1. After Memorial, her rendering of military deaths in Homer’s Iliad, Alice Oswald’s seventh collection returns mostly to poems about the natural world.  Traditionally poems have described nature either as evidence of God’s handiwork or as a comfort or inspiration for mankind.  This tradition was refashioned by Hughes who celebrated the mindless forces of nature and is further re-presented by Oswald in what I will call neo-animist terms – nature can be seen and responded to as living in a non-scientific and also non-religious sense.  This is established in the book’s first poem, A Short Story of Falling, which describes rain’s effect on leaves and flowers, continuing:

    if only I a passerby could pass
    as clear as water through a plume of grass

    to find the sunlight hidden at the tip
    turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip

    then I might know like water how to balance
    the weight of hope against the light of patience…

    This isn’t pathetic fallacy in the traditional sense – that inanimate substances can share or express human feelings – but rather that nature, if looked at aright, can reflect our deepest desires and fears.  Oswald sometimes addresses us like a prophetess or sybil:

    May I shuffle forward and tell you the two-minute life of rain
    starting right now lips open and lidless-cold all-seeing gaze…

    or as a storyteller enacting her subject matter:

                I’m going to flicker for a moment
    and tell you the tale of a shadow
    that falls at dusk…

    or to set up a mystery:

                This is what happened
    the dead were settling in under their mud roof
    and something was shuffling overhead

                it was a badger treading on the thin partition…

    In every case the poem develops into a meditation on the life of nature and sometimes on death (a rotting swan, a dead badger, dying flies) with an intensity of focus and originality of language like no other poet writing today or ever.  For example, to read “I have been leaning here a long time hunched / under the bone lintel of my stare / with the whole sky / dropped and rippling through my eye” (Looking Down) is to see seeing in a new way.

    Some poems may be new departures: Fox suggests a feminist response to Hughes’s The Thought-Fox – vixen speaking to another mother rather than dog-fox inspiring self-absorbed male poet; the 15-line Slowed-Down Blackbird strikes me as a wry response to Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; and Aside, a lovely description of the four-year-old Oswald hiding in a laurel bush and becoming absorbed by its spirit, has a distant echo of Edward Thomas’s Old Man.

    The three longest poems have classical subjects:  Severed Head Floating Downriver (the dismembered Orpheus); Dunt: A Poem for a Dried-Up River in which a tiny carved Roman water nymph is invoked to bring water to a dried-up Gloucestershire watercourse; and Tithonus, a drama to be performed in 46 minutes at midsummer dawn, set out apparently with metronome markings over some 36 unnumbered pages.  All three are likely to be very powerful when spoken aloud – Oswald recounts a woman having an asthmatic attack at the end of Dunt because she forgot to breathe.  When interviewed for Magma 26 in Summer 2003, Oswald spoke about having started to write a play about Tithonus.  It has appeared 13 years later, suggesting an extraordinary persistence with matters she feels to be important.

    Falling Awake by Alice Oswald is out now from Jonathan Cape.

  2. Bones & Breath is the name of a book by the Scottish poet Alexander (‘Sandy’) Hutchison, published by Salt. It won the Saltire Award for Best Scottish Poetry Collection, 2014. Sandy died in November 2015. The title poem has the poet as a bird “barely out/ of the nest”: Heart brims and spills.

    Words try eyes and wings; try air.

  3. Following the success of the inaugural Winchester Poetry Festival, we asked poets, performers, organisers, attendees and Magma team members for their highlight of the weekend and to share an individual moment that might have gone hidden or unseen. Check back over the coming days to read more highlights, and, if you attended or have something to say, feel free to share and discuss your experiences in the comments section below. (Hover over the images to see the captions.) 


  4. A new kind of poetry?

    Written by Laurie Smith at 1:23 pm

    A hundred years ago Ezra Pound was busy creating modern poetry in London.  He helped Yeats to write more directly and more symbolically, then set about “breaking the pentameter” by following T E Hulme and others to create imagism and, a bit later, vorticism.  He recognised the originality of Eliot, Joyce and Lawrence and published the first two, worked with William Carlos Williams (a friend from university) and as Foreign Editor of Poetry (Chicago), permanently influenced the writing of Marianne Moore, E E Cummings and Wallace Stevens.  In less than ten years, poetry had changed unrecognisably through the work of a small group of very different people who saw the need for change.

