Thursday, 28 July 2016
Alice Oswald: Falling Awake
Leaf by daBinsi. Used under Creative Commons license
A couple of weeks ago I went to the launch of Alice Oswald's new collection, Falling Awake, at Southbank. A collection of mostly nature poems, it is also a book of high-level anxiety, with a tick tick tick of paranoia throughout. "It's as if the whole book is a kind of parking meter," said Oswald, noting that all of the poems are in some way about time. The reading, as always with her appearances, was not actually a reading, but a hypnotised/hypnotic recital.
Nature poetry can be really dull - well, this applies to any subject for poetry, but perhaps it has been my misfortune to read a lot of really dull nature poetry. Alice Oswald is never dull, not just because of the paranoia (which I have also noticed in her earlier work), but because her work partakes of a kind of super-perception. In April I went to an event celebrating Christopher Logue's War Music, a version of Homer's Iliad. Along with classicist Bettany Hughes, Alice Oswald was one of the speakers, on the basis of her own Memorial, which is another groundbreaking version of the Iliad. In the course of the discussion, Oswald mentioned that when she read the Iliad in the original ancient Greek, there was a sense that she was not just reading a powerful description of a river, or a battle, or a leaf - but that she was actually seeing these things directly, through a kind of periscope into another time and another mode of perception. I would describe her own work in a similar way; this super-perception makes me think of the title of Wallace Stevens' poem 'Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself.' It is also like the moment when out of the corner of your eye, you see a face in the crowd of someone you thought you had lost - in a way which is more than imagination, a physical shock strikes you, and then you realise it wasn't them, after all.
Reaching this level of intensity through the power of the written word is unusual even in poetry - amongst the poets I love who succeed, I would name Oswald, Paul Celan and Vasko Popa, and the latter two I can read only in translation. There are others, but even with the greatest of writers, I think this is rare. I think it helps enormously to be a writer who can recall the extraordinary intensity of childhood experience (not all writers can), and through a combination of effort and unconscious reach, perceive adult experience in this way, as well.
Here are a few poems from Falling Awake: