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Poem Focus: Great Poems from Identity Parade #01

In the interests of encouraging readers to check out and buy Identity Parade - the most significant anthology in the UK of its kind for a decade - I will from time time be mentioning particular poems, by particular poets that are both memorable, good poems - and possibly even "great". In my now infamous (and curiously reviled) review of the anthology, I said I thought this book did not include more than a dozen major poems of the lightning-strike variety - by which I meant poems as good and immediately authoritative as, for example, 'Prufrock', 'In Praise of Limestone', or 'Lady Lazarus' - poems with the intelligent command of tradition, and insightful originality of 'Church Going' or poems from Wintering Out. But it does have at least twelve of those, - any generation that does is fortunate - and I will mention them here.

Such a poem is Alice Oswald's nature poem, 'woods etc.' The poem opens memorably - "footfall, which is a means so steady" and then works through sixteen lines and four stanzas, avoiding most punctuation and ending on the extraordinary final three lines:

in my throat the little mercury line
that regulates my speech began to fall
rapidly the endless length of my spine

as the poetic speaker is moved into a dark area of the woods, away from the rustling of language and woodsound, and "your voice" - until, entirely alone, they locate an utter zero of the self, where the body and silence enter a chilling (if profound) zone of otherness. It is a breathtaking poem - at once clear, simple, and yet deep - a sort of modern updating or fusion of Frost and Dickinson.
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