    I’m wondering whether poetry is due for another radical change, perhaps starting in cities like London again.  It’s fascinating how English poetry changes by conforming to or reacting against the dominant language mode – printed prose – often under the influence of ideas from France.  The growth of regular newspapers and journals in the late 17th century, written in correct ‘classical’ style, led to a century of tightly metric, tightly rhymed verse dominated by the heroic couplet, a ‘classical’ import from France.  Eventually Wordworth and Coleridge led a reaction against this, complexly inspired by the French Revolution, but the formality of Victorian prose squeezed the life out most of the century’s English poetry – French symbolism didn’t take hold here and two of the three great radical poets (Hopkins and Emily Dickinson; the third is Whitman) were unpublished in their lifetimes.

  5. ‘fine black thread still crimped from the strain and snap when it broke and he got away.’ – from The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

    Magma 59 is being edited by Roberta James with Alex Pryce and we are inviting poems on the theme of ‘breaks’.   We want to explore how one word that can be understood in so many ways can set free your creative ideas and inspire a diverse range of the best poetry.

  6. Call for submissions for Magma 58: The Music of Words

    Written by Laurie Smith at 5:48 pm

    We want to explore the music of poetry – not necessarily poetry about music as in Magma 53, but music within poetry. We would like to receive poems where the meaning is expressed or strengthened by the sound of the words – perhaps going beyond sound effects like alliteration and onomatopoeia to the wider organisation of a series of sounds and thus their flow : features such as rhythm, pulse, pitch, tonality, articulation, dynamics and mood, all of which can express meaning. And we’re very much aware that poetry, like music, can be harmonious, dissonant or both!

    A recent example of music within poetry is Paul Stephenson’s The Pull which won Magma’s short poem competition last year:

  7. Machi Tawara at Ledbury Festival – Sunday 14th July

    Written by Mark McGuinness at 1:48 pm

    If you’re heading to the Ledbury Poetry Festival this weekend you have a very rare opportunity to hear a reading by one of Japan’s most celebrated poets.

    Machi Tawara’s first book of poems, Salad Anniversary (1987), combined the classical tanka form with the subject of a modern love affair. It became a sensation, selling over 2.5 million copies; the ‘salad phenomenon’ in Japanese culture was comparable to the ‘bananamania’ that followed the publication of the first novel by Tawara’s contemporary Banana Yoshimoto.

  8. TS Eliot Prize Shortlist 2012

    Written by Rob Mackenzie at 6:36 pm

    The shortlist for this year’s TS Eliot Award has recently been announced. All of us at Magma are delighted to see that our Magma Competition judge, Gillian Clarke, has been shortlisted for her collection, Ice (Carcenet). “In Ice Gillian Clarke turns to the real winters of 2009 and 2010. In their extremity they redefined all the seasons for her. Nature asserted itself and renewed the environment for the imagination… She lives with the planet, its seasons and creatures, in a joyful, anxious communion.” We’d like to congratulate Gillian and to extend our best wishes to all the shortlisted authors.

    The four Poetry Book Society Choices, along with six other collections selected by judges Carol Ann Duffy, Michael Longley and David Morley, make up the complete shortlist, which is as follows:

  9. On Cynicism

    Written by Jon Stone at 11:00 am

    I’d like to say a few words about a subject I don’t often see explored in writing on contemporary poetry, in the hope that perhaps some of the sentiments expressed will chime with others. This year I was lucky enough to win a Society of Authors Eric Gregory Award. I was drinking with the other winners in a pub after a reading at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, and the topic of the selection process came up. There was an almost unanimous agreement that each owed their success to the anonymous judging process. Although I didn’t instigate it (if anything, I was playing devil’s advocate), I find myself in line with the general sentiment. I might occasionally entertain the idea that now, after scoring a PBS recommendation and appearing in several anthologies, there’s a chance my name could somehow worm its way quietly into the hindbrain of a key decision maker or two, but the fact is that apart from the Gregory, the only other major prizes in which I’ve placed have been the two National Poetry Competitions – also judged anonymously.

    It’s not that there’s flagrant nepotism in poetry (although some may disagree with that). It’s that our sense of poetic taste – just like our literal sense of taste – is informed by a variety of factors and contexts. You’ve heard the expression ‘my ears pricked up’. In the case of poetry, this seems particularly apposite – the idea that on noticing a particular name, one that carries connotations of prestige or prodigiousness, the ear – that organ especially employed in the judgement of a piece – becomes suddenly extra-sensitive. The anticipation of excellence then plays a part in the fulfilment of the promise.

  10. “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” – Walter Pater

    “If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music.” – Gustav Mahler