This Long Winding Line: A Poetry Retrospective

Alice Oswald’s Dart (2002)

Edited by Shara Lessley

I hear Dart before I read it. “[U]nder the threshold of listening,” I hear “the ark of the soul, where the invisible / clear first water, the real Dart // writhes like a black fire …” I hear the tin-extractor’s prose-like remembrances, the clipped speech of oyster gatherers. I hear the conversation of fishermen and a pursuing bailiff, the drowned Jan Coo (“So-and-So of the Woods”) whose eerie murmurings even cows gathered along the muddy riverbanks somehow recognize. Guided by an eagle-eyed naturalist, who, “shhh … can make [himself] invisible,” I can even hear “frogs / hiding under spawn—water’s sperm—whisper.” I hear water nymphs seducing the “woodman working into twilight,” their compressed quatrains and end-rhymes running counter to the block stanzas that hold the foresters they watch on the crags. I hear a dog “running / backwards forwards, / shaking the water’s / feathers from its fur.” I hear the water itself—dripping, muscular, rushing, spilling, muttering to its mud-covered stones. All of which is to say, before I see it on the page, I hear an audio recording of Alice Oswald’s book-length poem Dart, prompting me to stop every so often to rewind and note once more its masterful chorus of voices both water-bodied and human.

Asked to name their picks for the best poetry published in the last twenty-five years, booksellers across the U.K. and Ireland overwhelmingly voted for Dart, Alice Oswald’s second book and 2002’s winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize for best collection. In addition to its formal inventiveness, musicality, and concentrated looking, part of the poem’s appeal is its accumulative power and scale. Oswald’s task itself—of capturing in verse the range of water’s nuanced trembling and propulsions, of cataloguing with sustained energy the many lives the 46-mile river has shaped and sustained for generations—seems an overwhelming if not impossible task. Yet, in experiencing what Oswald calls “a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea,” what strikes me about Dart is the extent to which the poem shows how the lyric might hold up the environmental, cultural, political, and personal dimensions of a particular place in order to better equip us to reconcile ourselves with the world. Dart, after all, isn’t merely descriptive record. Nor is it cheap ventriloquism. Rather, Oswald’s is an invitation to “put your ear to it”—“it,” of course, meaning an extended body of water that is ultimately less about the poet’s own subjectivity than the source of a deep ongoing and meaningful investigation.

Although I’d read more recent work like 2016’s Falling Awake and excerpts from 2011’s Memorial, I was unfamiliar with Dart when I first heard Oswald’s recording of the poem. At the time, I remember feeling particularly overwhelmed by social media’s surge of information. As an expat, I often turn to the Internet to connect with the American and international literary community, whether reading online magazines and interviews, listening to podcasts like Lit from the Basement or Commonplace, or interacting with writers via Twitter. What I’ve come to notice, however, is that what’s superficially “new” often dominates our short-term conversations. Cue the anticipatory buzz leading up to a book’s debut, for instance, followed by its publication and the quick shift in attention to what’s forthcoming in the next cycle. Stirred by my admiration for Dart, a book I hadn’t heard recommended stateside, and in an effort to push against our cultural inclination toward privileging “newness,” I asked my colleagues at West Branch to consider launching a feature spotlighting collections of poetry published at least ten years ago. My hope is that by gathering several writers and critics to share their experiences of reading these books, we might slow down the conversation and turn our focus to work that might otherwise be overlooked, forgotten, or missed.

I suggested Dart as the opening selection for “This Long Winding Line” more than a year and a half prior to Alice Oswald’s election as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. As the first woman to hold the honorary position since its establishment in 1708, Oswald will certainly find a well-deserved uptick in interest and readership not only in the U.K., but also abroad. While she’s widely considered one of England’s most admired and gifted poets, I hope that the following essays by Niall Munro, Aria Aber, and Yvonne Reddick will encourage American audiences to seek out Dart, as well as the rich and varied body of work starting from Oswald’s first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile (1996), winner of the Forward Poetry Prize, and then moving forward to other notables like Woods etc. (2005) and A Sleepwalk on the Severn (2009). What’s more, I hope that Dart’s structural dexterity and ecological intelligence, its deep investment in history, folktale, and myth will invite readers to reconsider not only the ways they see poetry in relationship to place, but—as Oswald’s description of the river as “this long winding line” suggests—also as a reflection of time.

