
maybe put his socks on a twig and stop
caring, just lie there staring up.
I would sing then I would sing if I could.
There is a flavour of Eliot’s ‘I Tiresias’ about them: they make grand statements about their heavy souls. When not writing in this pseudo-heroic mode, Oswald writes restless, unpeopled poems, in which statements are replaced by questions:
is an invisible ray lighting up your lungs? how invisible?
is it a weightless rapture? pause. how weightless?
Though she is capable of more, these are the two modes alternating in her latest book, Woods etc.
In her second collection, Dart (2002), Oswald sought not to describe water with words but to make water out of them. A brilliantly mapped-out and achieved piece, Dart was like a contemporary ‘Brook’: the great river epic Coleridge didn’t in the end have the nerve to write. A winding, wayfaring poem following the path of the River Dart, it is (in Oswald’s words) a ‘sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea’: its language is rhythmical, melodic, playful, fluidly moving between shore and water voices, and mimicking the speech patterns of the local characters – fishermen, dairy workers, prisoners, schoolboys. ‘Christ/be with all those who stare or fall into this river,’ she writes, in a blessing that reads like a signpost. Combining thoughtfulness with pace, scientific precision with journalistic verve, Dart threads through these various voices. The result is similar in spirit to Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts or Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, a scrupulous tilling and scouring of the poet’s homeland.
Despite her marked territoriality, there is an aura of communion in Oswald’s work (communion with God, nature, language – anything to hand) which can at times seem exaggerated and gushing. When she writes, for example, of wanting to capture her landscapes in ‘a language more opaque and fluid, fragmented, haphazard, instant, inspoken and breath-sensitive than is possible’, it is easy to mistake her for a harmless hippy, vague and high on Hopkins. But there are passages in Dart which, if not quite ‘inspoken’, are breath-taking. To draw one comparison: Ted Hughes, the poet from whom Oswald has learned the most, writes a river as ‘a god,/knee-deep among reeds, watching men,/or hung by the heels down the door of a dam’; inviolable and dangerous, distant and indifferent. This is how Oswald writes a river:
come falleth in my push-you where it hurts
and let me rough you under, be a laugh
and breathe me please in whole inhale
come warmeth, I can outcanoevre you
into the smallest small where it moils up
and masses under the sloosh gates, put your head,
it looks a good one, full of kiss
and known to those you love, come roll it on
come tongue-in-skull, come drinketh, come sleepeth
The intimate, garrulous waters of Anna Livia Plurabelle may have marbled Oswald’s ‘jabber of pidgin-river’, but the effect is no less wonderful, and no less violent (the canoeist who dies in the above passage fleshes out a folklorish footnote: ‘Dart Dart/Every year thou/Claimest a heart’). For Oswald, it is not enough just to describe and compare and invoke (as so much ‘nature poetry’ will do); Oswald wants to write with what others are content merely to write about. There is something very Bunting-like about such materialist leanings. Think of the stonemason’s refrain in Briggflatts: ‘Words!/Pens are too light./Take a chisel to write.’ The keystone of Oswald’s distinctive style is a syntactical minimalism, and many poems in Woods etc seem carved out of rock with crude tools: they are sparsely punctuated and structurally indomitable.
On the publication of her first book, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile (1996), Oswald described hers as a ‘dry-stone method: finding discrete blocks of words and jamming them together to make something unshakable’. The stone-waller who finds his way into Dart elaborates on the technique he shares with his author, casting himself as ‘a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time’. The method in itself is not new. Oswald ‘wedges together’ elemental nouns to describe, for instance, ‘water deep in its own world/steep shafts warm streams/coal salt cod weed’. These chanted clusters of nouns, held in place by no syntactical cement, are reminiscent of the work of Ted Hughes, where they illustrate the ‘simple beingthereness’, as Seamus Heaney once described it, ‘of sea, stone, wind and tree’. There are other Hughesian influences with which it noticeably chimes. Take, for instance, the Crow-ishness of the following:
I peeped out and saw myself
sitting like a stone in the rain
resting between forms.
