When lexicography meets poetry: Jane Griffiths and ‘nature, n.¹’

When lexicography meets poetry: Jane Griffiths and ‘nature, n.¹’

As we celebrate all things OED for the first edition’s 90th anniversary, Jane Griffiths, University of Oxford academic, poet, and former lexicographer, has joined our celebrations to offer an insight into her poem ‘nature, n.¹’, inspired in part by her time as an editor for the OED.

Jane Griffiths worked on the OED from 1997-2002, initially part-time as an editorial assistant, then full-time as an assistant editor; by far the most memorable entry she worked on during that time was nature, n.1.

Prior to joining the OED she read English at Magdalen College, then trained and worked as a bookbinder in London and Norfolk; she returned to Oxford for a doctorate on the Tudor poet John Skelton, and left the OED to become an academic, first as Lecturer at St Edmund Hall, then at Edinburgh and Bristol, and now as Placito Fellow and Tutor in English at Wadham College, Oxford.

Jane’s research interests are in the poetry, drama, and material text of the 15th and 16th centuries; her two academic monographs, John Skelton and Poetic Authority (2006) and Diverting Authorities: Experimental Glossing Practices in Manuscript and Print (2014) are published by Oxford University Press. After an abortive career as a novelist in her early teens, she began writing poetry in the VIth form. While an undergraduate she was awarded the Newdigate Prize for her sequence The House, and this was followed by an Eric Gregory Award in 1996. Her five collections are published by Bloodaxe Books; Another Country (2008) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, and Silent in Finisterre (2017) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

The poem ‘nature, n.1’ is from her fourth collection, Terrestrial Variations (2012).

nature, n.1

If a painter shows redcoats, small dogs vanishing
in the thick of the middle distance,
trees angled like spears

If a lexicographer traces four distinct branches
of nature or strings a paper rose, crimson,
from the office rubber plant

If a man treads softly from bed to bathroom
without so much as a towel, with misplaced
confidence in the one-way glass

These are all ways of being in the world:
more or less complicated, more or less connected
by the words forest and heart.

They are brave, these people, but how to show it
given the gap between what we know
and what we’re willing to go into

between the glass and the garden, the sycamore
and its key, the spearate trees and the tree-
shaped negatives between?

The man, the rose, the perspectival exercise
with dogs and horses all figure their own
weight in words, and then some:

so many ways of being objective, hunting down
the sense of things through the forest’s wooden
cross-references and margins of error.

The man stands in perfect equilibrium.
The glass-walled office among the sycamores
is turning and turning.

The dogs are vanishing still, each with its assigned
senses, its independent character or existence.
On paper, the rose flourishes.

But are you following? Would you, if I asked,
walk with me between the trees where it’s cold
and snowing lightly and our tracks

show how things are beside themselves in
the tangle of the interior which is also,
in extended use, the heart?

With thanks to Bloodaxe Books for permission to publish ‘nature, n.1’.

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