Alice Oswald is one of the most important poets writing in Britain today, and also one of the most elusive. Her six collections combine the English traditions of nature poetry, history, myth, and lyric; moving genres and forms, she has written a book of poems about flowers, a reshaping of The Iliad, short lyrics, and a book-length poem about the people (present and past) and animals that make up the life of a river. Her work is characterised by a quiet, patient attention to voice, including use of dialect. She lives in Devon.
Alice Oswald was born in 1966, read Classics at New College, Oxford, and won an Eric Gregory Award for promising poets under 30 in 1994. When her first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, was published two years later, it won the Forward Prize for best first collection and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize.
It was as a nature poet that she became famous in 2002 with her book-length poem Dart, which won the TS Eliot Prize. The poem traces the River Dart along its length, through the voices of its people – including its animal, drowned, and historical denizens. Dart also featured myriad voices from nature and the 'spirit' world of folklore, and in the foreword, the poet writes, "All voices should be read as the river's mutterings". Here, "the dead tin miners speak":
Heading East to West along the tin lodes,
80 foot under Hexworthy, each with a tallow candle in his hand.
Till rain gets into stone,
washes them down to the valley bottoms
and iron, lead, zinc, copper, calcite
and gold, a few flakes of it
getting pounded between the pebbles in the river.
Bert White, John Coaker.
Frank Hellier, Frank Rensfield,
William Withycombe, Alex Shawe, John Dawe, William Friend,
their strength dismantled and holding only names
In 2004 Oswald was named one of the Poetry Book Society's Next Generation poets. In 2005, Woods etc. (which explores the same elemental concerns as Dart, in shorter lyric poems) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for best poetry collection.
In 2009 two books came out: A Sleepwalk on the Severn, and Weeds and Wildflowers, a collaborative project with the illustrator Jessica Greenman. These poems personify flowers with dark, observant stories about their characters; 'Scarious Chickweed' begins:
Only himself, a little freakish man
escaping from the dark.
If he can.
This book harks back, through the Victorian crazes for 'the language of flowers' and 'flower fairies', to traditional lore about ancient sprites and other 'voices' of the countryside (as in Dart). The collection was awarded the first annual Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize.
Memorial, her most recent work, reshapes Homer's Iliad. The poem, subtitled "An Excavation of the Iliad", presents the passages of the original that tell the stories of the fallen Greek soldiers of the Trojan War.
A focused man who hurried to darkness
with forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything
Pyrasus Iton Pteleus Antron
He died in mid-air jumping to be the first ashore
There was his house half-built
His wife rushed out clawing her face
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother
Took over command but that was long ago
He's been in the black earth now for thousands of years
Oswald created a stir when she withdrew the book from the TS Eliot Prize shortlist in 2012, in protest against its new hedge fund sponsor – an act of conscience in keeping with a particularly English radical tradition, recalling poets like William Blake and John Clare.
Memorial features a device which repeats some lines, like a refrain, for each warrior; this was controversial in the reviews when it came out, and it works best when read aloud. Like the installation artist Francis Alÿs, who also deals in in-betweens and unseens, Alice Oswald is a walker, and has said that she memorises her poems – and even drafts them out in her mind – while walking. Shortly after the TS Eliot Prize, Oswald recited the whole poem at London's Southbank Centre, standing at a lectern with no book for an hour and a half.
The novelist Jeanette Winterson has said of her:
Alice Oswald is making a new kind of poetry. There is nothing fancy about it – she is doing the job, simple and enormous, of re-working the model for the twenty first century.
Oswald trained as a gardener, writes the nature column for the New Statesman, and lives on the Dartington Estate in Devon with her playwright husband and three children.
Editor, The Thunder Mutters: 101 Poems for the Planet (Faber and Faber, London, 2006)
The Thing in the Gap Stone Stile (Faber and Faber, London, 2007)
Woods etc. (Faber and Faber, London, 2008)
Sir Thomas Wyatt: Poems Selected by Alice Oswald (Faber and Faber, London, 2008)
Weeds and Wildflowers, illustrated by Jessica Greenman (Faber and Faber, London, 2009)
A Sleepwalk on the Severn (Faber and Faber, London, 2009)
Dart (Faber and Faber, London, 2010)
Memorial (Faber and Faber, London, 2012)
Oswald's author page at Faber
Oswald's page at the Poetry Archive
Oswald's page at the British Council
Jeanette Winterson discusses Oswald
Oswald on Homer and the Iliad at the New Statesman