friday feast: “The Self-Playing Instrument of Water” by Alice Oswald (+ giveaway winner)

“If I break my leg I’ll go to a doctor, if I break my heart, or if the world breaks my spirit, I will go to a poet.” (Jeanette Winterson, 2007)

Life-giving, purifying, restorative. Here’s a moment of lyrical beauty to savor, note by note.



by Alice Oswald

It is the story of the falling rain
To turn into a leaf and fall again

It is the secret of a summer shower
To steal the light and hide it in a flower

And every flower a tiny tributary
That from the ground flows green and momentary

Is one of water’s wishes and this tale
hangs in a seed-head smaller than my thumbnail

If only I a passerby could pass
As clear as water through a plume of grass

To find the sunlight hidden at the tip
Turning to seed a kind of lifting raindrip

Then I might know like water how to balance
The weight of hope against the light of patience

Water which is so raw so earthy-strong
And lurks in cast-iron tanks and leaks along

Drawn under gravity towards my tongue
To cool and fill the pipe-work of this song

Which is the story of the falling rain
That rises to the light and falls again

~ Copyright © 2013 Alice Oswald.



I only just discovered Alice Oswald’s poetry a few months ago. I loved this poem from the opening lines — an astute observation expressed in deceptively simple terms.

In a reading she gave at Boston University two years ago, Oswald likened the water cycle — how water returns and returns — to the roll of a pianola, an instrument she loved as a child.

As water takes the path of least resistance, so her stanzas, with their absence of punctuation, naturally flow one into another, without the impediment of cliché or predictability. Upon first reading, I was so taken with her pristine diction and following her train of thought that I wasn’t aware of the rhyming couplets! I love her skillful use of slant rhyme, too.

A former gardener who read Classics at New College, Oxford, Alice now lives on the Dartington Estate in Devon with her husband and three children. She is the recipient of the TS Eliot Prize, the Ted Hughes Award, and the Foreword Prize.

In an interview with Susannah Herbert at The Guardian, she said:

To be a poet is as serious, long-term and natural as the effort to be the best human you can be. To express something well is not a question of having a top-class education and understanding poetic forms: rather, it’s a question of paying attention.

Today’s poem, retitled “A Short Story of Falling,” appears in Oswald’s 7th poetry collection, Falling Awake (W.W. Norton, 2016).

At a time when the world feels toxic and unbearable, I was grateful for this poetic cleansing.

Here’s Alice reading her poem at BU:



You’ll forgive me if I’m a little out of breath. Been chasing that rascally Gingerbread Boy all week. Wanted him to pick our giveaway winner. It wasn’t easy catching up with him, let me tell you. I sprinted all over San Francisco (thankfully I was able to have lunch in Chinatown to fortify myself in the process). Though the city was beautiful and I enjoyed seeing all the wonderful landmarks mentioned in the story, to my dismay the Gingerbread Boy was nowhere to be found. Sigh.

Wise Mr Cornelius suggested I contact our dear friend M. Random Integer Generator directly. He is, after all, a robust gastronome who can sniff out gingerbread an ocean away. Some of you may remember that tracking down M. Generator can sometimes be tricky in itself. Double sigh. Thankfully M. Generator answered my telegram right away. Seems the Gingerbread Boy had already devoured the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and half the Arc de Triomphe. Mon Dieu! Quelle Catastrophe!

Mais, as soon as M. Generator told the GBB we needed him to pick a winner, he flew to the Alphabet Soup kitchen in a wink. After a little snack (34 apple pies, 54 Twix bars, 4 gallons of lemonade), our favorite Gingerbread Boy reached into the cookie jar and picked a name.

The winner of a brand new copy of THE HORRIBLY HUNGRY GINGERBREAD BOY is —

*drum roll, please*



*trumpet fanfare*







Thanks to everyone for entering the giveaway!

(Best to back away before the Gingerbread Boy eats you.)

Just kidding.

Hey, one of my ears is missing.


poetry fridayThe clever and talented witty ditty darling Michelle Barnes is hosting the Roundup at Today’s Little Ditty. Be sure to sashay on over and check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared in the blogosphere this week!


Copyright © 2016 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

43 thoughts on “friday feast: “The Self-Playing Instrument of Water” by Alice Oswald (+ giveaway winner)

  1. Ha, Jama, I am loving your Gingerbread Boy adventures… a little dough and icing and we’ll have you fixed up in no time. 🙂 And this poem! I am in love! To steal the light and hide it in a flower… plume of grass… what loveliness. Water is often a subject/metaphor in my adult poems, so I feel as if I’ve met a kindred spirit. Thank you, dear Jama! xo


    1. Yes, I’m hooked on Elisa’s gingerbread boy — he’s too adorable to ignore.

      Glad you enjoyed Alice Oswald’s poem. I was so happy to stumble upon it a few months ago and am now looking forward to reading more of her work. 🙂


  2. Jama, thank you for another enlightening post. I loved the Quentin Blake picture in the header. It got me to thinking about distinct art styles. HIs work is distinctly his. Do poets do the same thing? Which ones? The language and word choice of Alice Oswald’s poem are so unique too. I love the perfect meter of “And every flower a tiny tributary/ That from the ground flows green and momentary”. That rhyme is awesome.
    The video of the poet reading her words is the perfect way to experience this poem. Lots of possibilities here. Thank you.


