March: Alice Oswald’s Dart

Midway through the month, I decided I wanted to read Alice Oswald’s wonderful book-length poem about the River Dart, Dart. This was my method:

  1. read up on some secondary sources and interviews for background
  2. read a few pages before each run
  3. write in the margins and take notes about parts I especially liked
  4. pick a line, or a few lines, and this about them during my run, or use them to guide my run
  5. outline the different voices in the poem

All entries are tagged with Alice Oswald.

About Dart

Here’s a very helpful introduction to the project that Oswald wrote for The Poetry Society in May of 1999, 3 years before it was published. A few bits that I found especially interesting:

 I now want to create a huge poem about the River Dart, using the voices of all the people who live and work alongside it. One of the aims of this poem would be to reconnect the Local Imagination to its environment – in particular, in these years of water shortages and floods, to increase people’s awareness of water as a natural resource. But I’m also interested, for its own sake, in the idea of a many-voiced poem, a poem that benefits from the freshness and expertise of ordinary people. 

I’m very interested in her methods, how she gathered stories and what she did with her notes. This is partly because I find it fascinating, but also because I’m thinking about my own Mississippi River Project and all of the notes I’ve gathered.

Last year, I applied for money to write a poem about the River Dart. My idea was to orchestrate it like a kind of jazz, with various river-workers and river-dwellers composing their own parts. The result was to be a river’s story, from source to mouth, written by the whole Dart community.

After working at this for a couple of months, I began to think it was people’s living, unselfconscious voices, not their poems, that were most awake to the river. At any rate, some people were overflowing with poetry and some people had a beautiful, technical way of talking about the river; but the two didn’t often coincide.

So I decided to take along a tape-recorder. At the moment, my method is to tape a conversation with someone who works on the Dart, then go home and write it down from memory. I then work with these two kinds of record – one precise, one distorted by the mind – to generate the poem’s language. It’s experimental and very against my grain, this mixture of journalism and imagination, but the results are exciting. Above all, it preserves the idea of the poem’s voice being everyone’s, not just the poet’s.

I’ve spoken to a huge amount of people. Only a selection of these have found their way into the poem; forester, boat-builder, ecologist, stone-waller, sewage aremanager, canoe-instructor, seal watcher, fisheries officer, salmon fisher, archaeologist …. All are ‘working’ voices. This reflects my preoccupation with Work as a power-line for language. When a sewage worker talks of liquid being ‘clarified’, when a fisheries officer talks of the water ‘riffling’ or a stone-waller says ‘scrudging’, those words have never had such flare.

Here’s how Oswald describes the project in the official preface to the poem:

This poem is made from the language or people who live and work on the Dart. Over the past two year I’ve been recording conversations with people who know the river. I’ve used these records as life-models from which to sketch out a series of characters — linking their voices into a sound-map of the river, a singing from the source to the sea. There are indications in the margin where one voice changes into another. These do not refer to real people or even fixed fictions. All voices should be read as the river’s muttering. 

Dart / Alice Oswald

a few favorite lines

I don’t know, all I know is walking.

What I love is one foot in front of another.

I never pass that place and not make time
to see if there’s an eel come up the stream
I let time go as slow as moss, I stand
and try to get the dragonflies to land
their gypsy-coloured engines on my hand)

put your ear to it, you can hear water

woodman working on your own
knocking the long shadows down
and all day the river’s eyes
peep and pry among the trees

(the river) they walk strong in wetsuits,
their faces shine,
their well-being wants to burst out

(the canoeist) In the water it’s another matter, we’re just shells and arms,
keeping ourselves in a fluid relation with the danger.

(the river) pond-skaters, water-beetles,
neoprene spray-decks,
many-colored helmets,

will you swim down and attend to this foundry for
this jabber of pidgin-river
drilling these rhythmic cells and trails of scales,
will you translate for me blunt blink glint.