—Shara Lessley


by Niall Munro

The guiding spirit of Dart is Proteus: shape-shifter and shepherd of the seas, he was the god who could tell the future but always resisted revealing what he knew. Some of the most remarkable features of this book-length poem are its restlessness, its ability to change shape, and the extent to which it’s woven together by difference, sometimes nearly to breaking point. The poem offers a clear and definite route—tracking the River Dart some 75 kilometres as it rises in high Dartmoor in the English county of Devon and descends south-east to Dartmouth, “a songline from the source to the sea.” But along the way, Alice Oswald’s poem resists any sense of fixity and determination. It behaves, much of the time, like water.

Even in her opening note, Oswald tells us that “[t]he poem is made from the language of people who live and work on the Dart,” which suggests that it’s a found poem, picking up and transporting its bedload of words as it flows onward, but Oswald also claims that the voices we encounter “do not refer to real people or even fixed fictions.” So although there is a suggestion of authenticity about the language that the poem contains, such words and those who speak them apparently float free.

And yet the poem is a remarkable catalogue of very specific kinds of language that show there can be extraordinary depth and richness in capturing the local rather than the global. Most evidently in the marginal glosses that accompany the text, we are introduced to local tales (of Jan Coo, for instance, who “haunts the Dart”), local sayings (“Dart Dart / Every year thou / Claimest a heart”), and mention of people along the river—the fisherman, the dairy worker, the stonewaller, the oyster gatherers… Dart also celebrates the local using vocabulary and dialect: a gamut of “named varieties of water”; a forester explains that they “tush” (or drag) the deadwood to the paths; and a character called John Edmunds describes how, rather than be washed away by the river, he would much prefer to be “slammicking home” (moving in an ungainly way), “shrammed with cold and bivvering” (benumbed and shivering). The poem locates us in southwest England and asserts that “this is my voice”—as if a true understanding of the River Dart must always be grounded in everyday language and local speech.

But Oswald dives deeper, as if to recognise that even this level of specificity is not enough. Instead she seeks to create a voice for the river that is unique, and she has it threaten to “outcanoevre” a canoeist “into the smallest small where it moils up” and invites them: “come roll it on my stones / come tongue-in-skull, come drinketh, come sleepeth.” Here and elsewhere through neologism and a fusion of forms into what she calls “this jabber of pidgin-river,” Oswald achieves what philosopher Martin Heidegger in “The Origin of the Work of Art” calls a kind of “saying which, in preparing the sayable, simultaneously brings the unsayable as such into a world.”

For me, one of Oswald’s triumphs in the book is to use these different modes of language to give voice to something unsayable: the experience of the Dart itself. For how do you speak for a river? From the opening of the poem and its own source, the Dart is intent on “trying to summon itself by speaking,” and again and again in the poem we are presented with instances of the river stirring itself into new beginnings, as different voices join the journey. As Heidegger wrote, “[a] beginning […] always contains the undisclosed abundance of the awesome, which means it also contains strife with the familiar and ordinary.” Each time the poem begins with a new voice it startles us into attention. When, in one of the most stunning sections, “a dreamer” speaks, their words about seagulls shift into the voice of a dairy worker, though we hardly notice the transition at first: “rubbish pickers, mating blatantly, screaming  // and slouch off scumming and flashing and hatching flies to the milk factory.” But the poem often subtly changes course, spilling over from one kind of register into a radically different one. This friction, or “strife,” gives the poem a unique energy, and together with an intense focus on the ordinary and the local, each new start is inflected with the “awesome,” while the familiar is given a touch of the sublime, as the river rushes from one beginning to the next heedlessly, granting us no time to stop and reflect.