    1. Yes, I do think poets have distinctive styles too. Just think in terms of E.E. Cummings, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Walt Whitman, or even Allen Ginsburg.

      Quentin Blake’s art is this week’s blog header in honor of Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday on Tuesday. 🙂


  3. Thank you for introducing me to such a wonderful poet. Your words and all of your offering here brings me to the light. Thank you again.


    1. Her “reading” is really quite something. I find that many poets do not have the performance “je ne sais quoi” sometimes and hers is artful, heartfelt and a treasure. I wish there was more and will hunt to see. I am wondering (and would love to know whether she is reading or reciting and am hoping she has committed this brilliant piece to her memory and her heart as I would like to do. As an advocate for learning poems by heart, I know that the reciter can grow continuously in the performance over time and living with the words in such a way that it is like breathing when you utter them. Thank you so much again. I am Janet Clare on Fb.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You might stumble upon this information in your search for more, but I thought I read somewhere that she’d rather not have others read her poems aloud because they don’t quite get it right. I agree that she’s very good at reading/reciting and not all poets are. In this particular video, I sense that she had committed the poem to memory.


      2. I can totally understand why she would feel that way about others reading her work aloud….she is masterful at it, but in time, if you are committed to becoming a masterful reciter, it is possible. I would not presume to say it is easy or perfect and their are pitfalls. Though I can completely understand her feelings on this for sure. Plus when I recite poems, I generally do it for myself, not an audience, though I share with children/students……I will see if I can find that and listen to her ideas. Thanks again for your introduction.


      3. In this video, you can hear Alice reading more of her work and also discussing why it became important for her to begin reading her poems aloud. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing (which includes a long intro by Mary Pinard), you can jump to the conversation they had at around 36 minutes in.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. What insight Alice Oswald gives us in this poem! Thanks for it, and that photo, wow! I am taken by the miracle of sees, and love “hangs in a seed-head smaller than my thumbnail”.


  5. Hi, Jama. I can see “the sunlight hidden at the tip” of the leaf. So beautiful. And this couplet speaks to me today:

    Then I might know like water how to balance
    The weight of hope against the light of patience

    Thanks for introducing me to Alice Oswald’s work.


  6. Thanks for such soothing water-poem therapy today, Jama — especially this: “Then I might know like water how to balance/The weight of hope against the light of patience.” Something to strive for these days more than ever. Love to you and Mr. C. from Mme Ditty Darling. xoxo


    1. I always love hearing a British accent, even better a British poet reciting her own poem so beautifully.

      Thanks for noticing the official AS song video. Must keep it handy at all times for a quick mood lifter. 🙂


    1. What did you say? My hearing isn’t as good with only one ear. 😀
      I just got a copy of Falling Awake and am looking forward to savoring it over the next few weeks.


  7. Oh, I’m glad you put that poem in here…you know – breaking my heart not winning the book, so I have to turn to a poet…wink!
    Anyway, I want to write like Alice. And that is that.


  8. Great pairing with those two photos. They are refreshingly brilliant and show the “stealing of light” as expressed in the poem.


    1. That the rhyme was there but not obvious speaks a lot about her craftsmanship. I was taken by the language too — so difficult to write simply.


  9. Another lovely post, Jama, this time refreshing and thirst quenching. Poetry is wonderful for calming the spirit, isn’t it? Two lines that especially caught my attention were:

    “Drawn under gravity towards my tongue
    To cool and fill the pipe-work of this song”

    Something about the way they did double-duty, helping me feel that cool water slip down my throat, and in the next second, bringing me back to what I was doing (hearing this “song” about water) felt sleight of hand, almost like a card trick.


  10. I cried with the beauty of it when I heard her read that poem, rolling, with what I’d missed on the first reading. LIke you, I just ordered the volume. It might take me the rest of my life to let most of it sink in, but how great is that. Thank you! I’ve listened three times, and I’ll be back.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I felt the same way upon first reading. It was like a thunderbolt hit me. Just wow. It felt so pristine and pure and the beauty of the language slayed me. You’d probably like the longer version of the video, where she reads more of her poems and talks to Mary Pinard (I embedded it above in reply to Janet F’s comment).


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