We jump from a tree into a pool, we change ourselves
into the fish dimension. Everybody swims here

Then I jumped in a rush of gold to the head,
thought black and cold, red and cold, brown and warm,
giving water the weight and size of myself in order to
imagine it,
water with my bones, water with my mouth and my

when my body was in some way a wave to swim in,
one continuous fin from head to tail

my whole style’s a stone wall, just
wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time.

lines as noticing prompts during my run

  • [before beginning Dart, from another Oswald poem] Describe everything leaning (Plea to the Wind) see: march 12
  • staring at routine things (Dart, 29) see: march 20
  • have you forgotten the force that orders the world’s/fields/and sets all cities in their sites, this nomad/pulling the sun and moon, placeless in all places,/born with her stones, with her circular bird-voice,/carrying everywhere her quarters? (Dart, 29) see: march 21
  • your eyes are made mostly of movement (Dart, 45) see: march 26


a thought on syllables

I think that most of that is probably happening unconsciously on the level of the ear, that I like lines that trickle and you need a number of syllables if you’re going to trickle but I also like crashes and collisions. It’s great to have a good supply of monosyllables to make those jarring crashes and collisions. But I am someone who, I mean, I hate flying, [laughs] I like to have my feet on the ground, I like to check that the ground is there. For me, there is a kind of just a lovely heaviness to monosyllabic words that I feel mostly my sentences need that sandy weight in the bottom of them. It doesn’t have the status of a thought or a decision but my particular taste is for those Earthy words that will tie the Latin polysyllables so that they don’t fly off.

Between the Covers Interview

Interviews and Podcasts

Articles and Reviews

Background Information

A rough transcription of Oswald’s Guardian interview (2013):

I like the idea of water as a kind of rememberer or recorder of whatever goes on beside it. It is a kind of reflector. It reflects images and I think it also somehow records sounds.

water has memory. There is that sense, when you come upon water in a dry landscape, that it’s got a kind of retention of thought.
words: animation and energy…what is the I of a landscape? It’s always water. everything being tidal — fields and woods. ebb and flow/ up and down. everything as a tide, even the seasons, watching the leaves coming onto the trees, day by day, like a tide
the thinking part of a landscape is the way the water levels are changing

What draws me to write about rivers rather than lakes is the movement and to me the movement is a kind of language.
I like the exchange, the translation between sound and sight. To me, the ways those ripples there, you can see that would be a sound if you were up closer, the way the light moves. You’d be able to hear that if your ear was up close. So, I’m constantly looking with my eye, and trying to translate that into sound because I think the two are very connected and quite often you can see sounds that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to hear.

Swimming is great because then you really take it slowly, you’re at eye level with ducks, birds, all sorts of things. Always that element of fear, which I like, because you don’t quite know…sometimes in the summer I swim right over the river where it’s quite wide….It’s very like swimming, isn’t it? It’s a lovely sensation. I think when you walk, you’re very segmented into the jolt of your walking, but when you swim, it’s much more, well it’s fluid, isn’t it? Your body has a kind of liquid movement. I can have a different kind of thought when I’m swimming. When I’m walking, I have these very sort of marked out thoughts. But when I’m swimming, much more impressionistic.

3 different forces of water altogether
poems are always struggles between opposites…you find a synthesis between them

(How do you deal with the butter packet problem — that is, the romanticizing of the landscape?)
I’m just continually smashing down the nostalgia in my head. And trying to inquire of the landscape itself what it feels about itself. Rather than bringing my advertising skills — getting rid of words like picturesque…there’s a whole range of words that people like to use about landscape, like pastoral, idyll. I quite like taking the names away from things and seeing what they are behind their names. I exert incredible amounts of energy trying to see things from their own points of view rather than the human point of view.

escapist fantasy — privileged and rich
peace was often bought at the expense of smashing up other parts of the world … don’t want to lose sight of that for one moment

more interested in the democratic stories…the hardship of laboring, looking for food…the struggle of a tree trying to grow out of stone…always looking for that struggle. I’m allergic to peace. I like this restless landscape. I like that it won’t let you sit back and say, “what a beautiful place I’ve arrived to.” You’ve never arrived. It’s moving past you all the time.

