Writers & Company

Alice Oswald on poetry, nature and the shedding of identity

Eleanor Wachtel speaks with the English poet about her new book, Falling Awake, and the enduring inspiration of the natural world.
Alice Oswald's most recent collection, Falling Awake, is a finalist for the 2016 Forward Poetry Prize. (Kate Mount)
Listen to the full episode52:10

Alice Oswald is one of England's greatest living poets. Her unique voice blends her love of classics with her love of the natural world. She was born in London in 1966 and studied classics at Oxford before working as a gardener. Her very first collection, The Things in the Gap-Stone Stile, won the U.K.'s Forward Poetry Prize. She won the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry with her next title, Dart – a book-length poem that traces the life of the River Dart and its inhabitants. Oswald has won a slew of other prizes or her work, including the Ted Hughes Award. 

Eleanor spoke with Oswald about her latest collection — her seventh, Falling Awake. The book was a finalist for the 2016 Forward Prize for Poetry. 

The problem with fiction

I really have never been driven to write prose. I'm very bad at it and I find it very difficult. And I don't really understand fiction. I like Joseph Conrad very much, but I can't really read much other fiction. I don't quite get make-believe, I'm afraid. I read the first sentence of a novel that tells me something happened, and I'm just saying, "But it didn't!"

I'm so interested in epic poetry, which has this incredible surface story going through it, but that is more to do with form than fiction, whereas the novel, from the little I know about it, seems to me to be about invention. Stories and poems seem to be more about a kind of shape of a poem and also perhaps more about dream than invention. They're about interior truths, or the narrative of the soul, if you like.

On Homer's poetry and the oral tradition 

I believe that it's to do with the way [Homer's poems] are composed. I think that something about the fleeting nature of oral performance allowed them to catch the fleeting nature of life itself. I literally believe that the sheet of paper that a writer uses is like a kind of dead skin that makes them think of the world as in some way inert, that takes you right through to this kind of wasteland vision of a dead world that the modern mind suffers from. I just think we need Homer because we need to be told that we're actually alive and we're in a living world.

It just strikes you when you read those poems, they settle in the mind in a really different way from literary poems. They physically disturb you — you really feel as if an actual tree or sea or spear or human has physically passed through your mind. Not just a representation of that, but in some way that physical thing itself.

The inherent poetry in water

I'm very interested in water. I'm interested in the way that it is a natural art form — it actually pictures the world for you. You walk outside, and you are suddenly able to see a flat world reflected in the river. It's almost like nature's way of representing the world to you. But I think perhaps more than that, I'm an incredibly restless person, and I really admire the way water sheds itself all the time. I learn a lot from that. I aim to be as fluid as water if I can be. I don't like settling into one kind of character — I like to shed myself as I go along.

Alice Oswald's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the interview: "Slow Dance," composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams, performed by John McCabe, from Williams' "Suite of Six Short Pieces."