This, I surmised,
with its throatful of grudges,
with its lumbar and glandular gripes, its guts,
its tissues and issues and sinews,
this is frog. For the moment.
Or this, from ‘Autobiography of a Stone’:
I, Stone, fell into affliction,
the annealing of glass through the whole series of endurable pains
The register here is statement-driven, as clumsy and abrupt with certainties as Hughes at his most crass. Again like Hughes, Woods etc accommodates a fair amount of children’s poetry and nursery rhymes. ‘Solomon Grundy’, for example, ploddingly briefs the first seven days of Grundy’s life with none of the pulse or fun of its template.
Woods etc is a somewhat tentative follow-up to the triumphant Dart. There are a few glimpses of brilliance scattered throughout the stretches of indecisive description and routine Hughesian landscapes. Oswald is at her best among people, and Woods etc, like Hughes, ‘can’t do them’. Aside from the small congregation of mythical figures, who in any case are closer to statues than social beings, humanity has been emptied out of the book almost completely, with a view to tapping ‘the hush of things/unseen inside, the heartbeat of dead wood’. This heartbeat is rarely arresting enough to stand alone, and, being ‘dead’, does little for the rhythm-centred writing Oswald has elsewhere brought to life. ‘Leaf’ unfolds to describe
a form curled under, hour by hour,
the thick reissuing starlike shapes
of cells and pores and water-rods
which builds up, which becomes a pressure,
a gradual fleshing out of a longing for light,
a small hand unfolding, feeling about.
The rhythm flickers, is at times squeezed out of the poem altogether by what the poem wants to say. Oswald herself has said that without rhythm you could mistake her work ‘for something polished or earnest or quaint or nature-ish’; she is probably right, although she is probably over-defensive on the last point: since the publication of her first book, she has insisted on a number of occasions that she is ‘not a nature poet’. This seems a strange protest, given that ‘nature poetry’ isn’t quite the quaint Romantic throwback it used to be: if anything, it is rather fashionable these days. Kathleen Jamie’s The Tree House (2004), for instance, is a book brimming with birds and wildlife, though lacking the wind-bitten energy of Oswald’s less gentle poetic habitat.
It is probably not the nature tag itself so much as its shadow, the sense of well-mapped rural cosiness, that puts Oswald on the defensive: the proud transcendentalism of her poems has little in common with the signposted nature trails of some of her contemporaries’ treks to the wilderness. Many poems about nature are stunted by the prim complacency of the countryside idyll. Even the booming shamanism of Hughes has been tamed and remodelled to fit a more restrained idea of English landscape poetry, fit for consumption by GCSE students and Classic FM listeners.
And it is this sleepy view of the English countryside and its poetic heritage that Oswald wishes to avoid: the gentle nature trail, an amateur’s walk around the edges of a wood. For Oswald, nature represents a savage god before a sanctuary: it is the ultimate arena of unfairness. In Woods etc – ‘nature poetry’ or not – there is no question of quaintness. The luscious, lip-licking violence of Dart survives and is even amplified, in poems such as ‘Head of a Dandelion’:
This is the dandelion with its thousand faculties
like an old woman taken by the neck
and shaken to pieces.
This is the dust-flower flitting away.
This is the flower of amnesia.
It has opened its head to the wind,
all havoc and weakness,
as if a wooden man should stroll through fire
These are beautifully destructive images, cinematic in scope, which gather force to describe a storm’s rape and pillage (‘it takes hold of trees, it blows their failings out of them,/it throws in sideways, it flashes the river upriver’); the land womanishly ‘gives up its skin and bones,/goes up in smoke, lets go of its ashes’. It’s an obviously male-on-female trope, but it’s brilliantly staged, and used to tremendous effect. This writing compels the reader to make allowances for the book’s more nebulous experiments, in which ‘things drift about seeking shape’ and are ‘increasingly unfocused, spinning/ through the disintegrating kingdom of a garden/and going nowhere’. The vagueness of these more fragile-seeming poems can leave the reader marooned in an atmosphere of intuitions and invoked presences, at the expense of tangible shapes; here, the lack of punctuation and syntactical logic seems less an aesthetic decision than an escape from one. With Dart, there is no such problem: the book is less readily incantatory, less automatic in its reliance on myth and the mantic.
