That there would be no English literary tradition without Greek and Latin is almost axiomatic. The Earl of Surrey invented blank verse by translating Virgil; Milton trained to be Milton by translating Latin poets, then translating his own verse into Latin; when Auden wanted to adapt Marianne Moore’s syllabics to his own sense of line, he turned to Alkman’s meter (alcaics, also adapted into Latin by Horace); and to this day, reading classics at Oxbridge is a conventional start to a poetry career. Virginia Woolf’s 1925 essay “On Not Knowing Greek” is incandescent on the radical nature of the Greeks in particular: these ancient people, who transacted their lives out of doors in the sunshine (unlike northerners),
admit us to a vision of the earth unravaged, the sea unpolluted, the maturity, tried but unbroken, of mankind. Every word is reinforced by a vigour which pours out of olive-tree and temple and the bodies of the young.
Not only do they transmit vigor, they are “decided, ruthless, direct.” “There is the compactness of expression. Shelley takes twenty-one words in English to translate thirteen words of Greek.” But above all, “Greek is the impersonal literature…. These are the originals, Chaucer’s the varieties of the human species.” Innocence, vigor, concision, impersonality: although we do not even know what the language sounded like, it vitaminizes our spirits like an impossibly distant but inextinguishable Elysian sun. A thousand academic pundits could not rationalize a return to a classical curriculum, but the proof is in our poets.
In 2011 Alice Oswald made a startling contribution to the long tradition of Homeric literature in English: Memorial, a version of the Iliad stripped of its narrative—no gods, no Helen, no heroes. What was left after this massive erasure was a double list-poem itemizing the manner of death of every warrior mentioned by name (two hundred and fourteen, by my count), ending with Hector; and an interpolated translation of all the epic similes. In her introduction to the book she called it a “bipolar poem,” contrasting lamentation with lyric, violent death with sublime nature, justified in part by the Greeks’ own practice of antiphonal dirges, in which a professional poet led the rites versus a chorus of women “offering personal accounts of the deceased.” The effect on the page was somber and static, or should I say electrostatic: a bardo state charged with small shocks of sentience at every turn. It really did give the world a new and different Homer.
Memorial was and was not a departure for Oswald. She, yes, studied classics at Oxford. Her style strives for those Greek virtues of innocence, vigor, impersonality. Yet her work was built on the foundations of a regional lyricism, centered on southwest England. Her first book, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile (1996), was widely noticed, but it was her second, the book-length poem Dart (2002), that won the T.S. Eliot Prize and put her on the trajectory to become, in time, a Griffin International Prize winner and the first woman inaugurated as Oxford Professor of Poetry in its three-hundred-year history.
Dart takes its name from the river in Devon where she lives with the playwright and classicist Peter Oswald and their three children. Its method is mimetic in two senses: the poem mimes a river of language much like the opening of Finnegans Wake (where words “call a spate a spate”) or John Ashbery’s “Into the Dusk-Charged Air,” a long poem that is nearly a flat catalog of seemingly all the rivers in the world. It was also crafted from the actual speech of the people who live and work on the river; Oswald recorded conversations with them and used them as models for characters, one voice changing into another over the length of the poem, complete with stage directions: “All voices should be read as the river’s mutterings.”
Between Dart and Memorial, Oswald published Woods etc. and a book of almost-children’s verse with illustrations by Jessica Greenman, Weeds and Wild Flowers. Excepting the last, a selection of Oswald’s verse to date appeared in the US in 2007 as Spacecraft Voyager I: New and Selected Poems. Oswald’s proclivities were clear by then: she is as much a conceptual poet as a lyric one—excellent at finding a striking image, but sometimes more memorable in the structuring of an idea than its execution on the page (Dart, for me, was like that). This may be because she elevates the oral performance over the written, like a Greek, and like an heir to the theater tradition, which is deeply intertwined with poetry in the UK (from Shakespeare to BBC-commissioned “verse plays”). Oswald gives readings of her poetry entirely from memory.
Like the Greeks, or like Woolf’s intimation of the Greeks, Oswald is intent on “originals,” on genesis, on the telluric and elemental: light and time and—not incidentally for someone who wants a poetry reading to be an immersive experience—water. From Dart to A Sleepwalk on the Severn (“a night-piece for several voices set on the Severn Estuary”) to her new work in Falling Awake and Nobody, water in all of its metamorphoses is her muse. Water is uniquely suited as a metonym for both language and the passage of time, and totally accessible not only to humans but to all life on earth. “The democratic dew/gives equal weight to everything,” she writes in Falling Awake.
It took Oswald some time to arrive at a style that departed from a “constructed,” conventional verse and partook of the oral and fluid without looking offhand, gabby, or naïf. She credits the influence of Ted Hughes: in an event at the London Review Bookshop (a recording of which can be viewed on YouTube), Oswald describes wanting to “loosen up” her “strict tunes” in the stanzaic mode, every word “like a brick in a wall.” None of the contemporary free verse she was reading was any help until she discovered Hughes’s work, which mined the Eliotic vein of free verse that “isn’t free verse at all” but has a “compulsory inner music.”
