I did not manage to attend Alice Oswald’s first lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry but I have just listened to the podcast: http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/art-erosion . The title of the lecture was ‘The Art of Erosion’ and in it Oswald made a distinction between poetry which builds up and that which erodes, the latter being what she is more interested in. Erosion as a metaphor captures the forces of nature and time central to her poetry. She argues that the poetry of erosion is not a construct but the uncovering or discovering of what is already there. Poets (and critics) are fond of dividing poetry into categories; this one reminds me of Charles Olson’s dictum that the poet could either make something up or be ‘equal to the real, itself’. This, in turn, reminds me of Coleridge’s distinction between imagination and fancy, and, more significantly for Oswald, of Keats’ discussion of the egotistical sublime and the chameleon poet.
In her lecture, Oswald chose to quote poetic extracts concerned with nature and time, from Wyatt through Herrick to Wordsworth and back to Homer. She blithely dismissed five out of six stanzas of the Wyatt poem as being ‘love poetry’ while she analysed and treasured the first few lines which capture the process of erosion:
Processe of tyme worketh suche wounder,
That water which is of kynd so sot
Doth perse the marbell stone a sonder,
By little droppes faling from aloft.
I am not sure how well Oswald’s distinction works as a critical theory and she lost me when she appeared to contrast the way Wordsworth wrote about Nature with Herrick’s writing. I feel her theory is more of an enabling myth which underpins her own approach to writing poetry and which particularly works in relation to her sea poem, Nobody. This book-length work was commissioned to accompany watercolours by William Tillyer and was originally published with the watercolours as an art book. However, it has been edited and republished as a successful stand-alone poem. We recognise many elements from Oswald’s other work. Like Memorial with which this might be paired, the one as Oswald’s take on the Iliad, this as her version of the Odyssey, the poem reflects her enduring interest in the classics. It is also, like Dart and A Sleepwalk on the Severn, an ecological poem, a poem about landscape or waterscapes and people, about Nature and culture. In her writing, the individual “I” does not disappear, but becomes the recording eye, the listening ear open and receptive to everything in the location. This is Keats’ ‘negative capability’ which leads to the view of himself as a ‘chameleon poet’, who
has no identity – he is continually in for, and filling, some other body- the sun, the moon, the sea, and men and women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none; no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures.
Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818
The central figure in Nobody is similarly ‘nobody’ – a poet, the nameless poet exiled by Clytemnestra and Aegistheus, or even our poet, Alice Oswald, taking on different shapes like the sea god Proteus in order to convey the shifting shapes and times of the sea and the myths and histories with which it is imbued.
One would probably require a greater knowledge of Greek mythology, Homer and the classics than I have to pick up all the allusions in the poem. Helpfully, most of the relevant names are printed in grey uppercase at the end of the book and it does not take too much effort to look them up and revise their stories. However, the stories and figures all belong to the island-spattered Mediterranean and Aegean seas, so that the poem has a specific location.
In her lecture, Oswald was excited by poetry which captured the passage of time and the changes of the seasons, in particular, by poems which seemed to capture the effect of a natural force through time, which actually recorded the process of erosion, rather like those nature films where the budding and flowering of a plant are speeded up so that we can see them happening. In Nobody the writing seeks to be open to the fluctuation of the sea, so that the voice is constantly changing its identity, sometimes perhaps the poet ‘I know a snorkeller found a bronze warrior once/ with the oddest verdigris expression’, perhaps Odysseus:
a blue came over us a blue cloud
whose brown shadow goose-fleshed the sea
the ship after a little rush stopped moving
the wind with a swivelling sound began to rise
and here I am still divided in my decision
whether to heave-to or keep going under half-sail
but the water is in my thinking now
We may notice the exactitude and incidental brilliance of Oswald’s writing – ‘verdigris’ the grey-green coating of brass exposed to damp, ‘goose-fleshed’, an emotive but precise description of a change in the sea’s surface, while at the same time recognising that as the water is in the thinking of Odysseus so it is also in the thinking of the poem.
Oswald is much preoccupied with simile, particularly Homeric simile, a device she used structurally in Memorial; the similes in this poem are also remarkable, often pulling the stories and myths of the past into the present: the stranded poet paces ‘dry as an ashtray’; later a swimmer floats ‘like a wedge of polystyrene’; seals ‘bob about like footballs’. Such similes contribute to our feeling that past and present coexist in the constant change and movement of sea water.
This book-length poem makes excellent use of the printed page and white space. However, Oswald is a poet who writes for the voice and the ear. I have never heard her read her own work, but in the lecture it was notable how she read each of her quotations at least twice, allowing her voice to caress the words and phrases. The way this poem is set out allows us to guess at how it should sound, where the voice should linger, where it should gather pace and momentum.
In her lecture, Oswald remarked that Herrick was a minor poet, whereas Homer was a major one. She suggested that the difference lay in the fact that Homer (if he actually existed) had a single or unified vision while Herrick did not. Whether or not this distinction holds, we could recognise that Oswald writes from a single vision; she is a poet of ecology. There are many things she does not write about and her determined openness to landscape and waterscape, her commitment to her way of poetry have a rigour which may sometimes seem almost dispassionate or inhuman. I think this is because she displays the quality of ‘negative capability’ and the subordination of personal identity to such an extraordinary extent. Although, of course, she is the shaping force or maker of this poem, she manages to make it seem as if she were merely a conduit for the voices and forces of the sea. Thus it is fittingly titled Nobody.