Celebrating the OED with verse

26th June 2018

News, Student news, Alumni news

Celebrating 90 years of the OED, Wadham English Fellow, Jane Griffiths, features in a new video on her poem ‘nature, n.1’.


  • Wadham English fellow, Jane Griffiths

In the film, Jane discusses her poem which draws on her experience as Editorial Assistant and Assistant Editor at the Oxford English Dictionary between 1997 and 2002. Her most memorable entry that she worked on during that time was 'nature, n.1'.


She suggests in the interview, that each dictionary definition is an artificial construct – a large amount of information on each word, given a coherent form.

“But the dictionary, no matter how hard it tried could never fully constrain the English language,” she says.

 “In this poem, I’ve deliberately used a huge amount of material, some of which draws on my time editing the OED, whether that’s the editorial process or slightly more random things”, she adds.

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

Watch the video here

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 separate 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’.