A leaf out of her book: Alice Oswald



Janet Phillips talks to award-winning poet Alice Oswald

When Alice Oswald embarked on her first career as a gardener, she also began a quest to find a new way of capturing the sounds of the natural world in words. Gardening has had a profound effect on her writing, and,certainly in her latest book, Woods etc. (published in May by Faber), it is key to the representation of sound in her writing.


"When you're gardening you've got your head down, so you're using your ears much more than your eyes", she explains. "I became very aware of the way that sound happens to you all day long when you're working outside. There is a natural counterpoint going on, and I wanted to find a way of using it, so that I'm not just using one human, spoken rhythm but a whole lot of missed beats and syncopation, that suggest non-human noise".


Oswald has been thinking about the challenge of representing the natural world in poetry for over fifteen years now. She studied classics at Oxford (Homer remains a strong influence) and she wrote poetry while she was studying, but she didn't belong to any writing group or publish in student magazines. She would occasionally send her poems to people she admired – such as John Carey – and get criticism back, but mainly she was writing in isolation. It wasn't until she had spent a year working as a gardener that her writing "clicked". This led to a Gregory Award in 1994, and two years later, the publication of her first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile.


Oswald gave up gardening professionally several years ago. She has been reported as saying that she grew furious with Wordsworth when experiencing this back-breaking work. She regrets saying this so emphatically, but it remains true that the poetry she read "didn't feel as vivid and astonishing as the real thing". She also found that her fellow gardeners had little time for "pen-pushers". "After six months or so, I rather agreed with them", she admits. "As a gardener one is always working hard and then a pen-pusher will come along and have a totally different way of seeing it, which is quite irritating. I found it hard to match up the poetry and the gardening until I read Ted Hughes, and then I could understand a different way of 'pushing the pen'." One of the things she likes about Hughes is the way he uses sound: "He uses those stress-based and syncopated rhythms, so it seems as if there is more than just human noise going on".


"Human noise" is, however, an integral element of Dart, her book-length poem about the people and places along this Devonshire river from source to sea, published in 2003. The early research for this book, which won the T. S. Eliot Prize, was funded by the Poetry Society's Poetry Places scheme. Oswald originally thought of Dart as a kind of "jazz improvisation" for many voices, and it has been broadcast on radio as a performed piece. Alice's husband, Peter Oswald, is a playwright – might she be tempted to write something for the stage herself? "When I was writing Dart I was reading lots of Beckett and I did get very excited by the idea of theatre", she says. "I like the idea of performed pieces, but I think actual theatre is probably beyond me. I'm very bad at speaking myself, and the idea of inventing speech for other people is a nightmare."


It does not seem to me that she is "very bad" at speaking at all, especially on the subject of poetry, on which she is eloquent and passionate. She clearly engages deeply with other writers and ideas, but she likes to come back to earth. In fact, it irritates her when something she has written with a practical purpose is intellectualised. She has recently edited an anthology of poems about the natural world, The Thunder Mutters (published last month by Faber), and in her preface to the book, she talks about the nuisance caused by the invention of the petrol-driven leaf-blower. She says that a reviewer "construed this as if it were an intellectual or philosophical argument, which for me it isn't at all, it's a very practical question". She explains how it is illegal to operate one of these machines without ear protectors, yet there is no protection for people passing by or for school children when it is being used on their playing field. And how you are not even supposed to pick up every single leaf in the garden: some perform the very useful function of rotting down and enriching the earth. "People think you are being intellectual about it and saying 'I don't believe in machines'. I do believe in machines, I just think this particular machine is a mistake".


In a similar way, her writing reminds you that what is often used as a metaphor or a stock image in poetry is also a real thing. 'Walking past a Rose this June Morning', one of the most extraordinary poems in Woods etc., is, she says, about one particular rose which grows near her house in Devon and which she "meets" regularly. She explains: "It comes from the way I always feel when I meet a rose: it's a point of metaphor, and it's so unbelievable that is throws you into a sort of metaphorical and remembered world. I'm wary of roses because they are used so much as symbols, and yet the actual rose still remains. It's somehow a hinge between the spiritual and the tangible world."


That poem employs a haunting call and response technique, and repetitions and refrains are used very effectively elsewhere in the book. 'Song of a Stone', for example, has a chant-like quality: "when the flower began to fruit / it was a circle full of light, / when the light began to break / it was a flood across a plain", and 'Solomon Grundy' borrows the scheme of its namesake's nursery rhyme and makes something magical of it. Alice is interested in ballads and folk-song, and this interest also comes back to that early exposure to the writings of Homer: "I've always had this interest in how you can (re)create an oral tradition within a literary tradition", she says.


That most musical of forms, the sonnet, seems to present itself most often to Oswald. "It feels very perfect, like an in-breath and an out-breath", she explains. "When I'm writing about the mind or the heart I use a Shakespearean or a Miltonian form, a more entangled version, because that's more how the mind feels to me. If I'm writing about the natural world, I like to use the form that John Clare discovered, where you've got a series of couplets, and closure between each pair, so it's not all entangled together. The natural world is made of differences and new beginnings, so in a way the sonnet is quite alien to that, but I think Clare discovered a way of using it."


One of sonnets in Woods etc., 'Leaf', is dedicated to two of Alice's children, and indeed the book spans a period of about eight years during which her family has expanded; she now has a third child. On a practical level, this means she finds it hard to give readings and participate in events (despite being one of the featured poets, she was not able to read in the Next Generation series, for example). But she regards herself as lucky in that childcare is shared with her husband. She is also very open about how the experience has affected her. "It fragments you", she explains. "Not in a bad way, but I do feel I have a more cubist approach now: I see things from more than one angle. Whereas I think before I had children I was more emphatically singular in my approach". There's an emotional change, too: "I feel much more blown open and vulnerable. Things hit me harder".


Soon the family will be going to live with her parents in Gloucestershire, which means leaving Devon, which she is "desperate" about, but, on the plus side, it's a chance to work on her mother's garden (her mother is a garden designer). She is not able to say where she will go next with her poetry, although at the moment she is collaborating with a graphic artist, trying to find a way of representing on the page the sounds with which she'd like to surround her writing. In a couple of poems, she has incorporated the word "pause", but this is not quite enough: she wants to be able to orchestrate it more clearly, with "something like a clap or a flick". Perhaps she will discover a different soundscape in Gloucestershire. "Sometimes", she says, "I think just waiting and listening, and being vividly alive, is really all it takes".