It’s a fascinating, hard world for a weed.

It’s a day long effort to get your mind into the right position to live and speak well.

citing Zizek: we can’t connect, be one with nature. It’s extraordinary, alien. It’s this terrifying otherness of nature that we need to grasp hold of and be more courageous in our ways of living with it and seeing it.

I suppose I’ve now been living by the Dart for 15 years, and I’ve written some very things based around that. And I like the way that you sort of…you can’t capture a place. It sort of approaches you slowly and uncovers all its different layers so that the first time I saw this river, I was writing Dart and then each book I’ve written has been a different approach to the river, responding to something different about it.

Landscape and Literature Podcast: Alice Oswald on the Dart River

the River’s Mutterings, my notes

Dart: the voices

note: the workers often mix in technical language/descriptions of their work which, with its jargon-y words is poetic and musical, sometimes the story is told in the voice of the worker (or character), sometimes it’s told about them in an abstract voice — the voice of the river, the observer?

several times, Oswald mentions seeing the soul in relation to equipment (water abstractor, dairy worker)

the water/river

An Old Man seeking and finding a difficulty (1)

Jan Coo, a drowned man/ghost/legend (4)

Chambermaid with peach-soaped hands (4)

the Couple in the hotel room, a blind man and an old woman (4-5)

the Naturalist, loves watching and hiding (5)

an Eel Watcher by the bridge, letting time go as slow as moss (5-6)

Fisherman and Bailiff, voices back and forth, fishing stories inside and outside of the law (7-9)

Dead Tinners who speak, washed down to the bottoms in iron, lead,zinc, copper calcite, and gold (10)

a mob of waters, East Dart and West Dart, the Sea (10-11)

a Forester and Waternymph, voices back and forth, trimming trees and trying to ignore the water’s calls and the waternymph who tries to woo him senseless, or distracted by noticing the water (11-13)

“woodman working on the crags
alone among increasing twigs
notice this, next time you pause
to drink a flash and file the saws” (12)

a Canoeist who drowned and the Water that drowned him, trading voices (13-15)

the Town Boys who used to catch salmon bare-handed (what the Bailiff calls “shoplifting), and who met a monk who gave him a suitcase in which to hide his stolen fish (16-17)

a Tin-extractor, who hears the tin in the water as a series of small bells and describes the process of finding the tin in the river (17-18)

a Worker at Buckfast Woolen Mill, describing the need to clean the wool and remove the sheep shit, using the water, and other details about the process, including the mention of two-ply wool (18-19) SEE ARTICLE WITH THIS NAME

a ghost, John Edmunds, who was washed away in the water in 1840 (20-21)

SILENCE for a page (21-22)

a Swimmer, who enters the fish dimension, where everybody swims, and swim rid of their jobs, some drowning (22-24)

a Water Abstractor, who keeps the water safe and clean (24-26)

a Dreamer, who comes to the sea to dream by the weir with the refrain:
sank like a feather falls, not quite
in full possession of their weight (26-28)

a Dairy Worker, who stares at the routine of things and marvels at their rational, ordered set-up. The river interrupts to remind the worker of who is actually in charge (the river) (29)

a Sewage Worker, who lectures for a page on what he does (and doesn’t) do, and how he’s in charge of what happens to the water (30)

Brutus and the exiled Trojans are told how to claim England, an island of undisturbed woods, a great spire of birdsong (31-33)

a Stonewaller, who collects stones from the beach and whose whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to being about at the time, an amateur and dreamer, not precise of technical, but finding and making do, drifting (33-34)

some Boat Voices — names of boats, types of boats, the men who rely/work on them (34-35)

a Boat Builder, who started with a dream, some sketching, lots of cash poured into it. As he dreams of leaving for the Med, water interrupts to describe how it flits and flows and seeks and serves and swiftly goes (35-37)

a Salmon Netsman and Poacher, who describe the way it used to be — when the river was just river (the netsman), and the scary thrill of fishing illegally after dark (poacher) (37-39)

