~ Posted by Tim de Lisle, December 13th 2011
It takes a lot to drag some poets into prose. Last week Alice Oswald, a poet so admired that she appeared on school syllabuses before she was 40, withdrew from the shortlist for the T.S. Eliot Prize because it is backed by a company, Aurum Funds, that “exclusively manages funds of hedge funds”. Another nominee, John Kinsella, joined her in pulling out. Oswald, a former winner of the prize, has a piece today on the Guardian op-ed page, expanding on her decision. Whatever you make of her stance—and a colleague on The Economist site has been sharply critical—there is great pleasure to be had from Oswald’s piece.
It’s often assumed that the role of poetry is to comfort, but for me, poetry is the great unsettler. It questions the established order of the mind. It is radical, by which I don’t mean that it is either leftwing or rightwing, but that it works at the roots of thinking. It goes lower than rhetoric, lower than conversation, lower than logic, right down to the very faint honest voice at the bottom of the skull. You can hear that voice in a letter written by the 16th-century poet Thomas Wyatt to his son: “No doubt in any thing you do, if you ask yourself or examine the thing for yourself afore you do it, you shall find, if it be evil, a repining against it. My son, for our Lord’s love, keep well that repining…”
That is the best instruction you could ever give a poet.
And that was one of the best paragraphs you will ever read on a comment page. It has five striking virtues. It is quietly confident: in both of the first two sentences, Oswald attempts a broad axiom, and both come off because they are crisp, clear and fully thought-through. It is scholarly: the point about the word “radical” goes right back to its Latin origins—radix, radicis, third declension, meaning a root, to labour a point that Oswald makes lightly. It is edifying: never mind the wider wisdom, we learn about Thomas Wyatt. It is poetic: the sentence about poetry going lower than rhetoric has rhythm, vividness and lyrical imagery. And it is brave: Oswald is making a big claim here, a claim to truth and ethics.
The rest of the piece swings away from poetry towards logic. Oswald makes a strong case for her position, and has clearly done her research. She has checked to see if the companies concerned have ethical policies; one trustee, tellingly, says “that trustees would be failing in their duties if they allowed ethical issues to cloud their investment decisions”. She points out that Oxford University, which takes Aurum’s money and has been cited as showing that it is respectable, invests in a company that “has been linked to the manufacture of cluster bombs”.
Her tone is mild: “I don’t suggest that anyone else should agree with me.” But you may find yourself doing so—even if, like me, you work for a company that gratefully accepts funding (advertising, in our case) from banks. “On this occasion,” Oswald finishes, “all I can do is trust my own repining.” The voice is honest—and not very faint.
Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life.
Read Maggie Fergusson's review of Alice Oswald's "Memorial", from the November/December issue of Intelligent Life, here.