Hughes is a genius loci of her territory, his memorial stone set in the wilderness of Dartmoor where his ashes were scattered, and which Oswald’s home abuts. There are primal energies linking their works, but Oswald bristles at the designation “nature poet”: “He’s a kind of preternatural poet rather than a natural poet,” pointing out that in Hughes’s famous poem “The Thought Fox,” he isn’t describing a fox naturalistically at all. She might have said, just as her Memorial isn’t a translation of the Iliad but a “translation of [its] atmosphere,” so the preternatural poet doesn’t describe nature but translates its atmosphere. When her house pests mutter, “What dirt shall we visit today?” in the poem “Flies,” she shows that the nature of gossip and the gossip of nature are synonymous.
One of the best poems in Falling Awake is the first, “A Short Story of Falling,” which echoes one of Hughes’s crow poems, “How Water Began to Play.” His repetitions, using elemental words, clean of punctuation, create a shamanistic effect:
Water wanted to live
It went to the sun it came weeping
It went to time it went through the
It came weeping back
It went searching through all
space for nothingness
It came weeping back it wanted
Oswald’s version of water’s repetitious journey is lighter, more in the spirit of Blake’s songs of innocence than Inuit song, beginning with good English couplets:
It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall
water which is so raw so earthy-
and lurks in cast-iron tanks and
drawn under gravity towards my
to cool and fill the pipe-work of
which is the story of the falling
that rises to the light and falls
The registers are different, but from him she has taken the spareness and the focus on the intense circularity of elemental things. Indeed, Oswald employs the repetitions of “How Water Began to Play” in another poem in the same collection, “Dunt: A Poem for a Dried-Up River,” which imagines a statue of a water nymph, stranded in a museum, trying to coax water out of a dry gulley (not to say gallery):
Very small and damaged and
a Roman water nymph made of
tries to summon a river out of
very eroded faded
her left arm missing and both legs
from the knee down
a Roman water nymph made of
tries to summon a river out of
exhausted utterly worn down
a Roman water nymph made of
being the last known speaker of
she tries to summon a river out of
little distant sound of dry grass
The poem is hard to excerpt effectively, since it stretches out over five pages with repetitions and variations of the above lines, including “try again,” but when I first read it among the “new poems” in Spacecraft Voyager I, I thought it was the best thing in the book, my strong aversion to word-for-word repetition in verse (and intentional “shamanistic” effects in general) somehow overcome by the originality of the theme, the pathos of the nymph, the arduousness of her magical thinking (“try again”), the arresting analogy with the last surviving speaker of a language. Here was perhaps my first intimation of the effect of Hughes’s “When Water Began to Play.” His ending goes:
Till it had no weeping
It lay at the bottom of all
out utterly clear
And hers goes:
little loose end shorthand unrepresented
beautiful disused route
to the sea
fish path with nearly no fish in
Her “exhausted || utterly worn down” echoes, even unto the long caesura, Hughes’s “Utterly worn out || utterly clear.”
Falling Awake dazzles with arresting images at every turn of the page. In “A Rushed Account of the Dew,” Oswald wants to imagine what it is like—to refashion Thomas Nagel’s philosophical question—to be a dewdrop:
I want to work out what it’s like to
out of the dawn’s mind
and find a leaf and fasten the
known to the unknown
with a liquid cufflink
and then unfasten
to be brief
to be almost actual
oh pristine example
of claiming a place on the earth
only to cancel
I’m struck by that “liquid cufflink,” with its liquid, nasal, and voiceless consonants, plus the off-rhyme at the end of example/cancel, the last word coming from some surprise register, a different metonym altogether. She can get a perfect, perfectly original image like a snapshot, as when she describes a murmuration of starlings: “Whom you try this way and that like an uncomfortable coat/and then abandon.” In this, too, she resembles Hughes, who was a volcano of memorable imagery: he once called an owl “the bird with the sewn-up face.”
Oswald’s relation to nature, as “preternatural” as it is, leads her to the fabulous and the uncanny. This was abundantly so in Weeds and Wild Flowers, in which her botanical specimens took on nursery-rhyme personae: “Stinking Goose-Foot has grown human./It could happen to anyone.” “It is Bristly Ox-Tongue,/Too shy to speak.” Thrift “worked/to the factory rhythm/of the sea’s boredom.” Fragile Glasswort “looked so controlled and thin in her green cotton skirt.” In Falling Awake, the uncanny comes to the fore in “Village,” a night poem of delightful menace. “Somebody out late again say what you like,” it begins, giving us portraits of shadow figures living on the nether edge of civilization (or perhaps the end of it), in “jumble-sale clothes,” “slugging about the village bent-headed.” Concentrating on odd gaits and freakish mouths (synthesized, of course, in the notion of the poetic foot), the poem provides folkloric ballast to two other set-pieces in the mythic vein, “Severed Head Floating Downriver,” which imagines the end of Orpheus, ur-poet, and “Tithonus,” the tour-de-force of the book.
