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Celebrating the Dart

High on Dartmoor, seven miles from the nearest road, water seeps up through a patch of boggy ground. Here begins the majestic River Dart, and here too begins the beautiful poem that won last year’s T S Eliot prize for poetry, Alice Oswald’s Dart.

This one poem is forty eight pages long, and when it was broadcast in place of the Radio 4 afternoon play earlier this year it took all of the allocated forty five minutes to read. For some who read or write poetry, Alice Oswald represents the most exciting new voice to emerge for a number of years. But the poetry is also accessible, and one reviewer, writing in the Times enthused ‘If you never read poetry, make an exception for this’.

So exactly does this poem capture the spirit of the River Dart that all who love the river are likely to be captivated by Oswald’s poem; and those who read and admire her poetry must surely fall under the spell of the river.

The poem traces the East Dart from its source in Cranmere Pool. Within a few miles it grows from ‘this secret buried in reeds at the beginning of sound’, through ‘one step-width water / of linked stones’, to the width of a heron’s wings. It meets and merges with the West Dart at Dartmeet, then meanders over the moors, under ancient bridges, through villages and towns, past monastery and industrial estate, to pass as a mighty tidal river between the twin estuary towns of Dartmouth and Kingswear –

two worlds, like two foxes in a wood,
and each one can hear the wind-fractured
closeness of the other

Finally the Dart flows out to sea, curling back into the sea caves where seals ‘with their grandmother mouths, with their dog-soft eyes’ gather ‘in this room behind the sea’.

After studying classics at Oxford, Alice Oswald trained as a gardener and worked in the gardens of the Dartington Estate. It is, therefore, perhaps unsurprising that the poem should contain both classical allusions and an empathy with the delicate minutiae of the natural world. But this is also, essentially, a poem about the many and varied people, past and present, whose lives revolve around the River Dart.

As part of a Poetry Places project funded by the Poetry Society, Alice Oswald spent two years talking to people who live or work on the River Dart, and the rhythms and cadences of their normal speech are preserved in the poem. As the river flows on we meet chambermaids, foresters, tin extractors and water abstractors; workers from the sewage farm, the dairies and the woollen mills; fishermen, poachers and bailiffs; boat builders, pilots, a naval cadet and a ferryman; long-dead tinners, a stonewaller and a couple of women rowing their plums across the river from Dittisham. Rarely has there been such a celebration of work in a poem, and the dignity here afforded to working people is at times reminiscent of the poetry of Crabbe.

Leisure activities are also represented: walkers and canoeists, naturalists and swimmers, a disco on a pleasure boat, the town boys and a dreamer. Even ghosts make their appearance, for there have been tragedies on the river, and when the Devon mist curls round its banks it is not difficult to imagine the ghosts of the long-drowned emerging from their watery graves to add their spectral whispers to the rustling reeds.

Poetry can change the way we see the world. The images that resonate most will vary from person to person, but the following are so crystal sharp and new that they are unlikely to be forgotten: ‘an old dandelion unpicks her shawl’, ‘a Fly’s foot typing on water’, ‘the quartertone quavers of an oyster-catcher’, ‘the last bone of the Dart / where the shag stands criticising the weather’, and the ferryman who ‘rubs the winter between his fingers’.

There really is something in this poetry for everyone. Seasoned poetry-lovers will find echoes of Dylan Thomas, T S Eliot, Christopher Smart and Chaucer in the poem; but the voice is individual, never derivative. A natural, conversational tone that captures dialects and personalities is interspersed with formal or lyrical poetic forms, which include half-rhymes and rhyming couplets, traditional verse forms, hypnotic repetition and alliteration. The words flow like the river and the linguistic device of flipping between first person and third person in some passages adds to the sensation of movement.

The River Dart divides and defines this part of Devon, and the very name is an old Devonian word for oak. Many parts of the river can be reached quite easily by walkers or naturalists, while other sections are accessible only by boat. The upper reaches can be explored on a five hour hike to the source, starting and finishing at Postbridge, where there is an information centre for Dartmoor, with extremely helpful and knowledgeable staff.

Alice Oswald, who lives in Dartington, has a young family and does not drive a car, yet she has travelled the length and breadth of the river, observing and interviewing, listening, recording and dreaming. Perhaps that will serve as an encouragement to others to trace at least some of the course of this magnificent river. Even for non-walkers there are days of delight to be had sitting on the bank anywhere, listening to the various noises of the river and gradually becoming aware of some of the different voices that emerge.

Although this is a very human poem, Dart also displays hints of divine attributes, particularly in its beginning and end. Are the references to creation being called into being by the utterance of the Word entirely coincidental? For instance, on the first page

The Dart, lying low in darkness calls out Who is it?
Trying to summon itself by speaking …

while on the last, the infinite sea into which the river flows is referred to as

Self-maker, speaking its meaning over mine.

The poem was launched at the Dartington Literary Festival, Ways With Words, in July 2002 and was an immediate success. Interestingly, in her final report on the community project out of which the poem grew, Alice Oswald writes that

The poem is finished but not necessarily complete”: an observation that reflects the reality of the river which only exists by always moving on.

Dart by Alice Oswald was published by Faber & Faber in July 2002. Price £8.99
ISBN 0 571 21861 5