Poetry, Heidegger says, is “the saying of world and earth,” and while Dart is certainly work that speaks for the world and the earth, Oswald also describes a river that, like Proteus, resists our interference and remains mysterious; we can never fully unpick “the inexplicable knot of the river’s body.” What’s more, the river must be respected: it can cause damage, drownings, fear—and yet people depend upon it for life. As a worker at the woollen mills explains, “I see us like cormorants, living off the river.” Reading the poem now at a time of climate emergency, the value of a work of art that has the potential to astonish us into greater respect for and concern about the natural world should be obvious. But what Dart also does for us today in more unexpectedly political ways is to present a space of “confluence” where there are “whole surfaces interweaving spatially and flowing past each other / in surface tension, through which water strives to attain a spherical drop-form.” Or, to put it another way, E Pluribus Unum. In its resistance to fixity and authority, in its collection of registers and dialects, and even at moments of unity, the poem preserves and celebrates variety and difference.

One hundred years ago, the American philosopher John Dewey remarked that “[w]e are discovering that the locality is the only universal,” and in Dart, this most local of poems, we can find so much that tells us how and where we live now.

The Democracy of Water

by Aria Misha Aber

Water has always been a source of inspiration for poets—water as abstract concept is to the human mind as infinite as its abundance on earth once seemed. Water is quintessentially poetic because we depend on it, we consist of it, and it’s what makes our planet singular. “No man can ever step into the same river twice,” said Heraclitus; Rumi identified the ocean as part of us; Schiller sang of mirages among the depths of waves; and Ovid detailed how Narcissus fell into the pond because he used the water not as water but as mirror. In Dart, Oswald writes about the eponymous river that flows through her British hometown Devon. Dart sets out with an almost impossible task: to write the river’s voice by anthropomorphizing it. For two years, Alice Oswald interviewed workers and residents around the Dart to extract the “speech” of the river. This poem, a note instructs us, should be read as the water’s “mutterings.” Though individual in its undertaking, the documentary methodology reminds one of American poets such as Muriel Rukeyser and C.D. Wright, especially the latter’s One Big Self and One With Others, both of which contain an elliptical fusion of various voices, sounds, vernaculars, prose and poetry sections similar to the hypnotic voice in Dart. While Wright and Rukeyser are more overtly political in their approaches, in times of global warming it’s impossible not to retrospectively read this as a poem embracing both documentary and eco-poetics.

Yet, this book is also deeply steeped in myth and tradition, honoring Hughes, early Plath, and Larkin in the way it precisely engages the eye and relentlessly dares to look and transform the visible world. Oswald’s first lines prepare the journey:

Who’s this moving alive over the moor?
An old man seeking and finding a difficulty.

Of course, both poet and reader are the man who finds himself “seeking and finding a difficulty,” the difficulty being both the river itself and the attempt to capture its voice. The voice introduces a gritty landscape of moor, inclement weather (“if it rains, if it thunders suddenly”), a lonely man with a compass, “tussocks, minute flies, / wind, wings, roots.” At the mercy of nature, we are connected to both the heavenly spirit (wings) and the underworld (roots). By using these primal images, Oswald paints with ease a cosmic union of creation and chaos: “A huge rain-colored wilderness.” Nothing here feels heavy-handed or glib; instead, even her syntax and grammar mimic, by disregarding the traditional rules of punctuation, the forward motion of the river, the impossibility of trying to understand nature.

Oswald portrays the chaos in a generous, democratizing fashion: not only does she do away with punctuation rules (sometimes she adheres to this, other times not), she also looks and listens to the Dart on macroscopic and microscopic levels. Parts of the poem are just gorgeous, unforgettable, because they defamiliarize our senses: “pasta soaked / in seawater”, “grey-eyed rain,” “a salmon under a stone,” “the smell of wet sheep.” Everything Oswald brings into the world of this poem is endowed with aquatic qualities. The poet’s eye pays attention to that which we fail to consider. She mentions the names of those who built the bridges above the river, observes the smallest things like “a sandflea on a stone,” or even that which swims between a few pebbles: “gold, a few flakes of it.” Throughout the book, lists of images offer sonic splashes of release from the longer, more prosaic sequences of description. Like a shower of rain, or the “constant irregular pattern” of the river, the ear hears rhymes, consonance and concrete imagery:

