Alice Oswald’s Universals

There are poems in Falling Awake (2016) that use capitalized words like Light, Joy, Patience. For a poet who often refers to “classical” themes — see her poem “about” Orpheus in this book — this should not surprise us. What’s surprising is the tone; however subtle, it does not seem to be ironic.

“Sunday Ballad” begins:

A questioner called Light appeared,
with probe and beam
began to search the room
where two lay twined in bed.

The poem moves nimbly through four more stanzas. There are memorable phrases: the couple awakes “as weak as eggs”; their bodies “felt less like age than air.” Their dreamy state provokes a response from “two trees” which “made less of leaves than sound // as if to prove them wrong.” The poem ends: “and as they dressed the dust / flew white and silent through the house.”

The touch is light but firm. The questioner called Light is a questioner, and this “Sunday Ballad” depends not on the dualism of right and wrong but on the relativism anchored in the “universal” signaled by the capital “L” in Light. In this sense, Alice Oswald has touched on the world of Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” without indulging Stevens’s self-circling ironies. The world of lyric is always double (always aware of an original), and this poem, like Stevens’s, has a conversational subtlety.

Oswald’s “original” is not a result of book-reading, or at least it is more than that. The long tradition going back to Greek metaphysics allows for the “universal” beyond the relative, finite world. In the hands of a master, the “universals” signaled by capitalization do not arbitrarily lend their weight to DECIDING struggles of conscience and passion, though they do shed light on conscience and passion. The tree’s commentary is in the world of “as if”: Oswald’s world is the “real world” in which aging lovers, however pleased with themselves, rise in a commotion of dust of which they are momentarily unaware. The long tradition includes the “as if” of fiction and myth. There are true myths: myths that continue to respond to our questions. The capitalized universals of Light –and Joy and Patience– continue to help us write about the equivocities of human experience.

Sunday Ballad

A questioner called Light appeared,
with probe and beam
began to search the room
where two lay twined in bed.

whose intellect surpassing theirs
with no regard
for things half-dressed
accused them of old age

as weak as eggs they woke.
they thought their bodies
gleaming in the window-square
felt less like age than air

oh no not quite
in blue pedantic Light
two doors away two trees
made less of leaves than sound

as if to prove them wrong
described the wind
and as they dressed the dust
flew white and silent through the house

Beyond Love: Edward Thomas’s “Out in the Dark”

There’s a “moreness” to a good poem that exhausts our ability to contain it with concepts. This surplus can go unexperienced — for it has “meaning” too — if we don’t rise to the occasion as readers. Edward Thomas’s “Out in the Dark,” written Christmas Eve, 1916, as he waited to ship out to the front, is one of those poems that cunningly engages the “moreness” that characterizes awareness that has escaped the frames of conventional concepts.

The boxes or frames that govern the poem are excruciatingly strict; it’s as if the rhyme scheme is a sign of the determinism of the vision. The poem seems to frame all existence in “light” of the dark. It echoes Hardy — or, as Edna Longley points out in her notes to her edition of The Annotated Collected Poems, we can’t be sure between Thomas and Hardy which one influenced the other.

This scholarly puzzle is not unlike the surplus of meaning towards which the poem directs us. Through the finesse of the syntax, Thomas moves us to a position “outside” the conventions we necessarily feel control our response to the poem. But the “dark” doesn’t quite cover all. The fallow deer move silently in the darkness. The stars, too, are in the dark (but they are stars). Along with the wind and the deer and the poet, the stars comprise a community in the dark.

The mortal frailty of all things is the great theme. Our love for life — for the deer, the wind, the stars — is nothing compared to the surrounding dark. Yet this stoic vision is not water-tight. The final line opens a hypothetical perspective that seems to come from outside the elegantly phrased frames and narratives that control the meaning of the poem. Suddenly we are confronted by a possibility that one can love the dark. The relative weakness of the light must now be considered in terms of the open frame of possibility we call love. Thus an even greater theme overshadows — not the right word! — the nihilistic theme.

Longley’s notes include a story that suggests that part of Thomas loved the utter blackness of the dark. The poem suggests why. There is so much life going on there! Thomas thought beyond the concepts of nihilism. The final emotion of the poem suggests a mindfulness that sees “through” the dark into the vital community of all mortal things. Is our love of life capable of taking in the dark? Where does this love come from? It embraces not only the loved mortal things — deer and star — but even the dark.

In its supple syntax and strict rhyme scheme, the poem enacts the act of awareness of the “more” that haunts human consciousness. This poem is one of those that points beyond the conceptual world of systematic philosophy, which, even at its most rewarding, must stick with its plan to explain the mystery. The poem reverses the age old dependence of poetry on philosophy.

Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts round
And, when the lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Than the swiftest hound,
Arrives, and all else is drowned;

And star and I and wind and deer,
Are in the dark together,—near,
Yet far,—and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

Amanda Bell’s Bumblebee

The art of poetry coheres around a common field that supplies us with our common humanity. At a time of “the breaking of nations” poetry is an often overlooked resource. It comes in large and small packages. To make sense of Dante’s “comedy” requires a feeling for that core of common experience.