Oyster gatherers, 3 dead, others describing what they caught, a seal they thought was a corpse, a pleasure boat with disco lights, one of the few salmon that made it past the fisherman near Greenland, and also how they fight each other for the best spots (39-43)

a Ferryman, who works the car ferry and whose wife, with the red hair like the leaves in autumn, drowned when the Pennhilly lifeboat went down I think that’s what happened?

a Naval Cadet, who is 20 and knows a lot about knots and lowering boats and being courageous, and wonders how long he can hold his breath (44-45)

a Rememberer, who remember is Dad, a boat pilot (45)

some Former Pilots of the Dart (46)

Crabbers, who have too much money to spend earned from work that they paid for with their bodies (46-47)

a Sealwatcher, who enters the cave and becomes water’s soliloquy (48)

Me, all names, all voices, Slip-Shape, Proteus (48)

more words to remember

Why water?
AO: I think it’s a question that I’ll never fully answer except with another book perhaps, but I suppose my poetry has always been a growing attempt to encounter something that’s not myself and that’s not like myself. What I love about water is that it’s evidently not human nor is it animal nor even vegetable, but it does seem to have an intelligence. It reflects you back and it seems to have a voice, a narrative voice, it sometimes has a beginning and end, and sometimes throws you into formlessness. It challenges all my edges and understandings but also offers me a way of looking at looking I suppose.

Between the Covers Interview

AO: Yes, I think that’s exactly it, that we seem to exist as bodies and minds. That’s always slightly troubled me that I can’t quite make them be the same thing. I always have two narratives going on and it’s extraordinary the way the mind is floating around seemingly quite untethered and yet the body has all these laws like gravity, and limit, and size, and hunger, that it’s obeying. How those two interact and how they come to define what it is to be human is again—I’m wary of using the verb think because I don’t think poetry is necessarily about thinking—but it gets hold of questions, and reveals them as questions, and then reveals what’s underneath them, and then what’s underneath that. I suppose each book tries to peel away a layer of that problem and present it again.

Between the Covers Interview

If you spend a lot of time outdoors—and I had for a long time as a gardener—you develop a love of the assault and interruption that goes on when you are out in the natural world. The thing of being incapable of carrying your own meaning beyond the meaning of the grass, the weeds, the wind, the rain, the mud is something that I developed a liking for. I have not really wanted to make poems that prioritize my human meaning above the meanings that are going on around me. I love meaning but I like meaning to be interrupted before it gets too smug.

Between the Covers Interview

some reflections/directions

I deeply enjoyed the chance to read this poem closely and to learn more about Oswald and her poetry. My approach was very undisciplined. As I wrote in my Plague Notebook (no 11), I’m trying to resist the conditioned need to KNOW Oswald, to read everything, try to think/analyze everything, and demonstrate a mastery of Oswald’s work. Not only is this not possible, but it gets me stuck in endless hours of trying to synthesize her work and how others have interpreted it instead of feeling how it moves and matters to me.

Next up with Oswald: Read The Odyssey, then Oswald’s Nobody (arriving in the mail today!).

Some other topics to pursue:

  • more on ecocriticism and ideas around understanding humans/nonhumans relationship to landscape
  • physical labor and poetic expression
  • Cole Swenson on rivers and poets and their walks
  • layers and getting down to the mineral
  • oral tradition of poetry
  • Oswald and swimming — how is this movement different from physical labor? What do these activities do to how we think?
  • differences between different bodies of water: lakes, river, seas (I’m suddenly remembering my discussion of ED and brooks — see: march 13, 2021 and the quotation I posted about lakes versus rivers from For Love of Lakes / Darby Nelson — see: august 16, 2021)