Book Review: Dart – Alice Oswald

when the lithe water turns
and its tongue flatters the ferns
do you speak this kind of sound:
whirlpool whisking round?

Dart is a 48 page long poem, based around the River Dart in Devon. The poem explores many different voices, marked in the margins along with a few brief notes. The piece won the 2002 T.S Eliot Prize, and it is easy to see why.

I usually struggle to read long pieces of poetry, and so I was surprised to find that I enjoyed this so much. Again, this came from my boyfriend – he had to read it for a module of his, and started reading it aloud while I was there. I think this approach was what kept me interested; I didn’t read it all aloud, but if I found myself getting tired it helped to imagine it being read out in my head, rather than just reading it. Focusing on the rhythms and beat of the piece not only helped me read it but I think it also adds to the feel of it – there are places with little rhythm and places with a clear beat; this is obviously intentional, and should be read as such.

The River Dart (not my photo)

The narrative itself is a really interesting one. We aren’t physically transported along the river – that is to say, the reader is taken on the journey through the river by the different voices, going from walkers at the source of the river to crabbers and salmon fishers at the estuary, rather than the poem focusing on physical descriptions to show the river’s progression. The only real complaint I have here is that I’d have liked to hear more of many of the voices; we only get snapshots of stories, many even cut off mid-sentence just as you get hooked – but I suppose the river flows through fast, and cutting stories off before they’re finished is one of the ways Oswald reflects this. The voices cut off and overlap, which can be jarring but is also incredibly effective.

As a result of this cutting off and changing of rhythms, Oswald’s pacing is interesting and well done. Again, this reflects the river; some parts as slower, as the river may slow down, others fast paced, like rapids. The way she uses language and formats the poem also adds to this in an unexpected way – this isn’t set out in one way. Like the changes in voice and rhythm, the formatting of the poem changes regularly and in different ways; sometimes it changes suddenly, others it transitions smoothly.


Oswald’s own words on the piece explain what she is trying to achieve  incredibly well, and I would definitely suggest keeping them in mind if you decide to read this;

‘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. There are indications in the margin where one voice changes to another. These do not refer to real people or even fixed fictions. All voices should be read as the river’s mutterings.’

I know poetry often seems daunting, especially when it’s this long, but it doesn’t have to be as difficult as all that and Oswald proves this – she’s telling a story, just in a slightly different format. Try it, you’d be surprised.

See you soon,

Ro x

Why Are We So Averse To Poetry?

I recently finished reading Dart by Alice Oswald (Review here). Dart is a narrative about the River Dart in Devon. It is also a 48 page long poem. If you’d have told me even a few months ago that I’d be able to sit and read 48 pages of poetry and actually enjoy it, I’d definitely have laughed at you. It’s not that I don’t like poetry- I love it- but the idea of a poem that long is definitely off-putting. It sounds daunting, and like a lot of effort, as any poem that long would, but you’d be surprised. It seems to me that a lot of us have an aversion to reading poetry of any length – I suppose many people believe that it has to be difficult to understand and inaccessible, but this simply isn’t the case.

I think most people first experience ‘traditional’ poetry in school – poets like Dylan Thomas, Keats and T.S Eliot are probably what springs to mind if you were to ask most people what poets they’ve read; along with images of boring English lessons in stuffy classrooms (if my A Level teachers are reading this, I love you and remember that I did an English degree because of you – bear with!).

GCSE Anthology
Just looking at it makes me panic and I sat my GCSEs 5 years ago!

What most people forget is that this isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of poetry. Poetry isn’t just the GCSE anthology or Shakespearean sonnets. If you don’t enjoy this kind of poetry, there’s plenty more out there. Poetry can be fun and light hearted, and even for children – take this excerpt from Roald Dahl’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf’:

’That’s wrong!’ cried Wolf.
‘Have you forgot
To tell me what BIG TEETH I’ve got?
Ah well, no matter what you say,
I’m going to eat you anyway.’

The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head,
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.

A few weeks later, in the wood,
I came across Miss Riding Hood.
But what a change! No cloak of red,
No silly hood upon her head.
She said, ‘Hello, and do please note
My lovely furry wolfskin coat.’

Of course, a lot of poetry is serious, and for adults, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining. The first time I properly felt like I engaged with ‘grown up’ poetry was in listening to a spoken word performance by Sarah Kay, entitled ‘B’ (If I Should Have A Daughter) (the actual poem ends at about 3:40 in this video). Yes, it’s a little bit pretentious, but it’s so engaging and optimistic. Poetry can be simple and fun, as well as deep and thought provoking.

Spoken word poetry also allows theatricality and performance to become part of the poem – it becomes more three dimensional. In the discussion after she performs, Kay mentions her introduction to spoken word poetry, and the ‘indignant’ first poem she ever performed, as a fourteen year old. I think if anyone thinks about teenagers writing poetry they probably think of angsty goth kids writing about death and destruction – but this isn’t the case either. Take these four girls, for example. ‘Halloween’ is political and yes, indignant, but it makes a point in an engaging way.

Sarah Kay
Sarahhh ❤ 

Poetry is powerful and unlimited, and can be about anything. Poetry can touch you in the same way that prose or music can, so why is there such an aversion to it? I believe everyone could find a poem that speaks to them in some way, even if that poem is simply an Edward Lear limerick that makes you laugh. Poetry doesn’t have to be complicated and elitist, and we don’t have to be scared to read it. Like most literature, poetry reflects life back to us; this might not be obvious in Romanticist poetry or Breton lais, but it’s by no means an art form that should be written off, if you’ll pardon the pun, just because we don’t always enjoy studying it at school.

I’ll leave you with a few of my favourites;

‘Still I Rise’ – Maya Angelou
http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/still-i-rise/

‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ – W.B Yeats
http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/he-wishes-for-the-cloths-of-heaven/

‘OCD’ – Neil Hilborn
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnKZ4pdSU-s

‘Pangur Bán’- Anonymous
https://www.ling.upenn.edu/~beatrice/pangur-ban.html

 

http://poet.tips/ – This is a really cool website I found yesterday if you’re struggling to find new poets to read. You can type in the name of a poet you like, and the website will give you a list of recommendations for similar poets to check out!

See you soon,

Ro x

PS – I know this is two days late and I need to stick to my own schedule!!
PPS – Featured image & image of Sarah Kay taken from videos linked above.