Critics may disagree about the “exact” nature of that “experience” — if only because it is impossible to put into determinate, “critical” language. Images, however, can telescope the various dimensions, the criss-crossing relativities and proportions that inform a good poem large or small. Much of the labor of writing poetry is in successive attempts to getting all these angles focussed for the reader. As the Lu Chi”s third-century “art of writing” emphasizes, only after much rewriting will “passions come into perspective” (Sam Hamill’s translation). The art of poetry consumes a lifetime; one is never quite sure one can rest on one’s laurels. Perhaps there’s some truth to the idea of the Muse, that big thing outside all our makings. In the end, the poem finds us, poets and readers alike. Though again we have no perfect words for it, the process of creation is a “sanctifying” one. Poetry is a sacred business, however earthy (and there’s nowhere else they may be found) the materials.

Amanda Bell’s book Undercurrents (Alba Publising, 2016) is a great example of how the art of the small poem — the haiku — can achieve such coherence.

sunwarmed path–
such a fat bumblebee

The most common of organizing metaphors — the journey — is made relevant here by being interrupted, the horizon suddenly shrunk to a small spot not on the map. And yet the “fat bumblebee” stops our “progress” because it reminds us of what we should be doing as we forge ahead. As any walker knows, the mind often seems like extra-baggage when one is on one’s way.

There is a “universal” that we share with the bumblebee and we grasp that “universal” through this modest-looking haiku. It is not a function of the mind returning to itself. That it is almost impossible to speak of it — certainly philosophers contribute nothing to this conversation — only means that the poem, however unprepossessing, has its work cut out for it.

Ian Duhig’s “Debbie” as Poet

Poetics positively hums with excitement about identity, persona, selfing. Poets play with voice as if the phrase “one’s own voice” were one side of a coin, the other being, the other’s voice. This concept links with the concept of style, since style evokes the particular impression left on soft material by the will of the artist, her signature in the shape and sound of the fluid elements of literacy.

This conceptual cluster can be heard as only so much noise, distracting, confusing, frightening.  Yet the experience undergone by the poet in making a poem is often a “kenotic” one in which through a process of discrimination the poem comes finally to the “sound” she wants her poem to make. Is it her sound?

We may say poets “sound” the material, diving deep into it, willing to have their voice transformed into another’s. What poets dive into in this kenotic practice is a fluid matrix, in one sense, and, in another a “nothing.” A creative nothing.

Ian Duhig’s The Blind Road-Maker (Picador 2016) explores the realm of “selfing” (no, I’m not happy with that term, but it’s convenient) with tremendous energy and freedom and wit. He can “do” many voices. His kenotic skill allows him to explore tragic registers as well as comic. It’s all too possible to take Duhig’s imagination on trust. This note is meant to foreground something easily overlooked.

In a three-part poem titled “Contracted Silences,” we find this:


 Debbie Reynolds,
 ghost singer Kathy
 in Singin' in the Rain
 had a ghost singer
 as unsung again.

 In Debbie: My Life,
 Reynolds names her,
 only to spell it wrong.
 I right it here: Noyes.
 This noise is her song.

The conceptual fluidity of this poem allows us to hear “right” as “write” and, finally, the name as the sound of the ghost singer’s name.

Eleanor Hooker’s Core Image-building

Eleanor Hooker’s second collection A Tug of Blue (Daedalus Press 2016) has many virtues, which may explain why it has been such a success.  The craft of poetry depends on mastery of many aspects of communication: image, symbol, idiomatic phrasing, rhythm, sound pattern, echoic references to other poems. To generalize, poetry exhibits a way of connecting different aspects of life in a single gesture. In that sense, you could say that Hooker’s poetry is generously evocative of a core of life’s connections.

The last stanza of “Living” is copied below for reference.  Hooker’s accumulating image of what “we are” while apologetic (“We are but”) in the end seems metaphysically daring (“we startle the sky with our flight”). But through her mastery of how words connect, she moves through a sequence — from “warmed by the sun” and then in an inward turn from palm to heart, she witnesses our seeking. The sequence of verbal adjectives and other grammatical figures has the over-fulness of prophetic speech. Look again at the making of the “image” (if I can use that word to include sound, sense, and all communicative forms as they blend with the energy of the final phrase). And look at it again! Note how she draws deeply on core meanings; the word “core” usefully suggests how the poem moves from outside to inside, from the solid thereness of sea-bleached stones to the “unanswered murmurations” and beyond. “Unanswered” is a brilliant touch as it opens on a further depth, one that “startles the sky” — the back of beyond?

We are but sea-bleached stones

warmed by the sun, held in each

other's palm, loose in

each other's heart, and

mining unanswered murmurations

we startle the sky with our flight.

Levertov’s Art of Transition

In her poem “To Live in the Mercy of God” Denise Levertov shows how poetry gives life to phrases like “the mercy of God.” In one aspect religious, the phrase may seem cut into stone. But in the poem, it joins language in its vulnerability to context and its openness to new meaning. This fluid relativity can be studied at transitions where we see apt intuitional links that sleep in the daily language.


To live in the mercy of God.

To feel vibrate the enraptured

                  waterfall flinging itself

                 unabating down and down

                          to clenched fists of rock.

The poem displays the vibrating waterfall in the old religious phrase.

The poet’s intentions are and are not obvious. It’s obvious she knows what she’s doing. It’s not obvious what she means.

She is a maker: this happens on the page.

She is a human: this is scandalous. How does she prepare us for those clenched fists of rock? Does she intend to shock and dismay us? Is she “just” being true in the only way she, as poet, can be true: to the potentialities of these specific words to make sense for her?