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 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,