“Tithonus” is a long poem, meant to be performed, and precisely timed to forty-six minutes as dawn makes its appearance on the summer solstice (in the book, page numbers cease and are replaced by ticks marking seconds on a clock). Tithonus was a mortal loved by the goddess of dawn, Eos; she asked Zeus to grant him immortality but forgot to specify that he stop aging. In this nightmare of eternal entropy, Tithonus shrinks and drivels and is confined to a room. In some versions he is turned into a cricket, with connotations of endless singing; on one ancient vase, he is painted with a lyre. In Oswald’s version, Tithonus waits at a window for a sight of his lover; his poetic babble is disturbing (“very nearly anonymous now/having recently turned five thousand/with the same wedge of yearning/lodged in my chest as ever”) and not always comprehensible.
Oswald performs the piece from memory, beginning in a dark room that lightens by degrees, with a nyckelharpa accompaniment; reports from her audiences sound galvanizing. The poem is supposed to float free of the page, be enacted by a voice, so perhaps it is no insult to say that reading it left me more appreciative of the idea than moved by any emotion. A poem that precedes it in the collection, “Sunday Ballad,” about two lovers in bed “accused…of old age” by morning light, looks forward to “Tithonus” and is moving in its own right.
Still, “Tithonus” is more terse, more dramatically powerful, than earlier experiments; something in the severe discipline of performing an erasure procedure on the Iliad seems to have cleared the path to her best work: the page is used sparingly, and every word seems to hang in space with energeia, “bright unbearable reality,” as she puts it in her introduction to Memorial. One gets a clear sense of where “Tithonus” comes from in Oswald’s inaugural lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, “The Art of Erosion.” She divides poets into those who write “constructed” poems and those “poets of erosion,” among whom she places herself and a poet who spent time as a vicar in Dartmoor, Robert Herrick, whose “great strength is his weakness…permeability.”
She says his poems have “sunlight” in them (an idea prompted by Samuel Beckett telling his actors to speak with “moonlight” in their voices), as when he describes secret lovers: “So silently they one to th’other come,/As colours steal into the pear or plum.” She loves how these lines enact the process of ripening, and points out that Homer, too, had such an image in the last book of the Odyssey: when Odysseus meets his father again after an absence of two decades, it is in a vineyard where Laertes first showed his young boy the grapes that grew with heaviness as they matured. Echoing Woolf, Oswald declares that (in contrast to Herrick) “Homer has the greater gift of absence…. Homer’s hiddenness…gives him access to things unseen and puts no mediating obstacle between the unseen and the audience.”
For me, what gives “Tithonus” its power is a new reckoning with desire in Oswald’s work, which continues in her latest book-length poem. Nobody is another addition to Homeric mythography, this time taking a fragment of the Odyssey, in which we are told that Agamemnon had set a poet to stand guard over his wife, Clytemnestra, but that her lover, Aegisthus, rowed him out to an island and stranded him there. The poem is an imagined synthesis of the song the poet would have sung on his hopeless rock and the polyphonic murmurings of the sea, with a cast of familiar characters who have found themselves immersed or enisled: Proteus and Icarus, for example, or Orpheus and Philoctetes, and of course Odysseus himself. Words, too, are enisled on the white space of the page, or surge forth in a spate of Homeric simile. And despite flowing from story to story, at the back of it all are the lovers whom the poet was helpless to keep apart: Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, whose lust will culminate in Agamemnon’s murder.
Part of what makes the poem gripping is its anonymity, or as Woolf would say, its “impersonality.” The “Nobody” who speaks is both the nameless poet and the many-voiced sea, but the characters’ stories are alluded to without their names. They are given only in the endpages, typeset as in ancient Greek with no spaces between words, just letters flowing continuously in a current, some names bolded and some names in faded font.
Every choice in the book is made toward a fluid, Dionysian collapse of boundaries, with the illicit lovers in the background propelling not the narrative arc exactly, but the narrative desire:
I’ve always loved the way when
the blood is drawn off is sucked
and soaked upwards
out of the cliff-flowers the way
they worn out
surrender their colours and close
and then the sky
suffers their insights all the shades
of mauve green blue
This leads eventually to poor Calypso about to lose Odysseus:
You are a messenger and you’ve
come to remove my lover
who is tired of this hotel life you’ll
sitting on the dunes in tears as
staring at the sea’s round eye of
Fate has its needle in him nothing
can stop him draining away
there seem to be two worlds one is
which always finds its level one is
love’s which doesn’t
but is wide a wide field of horrible
Where the sea is compared to a blind blue eye, so desire is blind and vast and infinitely dangerous. The scale of desire in the face of the universe, or the scale of the universe in the face of desire—two infinities are somehow trying to come into relation with each other. This desire encompasses our yearning for language: not only for a present language that will convey this vastness, but for languages that have passed away that might really have done so. Woolf’s rhapsody was grounded in not knowing Greek. Oswald writes a history of human desire called Nobody. These absences form a powerful vacuum. We know, as when we see the rapid withdrawal of water along the shoreline, that a tsunami is on its way.