This is my voice
Under the spickety leaves
Under the knee-nappered trees
Rustling in its cubby-holes

Toward the end, before entering the sea, the Dart’s sounds become softer, and Oswald’s tactile images show us what remains when all else is gone: “the fur, the hair, the fingernails, the bones.” The varying soundscapes bear witness to the different movements and faces of the river, from the Dart moor where it rises, over its crags and cricks, to Dartmouth where it’s released to the sea. Of course, language fails nature, and in order to catch the “nectarine, nacreous” “riverflesh,” the poet must become inventive and acquaint herself with “the jabber of river-pidgin.” With neologisms, she breaks open the seams of language. Occasionally, she will show us sounds instead of describing them: “SSS-S // for sloshing the water open / MMM // for Meeting shut behind me.” These sounds illustrate what a swimmer feels when jumping into the water, yet we must read them as the river’s mutterings. This is what the poem instructs us to do. The anthropomorphized water simultaneously signifies danger and balm; its voice contains both the serpentine high S-sound, intimating danger, as well as the guttural M-sound, a sound of comfort, completion, the “soft-bottomed silence.”

The poem’s democracy comes alive in who is capturing the river: working class people, nymphs, water abstractors, naturalists, drowning victims. In the margins, the reader can find who “enters” the scene as if in a play. Fishers, shepherds, chambermaids get to guide the river’s speech by offering their insights, myths, dreams, songs and imagery. There are also those who just relax and walk around, and thus live in tandem with the flowing nature of the river: “What I love is one foot in front of the other.” Apart from identifying their professions, Oswald leaves most of them unnamed, unless they are dead and now constitute part of the myths surrounding the Dart. Jan Coo, for instance, one swimmer who tragically drowned and now haunts the river, is repeatedly called out to; his name is woven through the pages like a refrain. Even the cows know him; he is the groom of the Dart. When mourning the dead, the poet’s river-voice becomes elegy: “Now the blessing, the readiness of Christ / be with all those who stare or fall into this river.” Amid irony and wit, Oswald pays respect to the victims by allowing to move the poem toward prayer.

There’s much more going on here, like entire passages describing wool mills, sheep, the minutiae of a water abstractor’s life. Oswald does the hard work of creating an equilibrium of prose and poetry, sound and imagery, by masterfully interweaving a conglomerate of different voices and vernaculars, by paying attention to the big and the small. All in all, I find this to be a deeply moving poem by a master of the craft, inventive on formal levels and satisfying to the senses. In times of climate change, when sea levels are rising, when once lush rivers become stagnant from pollution and fail to nurture their surroundings, when entire countries function as if taking nature for granted, this poem becomes prophetic, and instructs us to engage with nature, respect its needs, and the needs of those who work around it. Dart shows us that we can return to a peaceful coexistence with that which sustains us: water, rivers, oceans, trees, if we dare, like the poet, to listen to nature, to the information contained in the “harsh primary / repertoire of murmurs.”

A River Voyage

Yvonne Reddick

Dart caused such a stir when it was published because it took the modern long poem away from the urban settings of The Waste Land or Howl and transplanted it to streams, moors, and tors. In its pages, readers can hear the speech of walkers, naturalists, canoeists and river-spirits from folklore. Crab fishermen and chambermaids don’t often make their voices heard between the minimalist covers of a Faber & Faber volume. Local people go “slammicking” and “bivvering” about their business on the riverbank; earthy dialect lends a regional feel to many of the passages. Both learned and disarmingly accessible, Oswald’s book has managed the rare feat of appealing to book clubs as well as poetry prize judges. Oswald said that “I don’t think it is a poet’s poem. Some poets were uneasy because it broke so many rules.” The result was that Dart “broke free of the almost closed circle of modern poetry,” according to journalist Kate Kellaway.

