Alice Oswald’s poetry of rivers
British Academy Literature Week in Senate House, University of London, 22nd May
Jo Shapcott has described Alice Oswald’s poetry as ‘unsettled and settling in every good way’; the true role of poetry is arguably to act as ‘the great unsettler’ by questioning ‘the settled order of the mind’, it ‘works at the roots of thinking, down to the faint, honest voice at the bottom of the skull’. I cannot allege that one of these exists in my head, but if anyone is capable of helping it to germinate, I suspect it would be Alice Oswald.
Reading or hearing Oswald’s work read aloud is ‘like walking through a garden at night’. It is meditative and rich, especially so when delivered in the poet’s clear, deep voice. She read without glancing down and with punctilious observation of pauses – probably because they are hers. She certainly understands the power of silence, judging by the lengths of the breaks between readings.
Her work – one example is her collection Weeds and Wild Flowers – is rooted in English landscape and rivers (or ‘fish paths’) such as the Dart and the Severn. ‘The Dart’ contains the voices of people who live near the river and the voice of the river itself, ‘trying to summon itself through speaking’ ‘through the swamp spaces’. As you are reliably told that by the riverside ‘you can hear plovers whistling’, the land is described so vividly and busily that you can watch as ‘an old dandelion unpicks her shawl’ while sitting on a ‘patch of broken schist’. I had to look this up; it is a type of metamorphic rock, so now you know too if you didn’t already. The wildlife are illustrated in either a touching fashion: seals ‘all swaddled and tucked in fat’ in a cave that is ‘a room behind the sea’, and ‘ducks tucked up in self-pillow’, or sinister in their evocativeness – I can still see the eel ‘strong as bike chain’ twisting under the surface of the water.
Oswald initially refused to write a poem about a river with a name as ugly as the Dunt, however, upon discovering a Roman water nymph close by, she changed her mind. The figurine repeatedly ‘made of bone tries to summon a river out of limestone’ and the intonation becomes her vigil. Her 2011 work Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad contains a poem on the Scamander, with Achilles attacking in the background before ‘his last breath silvered the surface’.
To close, she read a series of short poems about water, where she describes dew as lying in ‘transparent sheets’, before wishing that ‘if only I, as a passer-by, could pass as clear as water through a plume of glass’ so that she might know ‘how to balance the weight of hope against the light of patience’. If you are not yet a regular reader of poetry or prone to walking in the countryside, these poems are the remedy.