Alice Oswald's first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile was a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. Inspired by Homer, she trained as a gardener and has worked at Chelsea Physic Garden and Tapley Park, Devon.
This project is inspired by work I've been doing with local schools, in which I provide one strand of a long poem and get the children to provide the rest. 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 hoping to work with some of the following groups: Dartmoor prisoners, monks from Buckfastleigh, plumbers and water-purifiers at Darington and students at the College of Arts, sewage workers, conservationists, workers at the Unigate milk factory and the Totnes industrial estate, railway employees, pleasure-boat drivers, foresters and special needs children from Sharpham, farmers, canoers and swimmers, bell-ringers at Stoke Gabriel, coarse fishers, crab fishers, South West Water Authority, shop-workers, boat-repairers, coastguards and cadets at the Naval College and foreign workers on factory ships in the bay. I'd like school children to speak on behalf of the animals and insects of the Dart, and the thousands of oak trees which give the river its name.
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 area-manager, 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.
Over the past six months, I've concentrated on people in the Totnes area, because of having a small child and no car. I now have two small children and no car, but am beginning to move downriver to talk to people between Sharpham and Dartmouth. These places are relatively well served by buses. The upper stretches of the river are hard both to research and to reach. I've begun putting out requests for information in two Dartmoor journals, but I shan't be able to follow these up till next year.
I'm now at a point where I can see the shape of what's emerging - a river-map of voices, like an aboriginal songline. The oral nature of the work is very important to me. I'd like the end-result to be performed, not necessarily published. But I certainly can't predict when that will be.
Thank you very much to the Poetry Society for supporting me in this project. It's the most rewarding and surprising work I've ever undertaken.
- Alice Oswald, May 1999
This poem is made from the language of people who live and work on the Dart. Over the past two years 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 songline from the source to the sea. The poem is finished but not necessarily complete.
Who's this moving alive over the moor?
An old man seeking and finding a difficulty.
Has he remembered his compass his spare socks
does he fully intend going in over his knees off the military track from Okehampton?
keeping his course through the swamp spaces
and pulling the distance around his shoulders
the source of the Dart - Cranmere Pool on Dartmoor,
seven miles from the nearest road
and if it rains, if it thunders suddenly
where will he shelter looking round
and all thtlt lies to hand is his own bones?
tussocks, minute flies,
wind, wings, roots. ..
He consults his map. A huge rain-coloured wilderness.
This must be the stones, the sudden movement,
the sound of frogs singing in the new year.
Who's this issuing from the earth?
The Dart, lying low in darkness calls out Who is it?
trying to summon itself by speaking...
the walker replies
An old man, fifty years a mountaineer, until my heart gave out, so now I've taken to the moors.
I've done all the walks, the Two Moors Way, the Tors, this long winding line the Dart
this secret buried in reeds at the beginning of sound I
won't let go of man, under
his soakaway ears and his eye ledges working
into the drift of his thinking, wanting his heart
I keep you folded in my mack pocket and I've marked in red where the peat passes are and the
good sheep tracks
cow-bones, tin-stones, turf-cuts
listen to the horrible keep-time of a man walking,
rustling and jingling his keys
at the centre of his own noise,
clomping the silence in pieces and I,
in the pit of his throat, I
summon him just out of earshot
I don't know, all I know is walking. Get dropped off the military track from Oakehampton and
head down into Cranmere pool. It's dawn, it's a huge sphagnum kind of wilderness, and an hour
in the morning is worth three in the evening. You can hear plovers whistling, your feet sink right
in, it's like walking on the bottom of a lake.
What I love is one foot in front of another. South south west and down the contours. I go slipping
between Black Ridge and White Horse Hill into a bowl of the moor where echoes can't get out.
and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal of a river
one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones
glides in the trills
eels in the glides
in each eel a fingerwidth of sea
in walking boots, with twenty pounds on my back: spare socks, compass, map, water purifier so I
can drink from streams, seeing the cold floating spread out above the morning,
tent, torch, chocolate not much else.
Which'll make it longish, almost unbearable between my evening meal and sleeping, when I've
got as far as stopping, sitting in the tent door with no book, no saucepan, not so much as a stick
to support the loneliness
he sits clasping his knees, holding his face low down between them,
he watches black slugs,
he makes a little den of his smells and small thoughts
he thinks up a figure far away on the tors
waving, so if something does happen,
if night comes down and he has to leave the path
then we've seen each other, somebody knows where we are.