(donkey jacket; polka-dot robe; first copy of Milton)
Paradise Lost was one of the first books of poetry I ever received as a gift. My granddad had found a bashed-up copy in a junk shop. Its leather cover was in such a state that he took it to a cobbler. He even applied bits of shoe polish to ‘improve’ the look of the thing! He was the last word in make-do and mend.
He was also a keen gardener, and would have enjoyed last night’s Paradise Suspended, a lecture plus poetry reading given by Alice Oswald. This event was part of Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden, an exhibition currently on display in the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Oswald also read her new poem Shadow, which was commissioned by the Poetry Society for the event and posters of which were printed by Oswald’s press The Letter Press which she set up with print designer Kevin Mount.
Taking Milton’s Paradise Lost as her starting point, but also referencing Homer and Dante, Oswald explored the conflicted themes at the heart of the idea of paradise, describing Milton’s poem as primarily a ‘physical enquiry into power’. Her short lecture focused on Satan’s fall; his arrival in Eden; and that extended moment when evil has not yet happened. And why Paradise Suspended? Perhaps because Oswald sees Milton’s epic poem as a twelve-book enjambment, with that constant deferring of sense, the continual whipping back of the line, mirroring that moment. Her phrase ‘the habit of hesitation’ seeming to capture not only Milton’s compositional style and music, but also perhaps her own. Not to mention her obsession with time.
Something I particularly enjoyed throughout the evening was Oswald’s palpable mood of dissent, (which of course echoes Milton’s own rejection of power hierarchies). There was a moment when she said ‘regicide’ and I half expected her to be bundled off by security, like someone discussing bombs in an airport. There was a clear theme of liberty, and indeed one of the three passages she read from PL, was Adam’s dismay at humankind’s future subjugation of each other –
He gave us only over beast, fish, fowl, / Dominion absolute; that right we hold / By his donation; but man over men / He made not lord; such title to himself / Reserving, human left from human free.
(Book XII, lines 67-71)
Human left from human free, indeed. It bears repeating.
Other highlights were her self-deprecating glance at how the material sometimes runs away with (or from) her, referring to dreams of composing real-time poems – a nine-day piece that would enact the fall of Satan; a three-day piece to watch the growth of broad beans. Self-deprecating and wry, yes, but I wouldn’t rule out that nine-day hymn to falling just yet! What we did get was Shadow, a short meditation on the inextricableness of light and shade. An inexorable falling away from the sun, which she tied into Dante’s presentation of god and also Homer’s presentation of the fallen.
Inevitably, as we were in the Queen’s Gallery, there was a real sense of grandeur and privilege, with paintings of royalty and their residences. But in amongst work by the likes of Gainsborough, Brueghel, Rembrandt et alia, was a tiny Esther Inglis book from 1607 with a buttercup illustration of a poem by Antoine de la Roche Chandieu. Inglis was an exceptional calligrapher and her small, decorative chapbooks, often bound in her own embroidery, put me in mind of the handmade booklets of Lorine Niedecker that I mentioned last July. It was also reminiscent of Oswald’s own Weeds and Wildflowers book which she worked on with the illustrator Jessica Greenman.
On the journey home we discussed species extinction, destruction of habitat, and the restoration of hedgerows, and the fact that there is a bigger, wilder garden to play for, and that like Milton before her, Oswald’s work is a call to arms, or perhaps trowels, and to a more responsible stewardship of that garden.
The Letter Press: http://theletterpress.org/
Interesting post on Esther Inglis at the Folger Shakespeare Library blog: http://collation.folger.edu/2012/02/spotlight-on-a-calligrapher/
Christ in a sun bonnet: http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/event/short-talk-christ-as-a-gardener-by-rembrandt