The Alice Oswald who appeared in reviews of Dart and critiques of her 2009 volume A Sleepwalk on the Severn was quintessentially English. She had been living and writing in the West Country, and working as a gardener. According to many critics at that time, her poetry appeared to be as rooted as the ancient oaks in Wistman’s Wood. For Irish poet and critic David Wheatley, Dart celebrates “the spirit of place.” Oswald inherits a tradition that comes from Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes or Geoffrey Hill, according to journalist Rachel Campbell-Johnstone. Examining A Sleepwalk on the Severn, critic Tom Bristow declares that “Oswald’s home in Devon, the geography of the southwest of England, encourages a deep engagement with place, folk history and oral culture.” Dart was funded by the Poetry Society’s Poetry Places scheme, which invites readings that focus on rootedness. But this isn’t the whole story. 

Reviewers who find that Oswald celebrates the “spirit of place” downplay Oswald’s awareness of the mess that people are making of their river. Dart is brimming with muck, filth and pollution. Parasitic cryptosporidium lurks in the water; the salmon breathe nitrates and oil. A sewage worker stands above a “brown lagoon.” In her preoccupation with West Country water pollution, Oswald shares home turf and common themes with Ted Hughes. (A draft poem in his archive is called “Fishing for Mackerel in the Shit Sea.”) But it’s difficult to imagine Heaney or Hill evoking pollution with a tonal shift as humorous as this: “Unfortunately sheep don’t use loopaper.”

Dart certainly celebrates the river, but the “spirit of place” cannot be pinpointed on a map: it is in constant flux. The poem takes us on a voyage that has its roots in traditions from outside Britain. Oswald read Classics at Oxford, and localist readings of her work have missed how much use she makes of the literatures of Ancient Greece and Rome. British authors have a longstanding interest in Homer, Virgil and Ovid, but when Oswald retells the myth that the founder of Britain was a seafaring Trojan, she defies readings of her work as purely local. Syrinx and Ligeia emerge from the silt; a water-nymph seduces a woodsman with tales of Hylas and Salmacis. The exclamation “O flumen Dialis”—O River of Zeus—maps the rituals of Ancient Rome onto contemporary Britain. Yachts have names from the local lass Lizzie of Lymington to the Greek voyager Oceanides. Oswald’s list of the names of boats is a wink to Homer’s catalogue of ships.

Fish, birds, and human beings migrate as the poem follows waterways and sea-roads. Eels, “bright whips of flow,” appear after their journey from the Sargasso, each containing “a fingerwidth of sea.” The salmon are “all the way from Iceland, from the Faroes.” The ghost of a Norman tin extractor appears in the Dart’s upper reaches; a Dartmoor wool-worker makes carpets for the Japanese market. A boatbuilder dreams of being “out of here, in the Med,” and a lad from Kevicks sets out in a catamaran, bound for New Zealand. The Dart links the local to global networks of travel and trade. Instead of praising a “spirit of place” that is fixed and provincial, Oswald’s work resonates with Doreen Massey’s ideas of a “progressive sense of place” or Ursula Heise’s arguments for environmental cosmopolitanism.

From “The Three Wise Men of Gotham Who Set Out to Catch the Moon in a Net” (1996) to Nobody (2018), her oceangoing adaptation of The Odyssey and The Oresteia, Oswald has been fascinated by voyages. She called an American edition of her work Space Craft Voyager I: New and Selected Poems. Dart is a shifting river-Odyssey, a biography of water that is “placeless in all places.”

Niall Munro teaches at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. He directs the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre and its poetry pamphlet press, ignitionpress. He is currently writing a book about how modernist writers “remembered” the American Civil War.

Aria Misher Aber was raised in Germany, where she was born to Afghan refugees. Her debut book Hard Damage won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and will be published in September 2019. She’s currently based in Berlin.

Yvonne Reddick is the author of Spikenard (Laureate’s Choice 2019), Translating Mountains (Seren, 2017) and Ted Hughes: Environmentalist and Ecopoet (Palgrave, 2017). Her poems appear in The Guardian, The New Statesman and PN Review.