It all began with those 1950's holidays with my grandparents in their very basic cottage down here in Devon, at Coleford a tiny village near Crediton. I was equipped with the Observer's Book of Wild Flowers and along with my I-Spy book my dream was to spot a Cuckoo Pint, which I actually couldn't tick off until we moved here, but I have been an occasional wild flower geek ever since. Brownie badges and flower presses you look at after a day (hopeless) or forget about for five years (not much better)
Charlotte Moore cites the method for hedgerow dating in Hancox, a rough approximation of a hundred years for each species and she counts seven.
So I go out and count at least seven too...
Ash, Oak, Hawthorn, Blackthorn (Sloe), Sycamore, Beech, Hazel, Holly... do they all count?
Does that make us very ancient?
Bookhound is cynical and reckons 300 years, I'm a complete romantic and have 16th century leanings at least and feel sure Shakespeare must have walked right along here to gather the inspiration for Ophelia's flowers.
I'm always spotting something new out in the lane and running back in to check it out, so the arrival of Weeds and Wild Flowers by Alice Oswald and published by Faber (& Faber) leapt right onto my radar, and not only because it is a beautiful book to have and to hold but because Alice Oswald is a Devon-based poet who, to my complete chagrin, I had never really explored in depth.
With the most generous praise from one poet to another, Carol Ann Duffy recently suggested that Alice Oswald should by rights be winning every prize going this year as she presented her with the inaugural Ted Hughes award (Carol Ann Duffy has diverted her annual £5000 Laureate's stipend to this award) for this collection Weeds and Wildflowers, so it seemed like another good reason to start the Alice Oswald trail.
I have spent the last month doing exactly that....and I have been in raptures with it all.
Isn't it brilliant to find new words, in a new order that confirm you are on the cusp of an exciting reading experience. I've given up lamenting that I didn't come to this sooner, no use crying over ignored poetry, I'm there now and perhaps it's much more about the time being right for me and Alice to become acquainted. I have to be in the right mood for poetry and often I'm not, but now I can't get enough of it and with the suggestion that Alice Oswald is,
'an inheritor of some of Britain's greatest poetic voices, an heir to Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill...'
well I was sold. I've been dipping back into Seamus and Ted, and now that Geoffrey Hill has finally filled the contentious Oxford Professor of Poetry slot I'd better start on him too.
I have much to say about Alice Oswald's other collections and will do soon. Listening to her reading Dart as I drove back from Exeter the other day was sufficiently compelling to force me into a long detour to Postbridge, just to go and dip my toes in the river's water.
Weeds and Wildflowers has touched a divining chord too, and at a time when I am surrounded by floribundence. I think by 'divining' I'm trying to suggest that search for what lies beneath the surface, much like the dowser who searched our garden for the water supply that we now use.
I wonder if it can be applied to poetry too?
With words instead of hazel twigs, Alice Oswald, who works as a gardener, somehow divines something mystically deep and permanent and plentiful about the earth.
Of the collection Alice Oswald herself says she hopes..
"that the experience of reading and looking at the book will be a slightly unsettling pleasure, like walking through a garden at night, when the plants come right up to the edges of their names and beyond them".
The poems appear to be accompanied by the most exquisite etchings by Jessica Greenman, but as Alice Oswald suggests in her introduction this is not quite the case. This is not an illustrated book but two separate books, etchings and poems 'shuffled together'. And whilst the acid bites into the plate to create the foundation for the prints, in many ways the words etch something equally permanent into the soul. I'm trying hard not to get purple prose about all this and do the book a huge disservice, but the way Alice etches and 'summons up the flora of the psyche' whilst Jessica somehow transmits that visually works on many levels and has had me entranced.
I am constantly picking this book up to read and look at, to re-read and look again, keeping it by my side and I think I'm on at least my tenth journey through it.
As I'm newly discovering daily with Alice Oswald's poetry, she gives a voice, character and personality to the unusual and I seem to have a different favourite each time I read... perhaps it's this one...
First of April - new born gentle
Fleeting wakeful on a greenleaf cradle.
Second of April - eyes half open,
faint light moving under lids. Face hidden.
Third of April - bonny and blossoming
in a yellow dress that needs no fastening.
Fourth, fifth sixth - she somehow stands
clutching for balance with both hands.
No, no, I think it's this one...
A pale and pining girl, head bowed, heart gnawed,
whose figure nods and shivers in a shawl
of fine white wool, has suddenly appeared
in the damp woods, as mild and mute as snowfall.
She may not last. She has no strength at all,
but she stoops and shakes as if she'd stood all night
on one bare foot, confiding with the moonlight.
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