Skip to content

Presiding Spirits: Alice Oswald on Sophocles

In Presiding Spirits we ask a contemporary poet to write a new poem influenced by the writing of a poet from the past. Earlier this year Alice Oswald’s second collection, Dart (Faber and Faber), won the TS Eliot Prize for the best collection of 2002. Here she presents a new poem influenced by her reading of the Classical Greek poet and dramatist, Sophocles (496-404 B.C.), and explores the links between past and present with Magma‘s Mick Delap. Alice Oswald lives in Devon with a young family.

For many hours there’s been an old couple standing at that window

Awake so long with only dark to feed on,
Long ago they remember walking very slowly to the window.
They let their hearts sink to one side
And stood in their old clothes growing frost at the edges.

For hours nothing else was there,
Only their eyes increasing into tiny stars. And then
Sunrise ?
A sudden eruption of circumstances.

This had never happened before.
There had never been so much beauty.
The sky, up to now unknown,
Burned a way out through a nearby horizon.
Their eyes were in disarray.

They began to sway, rubbing their hands together,
They moved cautiously to the brink of one glance and back.
And at each turn, morning was more there.
Like in the winterís splitting cold a crocus
Opens and then more opens.

They saw the horizon growing hard and contracted
As a steel template dipped in water
And they leaned, it looked as if their wings were caught in their coats …

All up the fields there was whispering and singing
And a whole surrounding atmosphere of persuasion;
Please realise, friends, time is moving in this neighbourhood.
This is Dawn, the unspeakable iridescence of all swiftness
Impatiently brushing past, be quick Ö

But their eyesight slid down,
It fell at their feet, they
Shrank into sleep, their mouths
Dried, their dreams rattled in their pods.

After all, they had only their accustomed answers.
They hardly knew who they were, they felt like twists
Of jointed grass, going on growing and growing.

Mick Delap began by asking if the poem was based on a myth.
It doesn’t need to be. It’s based on my neighbours, an old Polish couple in their 70s, who don’t speak much English. They’re always inside in a fogged-up room, but it is touching how they always look out of the window at sunset and sunrise. I’ve always noticed them doing that – the disconnection between the sky and what’s going on in their house. And it reminded me of the myth of Tithonus. The goddess of the dawn, Eos, fell in love with him. He was mortal and she asked Zeus to give him immortality, but she forgot to ask that he didn’t grow old. So he grew older and older and older while she remained young. She got quite fed up with him, she was flighty and young. She had to lock him in a room and finally she asked Zeus what she could do. He turned him into a grasshopper, a cicada. I love that story, partly because it communicates to me exactly the relationship one has with the outdoor world. We’re human and we grow old, whereas the natural world replenishes itself all the time. It’s got the same relationship that gods and humans have with each other – always disconnected. We don’t quite understand their way of working. But I don’t intend that people reading the poem need to know that. It’s just about an old couple.

What about the process of this poem?. How did you start out?

It started as something completely different. I started to write a play about Tithonus, so I started with a chorus of grasshoppers persuading this old man to move on. I started more towards the end. I had quite a lot of text about old age. It’s a mystery how a poem starts. Not end-rhymed, not regular stanzas. How did you come to the form? It’s a form where the breaks are emotional rather than logical. It’s not measured out. I suppose each verse is like a paragraph. I’ve got a habit of avoiding conventional metre and looking out for more naturally shaped sounds. I like lines that go on and on, and they always call for a particular kind of line to follow on, so there’s a kind of organic setting of sounds. It probably took me three or four weeks to write. It took a much more simple form at the end. I do tend to feel that the struggle for a poem is to simplify it. You start out very complex and it’s a question of coming out of that into simplicity – that’s what’s difficult. I read aloud as a technique of simplifying because once you are speaking something, it makes it come out simple. It also gives you the momentum of the line.

Where does Sophocles fit into this?

Quite vaguely. I had been reading his plays, particularly the Philoctetes, and I took three elements from them: the disconnection of man and god; the stubbornness of the hero who decides to go against the flow of things, and the persuasion from the other characters. Then there’s also the metamorphosis at the end. And there are ghosts of that in the poem. It started out as a play and, as one’s plans always do, they start off very grand, then shrink into something different. But it kept those elements of persuasion and of disconnection between the human and non-human, and the stubbornness is their fixedness in old age – the natural world would let them change and move on, but they just remain. Then there’s the suggestion of the myth of the grasshopper, of their having wings (which grasshoppers don’t have – that’s just a metamorphic suggestion), and the twists of jointed grass are like grasshoppers’ legs. But all that’s background – I don’t think people need to know it.

