A seventh collection by a well-established, genre-crossing, award-winning British poet is always very likely to attract enthusiastic praise. However, awarding monolithic status to one or two select poets hides the diversity of voices in contemporary British poetry. As a whole, the reception attending Oswald’s new volume Falling Awake, which has been unanimously positive, has lacked critical nuance. Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy has been particularly vehement in her claim that ‘The wonderful Alice Oswald […], by rights, should be winning every prize going this year’, disregarding the hundreds of other books of poetry published in the UK in 2016. Kate Kellaway, in a Guardian review, defines the collection as a series of ‘encounters with nature that ordinarily defy language’, and asserts that Oswald ‘articulates what you might occasionally recognise but have never before seen described’. To go a little bit further, however, isn’t this just the role we ascribe to any contemporary poetry, the function we expect from it: to translate a pre-verbal event into an idiom that changes our perception both of the event and of language itself?
In any case, the collection does expand on Oswald’s already well-known ample idiom of the nature of human psychology, a style that strongly relies on analogies and qualifiers for colouration and pays much attention to soundscape. Structurally, Oswald slides comfortably between various measures and form: the opener, ‘A short story of falling’, consists of ten slant-rhyming couplets, while the final piece ‘Tithonus: 46 minutes in the life of the dawn’ is a free-verse monologue unfolding over thirty-seven pages, four of which are left blank. The other thirty-three feature a vertical bar at the centre, which not only divides each page in two and separates speech from silence, but is also suggestive of musical notation. There’s no doubt, then, that Oswald is the tentative ground-breaker that others, like Jeanette Winterson, have hailed her as, but there is much in the collection which doesn’t strike me as the most penetrating, view-altering British poetry that has been published in recent years. From ‘Vertigo’:
no more than a flash of free-will
until the clouds close their options and the whole
surrenders to pure fear and
The diction is loaded with unspecific, abstract terms that carry little momentum, and fails to retain much dynamism as a result. Poetry, after all, needs to be engaging if it is to produce an emotional or intellectual response, and these lines feel vague and flat in this regard. The trick of putting falling at the end of a line or stanza, a repeated device across the poems — as in ‘as if dropped from a great height//falling’ which concludes ‘Evening Poem’ or ‘it has been falling a long time’ at the end of ‘Shadow’ — is an efficient if relatively obvious way of visually enacting a fall, the central theme of the collection.
I also fail to find what Kellaway describes as a new articulation of human experience in this stanza from ‘Cold streak’, which essentially establishes a ‘Wind=Surgeon; Rain=Medical Assistant’ analogy:
I notice the wind wears surgical gloves
I notice the keen pale colours of the rain
like a surgeon’s assistant
The weakest aspect of Oswald’s language is its reliance on image, simile, and personification, without ensuring that each figure has been earned, justified, by the text. I would make the same claim about her broader poetic output, as opposed to the general coherence of, say, Ruth Padel’s texts. Flies, for instance, ‘sizzle as they fall/ feeling like old cigarette butts called back to life’, or are ‘trying out their broken thought-machines/ coming back with their used-up words’ (‘Flies’). An odd tendency of the book is to start developing a quieter, more stable metaphor and then pit it against a jarring simile:
my voice being water
which holds me together and also carries me away
until the facts forget themselves gradually like a contrail
(‘Severed head floating downriver’)
Cape Poetry describe the poems, on the inside cover, as ‘deeply, physically engaged in the natural world’ (whatever this means when it comes to page poetry, which can only physically materialise to the eye and the ear), but it’s unclear where this occurs. The poems occasionally culminate in writing that feels limp and nonchalant. From ‘Tithonus’:
there is amazement here turning
wishfully pink above trees and two
sharp slices of seagull weird squawks
of night-thoughts trying to dream
Such aspects of the book make me question its unanimously positive reception. I also wonder how deeply involved the editor has been with this collection. In carefully edited moments, such as in ‘Two Voices’, her diction tightens into an idiom more verb-based and the pace quickens, and her poetry gains enough weight and dynamism to carry her stream of images:
What is the word for wordless, when the ground
bursts into crickets? There’s a creaking sound
like speaking speeded up. A skeleton
crawls across leaves, still in cramped position.
one minute stooping on a bending blade
rubbing its painful elbows, next minute made
of pinged elastic, flying hypertense.
Here, Oswald is at her best, working with dramatic elements. Her interest in structure and form is most evident in her piece on Tithonus, an ageless and tired man who must watch his lover Dawn rise each morning. The poem exhibits her typical use of far-flung repetitions and rhymes to enact the cyclical theme, but also keeps one half of each page white, only rarely interrupted by the lone notation ‘Music’. This allows Oswald to pit silence against her character’s speech and ultimately undermines the meaningfulness of language altogether. Tithonus speaks for the sake of speaking: his final line reads, ‘may I stop now’. Two blank pages later, the epilogue unfolds in gradually fainter ink, so that the final lines feel like a fade-out, or, in cinematographic terms, a dissolve. The ending is all the more affecting as a result:
Particularly because of Oswald’s stature in the poetry world, Falling Awake is a challenging collection to rate. It is rare to read a collection in which a poet with such obvious skill leaves you with the impression of clumsiness; ultimately the book is one of the most uneven poetry collections I know of. However many awards Oswald wins this year, she will hopefully continue to innovate along the lines of ‘Tithonus’. Hopefully, too, our mainstream reviewing scene can go back to more discerning and nuanced examinations of the output of famous poets, allowing for the weaknesses, the blind spots, the bad ideas, and all other messes that run through any text and allow it to be great when it is great. In literary criticism, perhaps, a strong opinion is less nefarious than lack of critical judgment.
Pierre Antoine Zahnd
‘Falling Awake’ is published by Cape Poetry, RRP £10.00