What is it about Alice Oswald’s poetry that is so immensely compelling? It could be the tautness, the hard brightness, of the language, the sense that every word in every line is earned, desperately necessary, a matter of urgency. It could be the fact that the poems are consistently so beautiful, so flinty and beautiful. They have the flexibility and the rangy toughness of plant life—and more often than not, Oswald seems inclined to work in book-length poems or sequences, letting an entire environment take root, out of which voices and lyrics flourish and emerge, both unexpected and inevitable. Though she loves the natural world, and loves to work in it—as a professional gardener—and write about it, Oswald is not a Romantic poet, at least not in the Wordsworthian sense. She doesn’t want to let her own voice smother the world in a cataract of discourse. Wants, rather, to let her syntax let her listen, to be a tool of a listening that is not only a getting out of the way, but also a record of boggling diversity of possibility in the created world. This means that poetry in her hands is intelligent but not intellectual, sometimes slow-burning but never slack. And—above all—enmeshed in the practical world: Oswald has never wanted to be a purely aesthetic poet. In a poem about a badger she writes: “Hard at work / with the living shovel of himself … ”
And then there’s the fact that she’s an expert in classical literature, a lifelong student of Homer. Memorial, for instance, is a version of the Iliad (she calls it “a reckless dismissal of seven-eighths of the poem”) in which the heroic manly storyline has been stripped away, leaving behind only the repeated and haunting laments, the voices of wives and mothers and sisters mourning the senseless meat-grinder that is the actual dividend of any war. At the same time, Oswald has also made water one of her great subjects—from her stunning second book, Dart, a book-length weaving of voices (workers, spirits, the drowned and the living) emerging from the life around the River Dart—to her recent book, Nobody: A Hymn to the Sea. Nobody is another classic that draws on the classics—it would be hard to call the book a collection, because it’s really one sinewy run of title-less lyrics that melt together. The voice of the poem, drawing in part on the story of the poet Agamemnon paid to spy on his wife—the poet who was later tricked, rowed to an island and left to rot—draws also on the voices of Odysseus, Agamemnon, and their wives, faithful and otherwise: “This poem lives in the murkiness between those stories. Its voice is wind-blown, water-damaged, as if someone set out to sing the Odyssey, but was rowed to a stony island and never discovered the poem’s ending.”
There is no one writing in English with such a blend of richness and unassuming learnedness, such serious and imaginative capacity, as Alice Oswald. Her inventiveness, imbued with a soul-melancholy that feels endemic to our species now and maybe always, nonetheless keeps the light burning through these dark days. Here’s the beginning, for instance, of Nobody:
As the mind flutters in a man who has travelled widely
and his quick-winged eyes land everywhere
I wish I was there or there he thinks and his mind
as if passing its beam through cables
flashes through all that water and lands
less than a second later on the horizon
and someone with a telescope can see his tiny thought-form
floating on the sea-surface wondering what next
JESSE NATHAN: Is there something garden-like, or plant-like, in your sense of poetry, when it’s at its best? Curious about the overlap—and the dissimilarities—between the labor of the gardener and the labor of a poet.
ALICE OSWALD: There are bad gardens—I will not describe those. A good garden is close to a folktale. It has a path and characters and that is enough. I am thinking of a particular garden, tucked behind a high street—not huge but infinite—and when you enter it, you have the sense of entering an already ancient conversation full of voices.
The voices of plants are patterned. That is what’s remarkable about a good garden—it speaks to you all at once in interlocking patterns and you realise immediately that prose is a second language, whereas poetry, insofar as it is patterned, is primary.
You mustn’t read poems too fast and you mustn’t place plants too close together, but allow them to complete their gestures in a sphere of space, since the gesture of a plant arises from the same need as its color, just as the tune of a poem delivers the same message as its image.
In this garden I’m thinking of, there is color like a circle around each plant and then at right angles to those circles there is the path. But how can you walk along a path when a rose is leaking red like an artery? You will not get past this rose. Its character is heroic, in the sense that it makes the best of weakness and the best of weakness is how strongly it cries out. The impossibility of walking past this rose and the impossibility of not walking down this path creates a pattern similar to the forwards sideways pattern of a poem… an important pattern, since it is not only flowers which make these claims, but sometimes humans.
If a rose is somehow visible beyond the eye and if its color travels not along the nerves but along the blood and goes straight to the heart and if this fact cannot be proved but can be felt, like a hand moving around my chest with a torch, then the same applies to humans and that is what poems are trying to convey.
The best poems have a path and characters and that is enough.
I don’t think physical work should become a trope for writing but a prelude to it. If you can work inside the pattern of a garden for enough hours that the pattern prints itself on your instincts, then whatever it is which is infinite in the character of a flower and communicative in the character of a path might be as present in your poem as something beyond language is present in Homer—whose comment in book 2 remains the best description of gardening:
Tell me now you Muses who have your homes on the mountain.
Because you who are goddesses are there and you know all things,
And we have heard only the rumour of it and know nothing …
Who then were the leaders and chief characters of the Greeks?
I could not number their masses or name them,
Not if I had ten tongues and ten mouths, not if I had
An unbreakable voice and a bronze heart inside me,
Not unless you Muses remembered for me every human …
Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.