Is it also that the Greeks, almost for the first time in human culture, were seaching for the roots of things?
There’s quite a divide between early Greek and late Greek thought. Late Greek thought is quite analytic. Early Greek thought is much more primitive and I think it’s that sort of root that interests me, as opposed to the analytical root. Because it keeps things whole in me. I don’t like what the Greek mind turned into. Once writing was involved it became too intellectual and fragmented, and I think that’s what I’ve always been concerned to get away from. That’s why it’s the early Greek writers I respect so much more. Reading Homer as a teenager was unlike anything else, and that became my ideal of how I’d like somehow to recreate the same sort of thing. What was important to me was that Homer was an oral poet. There was something very fresh about his poetry which didn’t come out of the literary tradition; it comes out of an oral folk tradition. So to create an oral poem in a literary tradition has been one of my driving impulses. A lot of that’s behind Dart. Iím interested in Sophocles because he’s a kind of bridge between the oral and the literary tradition. In Aeschylus you get disconnected pure speeches which seemingly don’t overlap; you get a feeling of fixed fate and everything’s very static and the speeches come in a fixed way. In Sophocles things are beginning to affect each other, so the speech, actually the language, affects itself. That interests me, again perhaps to do with growing older. I used to feel quite fixed and singular in the way I expressed things. I now feel that I want language to be continually adapting to its context, changing, moving and never to present one point of view but to have a Cubist effect. So I’ve grown into Sophocles somehow.

Can you tell me how you view the natural world? Are you saying we neglect the natural world at our peril?
Not really, no, but I’m saying that I enjoy a view of the natural world that’s participatory – that you don’t look at it with your eye, you look at it with your ear and with your body. You’re walking through it and you’re working in it. I’m quite fixated on this thing of the invention of writing as Classical Greek culture developed – how this led people to concentrate on the eye and took away the bodily enjoyment. That’s why for me Homer represents the whole way of being in the natural world. You get that in every line of Homer, a feeling of movement, a much more sculptural feeling, whereas in later writers the sense of the world seems very conditioned through the eye. So yes, for me it’s very important that the relationship with the natural world is not restricted to one sense but fully engaged and physical.

That physical element is present in much of your work.

I hope so. I find it much more difficult since stopping gardening fulltime. That’s why I’ve taken to talking to people who still work in the natural world, because I don’t want to lose that connection. Work, physical work, is a much more accurate form of perception. That really attracts me. I’d much rather listen than look. I’m not saying the oral approach is the right approach, but it’s become so much not a part of our way of life that one of the roles of poetry, presumably one of the reasons that rhythm appeals, is that it puts you straight back into that primitive mind. You still need that primitive mind – that’s where your knowledge is stored. I like a poem to get outside the mind so that it’s not going to stay there enmeshed in thought. It actually comes out and contains something living.

You say we’re in an urban culture, but it’s interesting how many forms of oral culture there still are.

That’s what I’m always trying to recover. Children, for example – they’re an incredibly important part of my life now – the amazingness of children’s minds before they learn to read. They have a completely Homeric way of living and that’s fascinating. How do you find that sense of completeness now for yourself? A lot through children, a lot through having to lead such a practical life. I’m not able to become intellectual because I’m always cooking, sweeping, and I love that. I love to be caught up in the physicality of maintaining life, but also more and more I want to do things through talking to people. The ways they talk, the ways they articulate, are what interests me.

Could you conceive of writing in an urban landscape?

Yes, particularly because I don’t like doing the same thing again and again. Actually the next thing I’ve been thinking about will be concerned with an urban landscape, but only now really. I’ve had to grow my mind towards it because I had no way of understanding cities originally; and, in a way, I feel that having located myself quite firmly first of all in a garden, and then a little bit bigger, I could now take on a city – and I would like to.

* This interview originally featured in Magma 26 – Questions of travel * 

Back To Top