Increasingly dominant in Oswald’s poetic is a mystical – I hesitate to say Anglican – strain: the kind we accept and explore in Geoffrey Hill but would probably scoff or yawn at in most other contemporary British poets. Oswald’s treatment of the theme, entirely different from Hill’s, at times recalls Messiaen: through nature, through the sound of water, birdsong, bright light, through specific ways of dividing time by the use of sound and silence, we reach God. For the main part, though, these poems, while full of their own sense of spiritual ascendancy, have none of Messiaen’s conviction. For example, in a metrical, thematically organised poem perhaps designed to mimic earlier English Christian poetry and song (George Herbert, say), the poet composes a prayer spoken by seabirds which, while still dropping the odd Joycean pun, seems sombrely portentous for no immediate reason:
Pray for us when we fight
the wind one to one;
let not that shuddering strength
smash the cross of wing-bone.
O God the featherer,
lift us if we fall;
preserve the frenzy in our mouths,
the yellow star in the eyeball.
Christ, make smooth the way
of a creature like a spirit
up from its perverse body
without weight or limit.
Holy ghost of heaven,
blow us clear of the world,
give us the utmost of the air
to heave on and to hold.
Pray for us this weird
bare place – we are screaming
O sky count us not as nothing
O sea count us not as nothing
This is a curious mixture of obsolete poeticism (‘let not that shuddering strength’), cute punning (‘God the featherer’) and classic apostrophe, narrated from within a relatively stable structure by a (literal) flock of blind followers. Leaving these quirks aside, the words read like the lyrics of a hymn whose organ accompaniment has been lost. As prayer it has no spirit, and as poetry its icy tidiness fails to live up to the watermark left by Dart. The poem’s obvious spiritual ambition makes it doubly disappointing. Geoffrey Hill, in answer to critics complaining that he was incapable of grasping true religious experience, said that he was ‘trying to make lyrical poetry out of a much more common situation – the sense of not being able to grasp true religious experience’. Oswald’s poetry is much less self-aware and, thinking itself capable of this giant ‘grasp’, sometimes drifts into a hollow theism. Poems in which God is name-dropped from nowhere seem like empty icons: shimmering slightly, but with a wooden dullness behind the eyes.
There is a poem attributed to John Skelton called ‘The Harmony of Birds’, in which a chorus of fowl sing individually and together in praise of God. The poet takes a walk in the countryside, and stops by a tree, ‘Whereon dyd lyght/Byrdes as thycke/As sterres in the skye,/Praisyng our Lorde/ Without discorde./With goodly armony.’ ‘All art aspires to the condition of birdsong,’ Oswald wrote in a paragraph on Skelton in a recent anthology. In her best work, ‘every tree is a problem to be solved by birdsong’, and she takes up Skelton’s ‘harmony of birds’ in a salutatory appraisal:
A spiral ascending the morning,
climbing by means of a song into the sun,
to be sung reciprocally by two birds at intervals
in the same tree but not quite in time.
Not quite in time with each other, or not quite in time itself? Earthly relativism and godly boundlessness have rarely been synchronised so concisely. Oswald’s original ‘harmony of birds’ sings a delirious hymn, with the rapture of Francis of Assisi’s ‘Cantico del Sole’, as it describes the sun (a god-like maestro in the sky) assembling ‘its instruments’:
it gathers the yard with its echoes and scaffolding sounds,
it gathers the swerving away sound of the road,
it gathers the river shivering in a wet field,
it gathers the three small bones in the dark of the eardrum;
it gathers the big bass silence of clouds
and the mind whispering in its shell
and all trees, with their ears to the air,
seeking a steady state and singing it over till it settles.
When Oswald listens less to the whispering mind and more to the ‘big bass silence of clouds’, the freshness and rhythm of her work is neither ‘polished nor earnest nor quaint nor nature-ish’, but captivating and wholly new.