on 27 December 2009
"Dart" is made of one single 48-page long poem. But what poem!
Alice Oswald recorded many conversations she had with those who live and work on or near Dart River (in Devon). She used their voices, dialects, expressions, pleating them into this long multi-faceted text.
The resulting text is a mix of prose poetry rendering carefully selected and adjusted spoken language (the text never sounds as if it was the simple transcription of taped conversations) and quite lyrical poetry in stanzas.
It changes rhythm, tone, is rich in alliterations and plays on sounds. "Dart" refers to local people as well as to characters form the Greco-roman mythology.
The fact the poem goes on over 48 pages gives it a flowing quality, which cleverly suggests a river. Since the Dart is very short, most of the river is affected by the nearby sea's tides, and the mentioned animals, birds and fish can be either fluvial or marine.
Alice Oswald has managed to stitch sections end to end with almost invisible seams. She just changes subjects, makes them flow into each other.
This is a radically atypical piece, a long, creative journey into a world of water and words.
Does the music of language enchant you? How about good quality artwork, or sensitive, tasteful presentation? Yes: then this book is for you. Alice Oswald takes fragments of conversations from those who haunt the river, from its tinkling upper reaches, to the shadowy depths of the mature river. The 'song' is made up of a rich variety of individual viewpoints, whether they be walkers, fishermen or poachers, and they gradually build together into a 'patchwork quilt' of the river, whose own song runs as a steady chorus linking all the pieces together. The human actors are only one small part of the play, for all the wildlife actors, from dragonflies and kingfishers to otters and salmon, make their own contribution. Oswald manages to convey a richly visual picture with relatively sparse and unsensational prose, but the song which bubbles so bewitchingly out of these apparently ordinary ingredients reveals her total mastery of the medium. A deserved prize-winner, and a strongly recommended book to improve the quality of your life: simply open the first page, and let the words and illustrations take you on a trip downriver shot-through with magic.
I live within a few miles of the Dart, the river that gives its name to Dartmoor, Dartington and Dartmouth, yet to discover Alice Oswald's poetic celebration of this watercourse from source to estuary I had to read the transcript, published in The Hudson Review, of a radio talk by Andrew Motion. The poem won the 2002 T S Eliot Prize shortly after first publication, but otherwise seems to have got off to an unpretentious start in terms of publicity and sales. However, judging by Amazon's numbers, the new (2010) format is moving rather well; very well indeed for a poetry book. It deserves it. Besides those who have enjoyed other poems by Alice Oswald, the market for this book should include all literate residents of and visitors to Dartmoor and South Devon, those who enjoy the poetry of Ted Hughes (Hughes lived not many miles north and east of the source of the Dart), and the many schools that use Hughes to stimulate imaginative classroom work.
This volume consists of a single poem of alternating verse and prose, and at one point a 25 line silence. Through the voices of a succession of people who live, work, or take recreation on, in or in proximity to the river - even drown in it - plus the voice of the river itself, we follow its 45 mile progress from moor to sea. Some of the less expected points of call are a small hotel, a woollen mill, a milk factory and a sewage works. All are memorable in their way, and we learn much from the voices encountered there, but the open moorland, the steeply descending section of the river inaccessible even to walkers, and the nominally faceless, but deep and timeless expanses of the estuary ultimately predominate. Besides the river itself, a unifying factor from sea almost to source is provided by the annually migrating salmon, attracting legal and illegal fishing, and providing work for the fisheries warden, a figure who speaks well for himself, but is not well-regarded by the poachers Alice Oswald also coaxes into speaking frankly.
Oswald's two years of fieldwork researching the river and interviewing subjects was clearly well spent, and the poem will in turn provide many diverting hours of research for those who wish to fully understand every line. If, on first encounter, you know what a Kevick is, you already know South Devon rather well. As a help to the uninitiated, it's a pupil or former pupil of the King Edward VI School (now Community College) in Totnes. Talcom (powder) and the Sillies (Isles off SW England) are presumably just mis-prints. Oakenhampton may be a correctly recorded mispronunciation of Okehampton.
on 13 July 2009
I am surprised there are no other reviews for this as it is such a beautiful and inspiring book. I am an artist and it has transformed a new project (now in early stages).
The language is musical and evocative and makes you long to explore some of the places it describes (yes even at five in the morning with the moon shrouded in mist).
The whole book is one long piece, written in such an original and descriptive format, you feel a complete empathy with the river itself. I hear she turned down the post of Poet Laureate, an offer that she well deserved. Total respect!
on 26 April 2014
This is part poem and part story about the River Dart from source to mouth.
Oswald had interwoven nature, people and history into the short and memorable little book. She skips from one type of writing to another from a paragraph on a kingfisher, to a few lines noting a bridge as the water flows past. You feel the pain as the water is polluted, and the tempo of the prose mimics the ebb and flow of the river.
I really liked the style of the book. It was brave to do a whole story / poem in one 46 page block. There are subtle side notes that clarify the prose, but do not intrude into the text. There is something about poets that give them the ability to create an images with such few words. Oswald has done it with this book, distilling all aspects of the river in to this tiny book.
on 5 July 2013
I loved 'Dart', especially for what other reviewers have pointed out as the seamless way Alice Oswald blends "all names, all voices, Slip-Shape" into a "songline from the source to the sea."
The poem, though, is marred by several typos: "put your eat [sic] to it, you can hear water" on page 10; "Japenese [sic] weddings..." on page 13; and at least three more. Very sloppy for a 48-page book.
My copy is from the eighth printing of the 2002 Faber paperback edition.