Alice Oswald, 21st-century rhapsodist


Alice Oswald, 21st-century rhapsodist

LOUIS GAIGHER on a poet who is more concerned with the trace her words leave on those who hear them, than with writing them down.


THE work of Alice Oswald, classicist, gardener and beloved and award-winning poet, reminds us time and time again that the world is far more generous and interesting than we thought.

The spoken word is her primary medium. She is known for recitations of 90 minutes of her memorised work in front of audiences with which she reawakens the tradition of the rhapsodists. (Those performers from Homeric times worked together stories and fragments into poems and songs, etymologically speaking.)

For the past four years, Oswald has given termly public lectures as Oxford professor of poetry. She is the first woman to hold this chair since it was created in 1708. Her successor from September — another woman, AE Stallings — is likewise a formidable and adventurous poet, classicist and translator.

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The Oxford lectures leave an image of our murky times: the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, the climate crisis, authoritarian politics and ChatGPT. But above all, Oswald explores her affinities, interests and poetic imagination using traditions, peers, soundscapes, walks, lines of verse and comparisons. Elements, physical work, plants, grasshoppers and rivers are also considered. But she is so much more than a nature poet. Nature is not extra-curricular and “nature poet" is a false category, given “the violence and frailness and mercifulness and terrifying muchness of the natural world, which is to say all things that are".

Oswald rarely puts into written format the poems that capture our attention and engage us so effectively. She encourages us to listen: “To trust your ears and memories. And your imaginations. And to trust, in fact, that a poem isn’t always what happens in the words, but is the trace that the words leave inside you as it vanishes." For a poem to truly live, it must be able to die, or rather, be able to disappear.

In her first lecture, The Art of Erosion, Oswald aligns herself with artists who damage language and other mediums to explore their subjects. A developed ear and focused attention lead to “the edge where the mind gives up and matter begins to describe itself". These artists are not the type to create works through fortification or embellishment.

Agents of erosion

Oswald and her kindred spirits are agents of erosion, like sharp sunlight biting into a UV-sensitive iron composition to produce images of seaweed, as seen in Anna Atkins's cyanotypes from the 1840s. Oswald undermines the duality of body and mind and works with the Homeric idea that consciousness is not only seated in the skull but also in the heart, liver and other organs. But thought, like the insects that, according to an ancient theory of sight and seasons, fly back and forth from and to the eyes, is also present outside the body and in the air. Thought and things are held together by the word “like". The architecture of the plant and thought world relies on seeking similarities and reflections. Therefore, a comparison is much more than figurative language — it is the sturdy scaffolding that connects and gives structure to consciousness. It creates a cloud of understanding that explains one consciousness to another. Working with and tearing apart comparisons makes imagination possible.

Reflection and Homeric comparisons lead us into Oswald's Interview with Water lecture and her most recent book, Nobody (2019). Water in various forms is her domain. Falling Awake (2016) opens with something straight out of Blake or a nursery rhyme (“It is the story of the falling rain/to turn into a leaf and fall again").

In her books from 2002 and 2009, she ventures into the “peculiar riverflesh" of the Dart and Severn through multivocal “mutterings" of beings encountered by the rivers, such as a drowned canoeist. In Nobody, we are immersed in the boundlessness and reflective touches of the sea. In contrast to pools, rainbows and rivers, which lend themselves to storylines and poems with a beginning, middle and end, the sea withholds narrative and meaning. Consequently, this book is a sea collage of anonymous, swirling, synoptic and delirious voices.

Nobody floats around in Homer's Odyssey. About Homer, we know nothing. We don't even know if he was one or many poets. This figure's “embeddedness in other voices" gives him access to “things unseen", according to Oswald. The cyclops goes under when Odysseus calls himself Outis (meaning Nobody). A misconception over the sea, another nobody's identity or nature, is equally fatal — “it's obvious/the sea in its dark psychosis dreams of your death".

Before Nobody, there was Memorial (2012), which Oswald calls an “excavation" of the Iliad. She condenses the epic action into a poignant description of 218 deaths of characters, mostly extras. She also deploys 62 recurring and 15 standalone comparisons, compared to the Iliad's 344, and they hover like a second poem above the original epic.


Oswald reads Homer through water and water through Homer. Homer repeatedly revels in surfaces “but the surface of water is transparency. And its transparency is complicated by refraction." Water is never the same as it was before, and porphyry, which agitates between blue and purple, is how he describes the sea.

Furthermore, in Homer, wailing, weeping women are like water. Driven to the height of emotion, they dissolve in their lamentation. Nobody's source is a standalone and minor incident in the Odyssey of an unnamed poet paid by Agamemnon to watch over his wife, Clytemnestra, when he departs for Troy. In a fit of desire, her prospective lover kidnaps the poet and takes him to a rock in the open sea.

The central love story in the Odyssey is that of Odysseus and Penelope, telling of their reunion. Nobody's story of the poet, the commander, his wife and her lover is a type of rebellious reflection of the love story. In reality, the story of intrigue in Agamemnon's house belongs to the Oresteia, not the Odyssey.

In Nobody, Icarus drifts from another tradition, and a piece of polystyrene also floats by. “It is part of every storyteller’s art to look up and point out of the story and re-engage the audience with a contemporary reference," Oswald notes in a lecture. Nobody “is designed to be mobile so it has been rewritten" and initially emerged in collaboration with the watercolour artist William Tillyer.

Tillyer sets certain limitations with great care and precision then allows water to do as it pleases according to its nature. This is clearly a methodology that speaks to Oswald, as we are shown in her lectures.

♦ VWB ♦

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