Monday, 20 August 2012

Woods, Sea and Stars...

Woods etc. has a rather plain cover, so instead,
here is a picture in Seawood, at Bardsea, Cumbria.
I love Alice Oswald's 'Dart', and 'A Sleepwalk On The Severn', which are both long poems, but hadn't read any of her shorter work, so I was pleased when I spotted her collection Woods etc. in the library, just before we travelled up to the Furness Peninsula in Cumbria for a week's holiday in the campervan. It gave us a chance to enjoy the glorious countryside, and made us feel very close to nature, and Oswald is very much a nature poet. So I read the poems, two or three each day, curled up in bed in the early morning when the rest of the world was still asleep, and they seemed to fit the landscape.

Oswald has been compared to Ted Hughes, and I can see why, because she shows the natural world in its raw state, before it's been pruned and cultivated and tidied up, but there's a humanity there as well, and echoes of old legends and folk tales. The poems in this collection are reflective, about the elements, the moon, the stars, the sea, seabirds, birdsong, a wood, stones and flowers. There's a Lovesong for Three Children (her own, presumably), A Poem for Taking a Baby out of Hospital, and a Psalm to Sing in a Canoe.

When she's on form Oswald uses language in strange and unexpected ways, stringing words together like stray beads on a thread, making patterns and shapes that remain in the mind, even though the beads don't match. The poems in 'Woods etc' didn't grip my imagination in quite the same way as 'Dart' or 'A Sleepwalk On The Severn' which both have a curiously haunting quality, with hypnotic rhythms and evocative images. Possibly her style, with its lists and repetitions, is better suited to longer, more sustained work, But having said that, I enjoyed most of these poems very much indeed.

I particularly liked A Star Here And A Star There, where she writes

the first whisper of stars is a faint thing
a candle sound, too far away to read by

and she goes on to say

someone looks up, he sees his soul growing visible
in various shapes above the house

he sees his soul tilted above the house
all his opponent selves hanging and fluttering
out there in the taken for granted air
in various shapes above the house

I love the idea of the first whisper of a star, and the 'opponent selves' seems such a simple way of describing the many different aspects of personality that each of us has, and how beliefs and actions, and other people's view of us (and their expectations), and our own hopes and fears, can all fight against each other, but somehow we have to meld them together into a unified whole.
Seagulls, not flying (my camera is not good enough to snap
them aloft) but perched on a jetty railing.
And I thought Seabird's Blessing was wonderful, especially when read with the gulls wheeling and crying overhead, and I could imagine them calling on 'God the featherer' to lift them if they fall. The first stanza perfectly captures the way they move through the air:

We are crowds of seabirds,
makers of many angles,
workers that unpick a web
of the air's threads and tangles.

Then there's Sea Poem with:

water deep in its own world
steep shafts warm streams
cool salt cod weed
dispersed outflows and flytipping

and the sun and its refelexion
throwing two shadows
what is the beauty of water
sky is its beauty
Clouds reflected in one of the marshy pools at Bardsea, in Cumbria.


  1. Completely new to me, and I thank you. That 'faint thing' is so true. I'll sometimes start to wish on a first star (yes, I still do that) and then I wonder if I really saw it because it is indeed so faint.

  2. Nan, I'm glad you enjoyed it. These days I find it hard to do a proper analysis/critique poetry - I can't remember the technical terminology,so I can only say whether I like it or not!

    If you can get a copy of Dart try that. I'm sure you'd like it - it's the story of the River Dart,in Devon, from its start to the sea, and the wildlife in and around it, and the people who use it, with wonderful descriptions of the landscape and creatures. Lynne at dovegreyreader did a brilliant review of it.