Tuesday Poem: Alice Oswald Falling Awake


I heard a cough
as if a thief was there
outside my sleep
a sharp intake of air

a fox in her fox-fur
stepping across
the grass in her black gloves
barked at my house

just so abrupt and odd
the way she went
hungrily asking
in the heart's thick accent

in such serious sleepless
trespass she came
a woman with a man's voice
but no name

as if to say: it's midnight
and my life
is laid beneath my children
like gold leaf

© Alice Oswald

Falling Awake, Cape Poetry, London, 2016

What to say about Alice Oswald and her latest collection 'Falling Awake', shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize and winner of the Costa Poetry Award?  I've always had an ambivalent attitude to her poetry;  not always liking it on the page, but being utterly spell-bound when I hear her read. I think this is because of the oral quality of much of the poetry - thick with repetitions and aural devices. Lovely to listen to, but not so thrilling on the page.  Yet, there are poems of hers I would have given anything to have written myself - lines that knock me out, like 'hungrily asking/in the heart's thick accent'. She has the fox pinned, in this poem 'in her black gloves' outside the window.  But I'm troubled by the last verse - gold leaf is laid over things, not under them.  Is there some hidden significance I'm missing there?  Or is this simply reason overlooked for rhetorical effect?

One of the other poems I love in this collection is 'Looking Down', which begins:

Clouds:  I can watch their films in puddles
passionate and slow without obligations of shape or stillness

I can stand with wilted neck and look
                                      directly into the drowned corpse of a cloud

it is cold-blooded down there
precisely outlined as if under a spell
                                      and it narrows to a weighted point which
                                      throws back darkness

oh yes there is a trembling rod that hangs my head above puddles
and the clouds like trapped smoke wander under me
and the sun lies discarded on the tarmac  . . .

When I read this, I'm there, looking down at the sky reflected in a puddle and the words are so perfect and the shape of the poem so cloud-like, I'm captivated.  It ends with 'a crow on a glass lens' which 'slides through the earth'.  

I'm less fond of the long poem 'Tythonus' which occupies quite a lot of space in this collection.  I heard it read on the radio which it first came out (it was written for radio) and it bored me.  I feel rather ashamed of this admission, but - since I've just had a big birthday -  I might as well be honest.

Most oral poetry, written for performance, is political.  Oswald's poetry is not. I am bothered by its classical preoccupations, by its backward-looking habit. The glimpses of the natural world are exquisite, but I feel that something is missing when I read them.  'Falling Awake' is a fantastic read, but it leaves me just as ambivalent as I was before!  There is much to love and much that leaves me cold.  But there is also poetry that is spectacular.  And it is always eloquent.


  1. I'm a bit puzzled by your puzzlement at "my life / is laid beneath my children / like gold leaf". If I gild a table top, the gold leaf is underneath the objects resting on the table. Your assumption seems to be that the gold leaf gilds the children -- but that would seem an odd notion.

    I'm also puzzled by your claim: "Most oral poetry, written for performance, is political." Really? I have to say that that goes against my experience.


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