Alice Oswald

Progress of a Master

Collected Poems


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Robert Nye has been much praised, even adulated, for his novels. I can also recommend his poems: ‘a heron stands/like a sickle dipped in feathers’. This luckily occurs twice in the collection – it’s the best description I know of that strange bird.

But I also recommend his poems because of their extreme sensitivity to sound (‘Eurynome, the moon, my madam’; ‘the leaf’s lack such it will quite obey the lie of its luck, this way or that…’) and because they are rhythmical. His pentameters don’t do that fashionable Canute-ish thing of pushing against the metre; they run naturally: ‘then everything in that translated place/sang with the change – our room-key turned to gold’. Many of his poems are ‘singable’: ‘Once, once I stood/by a green wood/and watched hares in the snow’. Some are even ‘drummable’. It’s very nearly true that if a poem sounds right, it is beyond criticism.

This is a comprehensive collection, which includes poems Nye has written from the age of thirteen to fifty six. The good thing is that the poems get better and better, but it can’t be denied that a few of the early ones are somewhat faery and occasionally quite mad. I almost wish the marginally less good had not been included in this collection of otherwise brilliant poems. But some people will enjoy watching the style progress.

Many of his early poems seem to be trial runs, which after twenty years or so come right – for example, ‘Huntsmen’, written in the 1950s. One hundred and thirty-five pages later it has lost a blackbird and some other unnecessary images, and has become a comprehensive poem about a fawn. This new poem grows out of the story of Oisin and Niamh, but keeps its references hidden, unlike the poems in the first section. The result is something simple and beautiful. Other examples of that hard-wrought simplicity include:

Listen. It is the rain upon the roof
Telling of who you loved but not enough,
Whispering of what is otherwise elsewhere

(Again a revision of a confused earlier draft) and:

Waiting for you I sat and watched a trout
And found some warp of comfort in the thought
That I might catch or counterfeit his style
Of silence, to and fro…

It’s worth storing up lines like these to throw at Eliot, who sometimes seemed to believe that modern poetry was obliged to be complex. The simplicity is counterpointed by a certain courage, sometimes in coining a new word (‘marigoldal’), sometimes in forcing the grammar: ‘Night now lakes do like the darknesses’; ‘The fawn is oh but beautiful no friend of man’. By the end of the book, he can describe a snowy twig as ‘abruptly gifted with how bent a grace’ – just the right mixture of the strange and the ordinary.

There’s a good deal of Graves’s White Goddess in this collection. The nightmare, the moon, the weird, the stoat, the muse – they’re all here in varying degrees of visibility. There are also echoes of Graves’s love poems: ‘the black glove fits your left white hand’ echoes ‘the left glove drawn on your right hand’ from Graves’s ‘Terraced Valley’. But the influence is never slavish and although Nye is not as consistent as Graves, at his best he’s as good as the best.


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