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The river’s mutterings’: Lyrical Discretion, Communal Utterances, and Poetry Beyond the Human in Alice Oswald’s Dart

‘Les murmures de la rivière’ : discrétion lyrique, paroles communautaires, et poésie au-delà de l’humain dans Dart d’Alice Oswald
Bastien Goursaud


Le poème Dart d’Alice Oswald est une exploration de la rivière éponyme dans le Devon. Le texte mêle l’humain au non-humain pour créer ce que la préface décrit comme ‘un chant qui trace une ligne de la source à la mer’. Pourtant, dans le flux sonore du poème, le lecteur perd souvent de vue toute origine ou toute source de la voix poétique, et malgré la référence évidente à la tradition romantique de la poésie de la nature, le sujet lyrique se caractérise par une discrétion et un processus continu d’effacement qui laissent place aux ‘murmures de la rivière’. Mais le modèle du marcheur-poète persiste et structure la géographie et la trajectoire du livre, ce qui crée donc une incertitude permanente quant à l’origine, humaine ou non-humaine, de cette parole. Cet article commence par lire Dart à la lueur de ce paradoxe apparent, avant de se concentrer sur la relation à la mémoire et au mythe qui persiste dans un texte pourtant caractérisé par le mouvement et l’instabilité. Il propose ensuite une comparaison entre le poème et les récentes enquêtes anthropologiques au-delà de l’humain, en particulier le travail fondateur d’Eduardo Kohn dans Comment pensent les forêts (2013). Enfin, il suggère que l’intérêt d’Oswald pour la discrétion du sujet lyrique au profit de voix collectives ou communautaires, peut être comprise en lien avec une conception du poème comme événement ancré dans un lieu.

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1Published in 2002 to great critical acclaim, Dart is Alice Oswald’s second work. It is a book-long exploration of the voices that populate the eponymous river in south Devon, where Oswald lives. According to its prefatory note, all of those voices must be read as ‘the river’s mutterings’. Which, despite their plurality, suggests that the flowing Dart constitutes a unifying vocal backdrop to the poem. Whether the book can really be called nature writing is uncertain, as its focus is on human-nonhuman interactions, and comprises, for instance, the voice of dairy factory workers or the technical vocabulary of tin extractors or naval cadets. If one follows the etymology of the word landscape, the poem is certainly not landscape writing, for its focus is not primarily on the visual. Rather, the poem re-constructs a soundscape that drifts with the flow of the river while integrating voices from the human and non-human realms. The point of entrance to the Dart is thus a series of interconnected voices whose relations constructs an acoustic ecology unified around the central fluvial element.

2But to better understand how the poem functions, it is useful to bear in mind its method of composition as described in the preface: ‘Over the past two years I’ve been recording conversations with people who know the river [. . .] linking their voices into a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea’ (Oswald 2002). The relationship to nature implied here is of course in part a rejection of the figure of the romantic nostalgia of the landscape, ‘as if the poet was sitting on a rock on a hill looking at the world through a telescope’, a nostalgia derived from our being mostly removed from the outdoors, ‘abroad in our own surroundings’ (Oswald 2005b).

3Oswald distrusts literary sensibility to the landscape, even in herself. Which is why her emphasis on listening to people with a direct, often working experience of the environment, as well as the poem’s constant demand that its reader be simultaneously a careful listener, seem to involve what I will call a poetics of lyrical discretion. By lyrical discretion I mean a process of self-effacement through inclusion and dissemination of the lyrical ‘I’ within the ecology of the poem.

4However, the general sense of embeddedness that results from Oswald’s work must not let us forget that, in parallel with the geography of the river’s current, the poem also follows the trajectory of a single listener. The voice constructed is therefore the product of something akin to the immersion of anthropological observation, but the identity of the various speakers is very often uncertain, reminding us that the ecological system evoked is at the same time an imaginary one: the poem includes the voices of a water-nymph, of a dead lord and of several other imaginary characters. Moreover, what also distinguishes Dart from a mere documentary effort is Oswald’s ability to do justice to the embeddedness of each character, which in fact partly accounts for the presence of these imaginary figures. They are a reflection of this poetic community’s attention to a realm beyond the human, be it natural or supernatural. In this paper, I read Oswald’s poetic project in parallel with recent ethnographic attempts at decrypting human-nonhuman relationships within the theoretical context of an anthropology beyond the human. I will consider in particular Eduardo Kohn’s 2013 book How Forests Think. More specifically, I will be looking at his inquiry into what he calls semiosis, i.e. the production and interpretation of signs, as well as his effort to consider ‘the connection between representational processes (which form the basis for all thought) and living ones’ (Kohn 7).

5Finally, the poem’s acoustic journey may be described as a series of communal utterances thanks to the walker/listener’s attitude of lyrical discretion, a feature that she draws from the essential influence of Ted Hughes, but which I will also suggest to read as a form of immersive, site-specific poetry, by attempting, in particular, a comparison with the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay. Such a description does not forget the complex, sometimes incompatible, nature of the successive voices in Dart. The communal element produced by each acoustic encounter is of course unstable, sometimes paradoxical. It is thought of as a fleeting, protean and potentially ungraspable reality—a brevity and ephemerality in fact inscribed in the very name of the poem/river. The aim is therefore to envisage the constant dialectics of disjunctive shifts and interconnectedness that animates the poem.

Voices of Water

6Water is at the center of Dart, as it has been central to a large part of Oswald’s work so far—it was already present in the “Sea Poems” of her first collection The Thing in the Gap Stone Stile (1996), but one also finds it in A Sleepwalk on the Severn (2009), her second river poem, as well as in her latest collection Falling Awake (2016), which contains several water poems such as ‘Severed Head Floating Downriver’, ‘A Drink from Cranmere Pool’ or ‘A Rushed Account of the Dew’. Water is essential because it functions simultaneously as poetic material, and as a central metapoetic representation of Oswald’s work on poetic voices. In an interview, she explained her interest in ‘a style of writing that [is] as quick-moving as water itself’ (Oswald 2012), and in another one she added: ‘I sort of aim to be as fluid as water if I can be. [. . .] I don’t like settling into one kind of character. I like to shed myself as I go along’ (Oswald and Wachtel). Ungraspable, protean, yet ubiquitous, water is to the environment what voice is to the ecology of Oswald’s poems. It is the central and multifaceted thread that connects its parts, irrigates it with poetic life, and makes it an organic ecological system.

7In a way, Oswald seems to anticipate Jane Bennett’s conception of ‘vibrant materiality’: water is certainly not conceived as inert matter in her poems, and is instead shown as a bidirectional agent, both acting and acted upon. Yet, Oswald does not appear to escape the paradox mentioned by Bennett herself, that this vitality is granted via human means—in this case through the presence of a voice—, as in this passage from the second page of Dart:

whose voice is this who’s talking in my larynx
who’s in my privacy under my stone tent
where I live slippershod in my indoor colours
who’s talking in my lights-out where I pull to
under the bent body of an echo are these your
fingers in my roof are these your splashes

8In Dart, the various speakers are indicated in the margin. Before this passage, the voice of a mysterious “eel watcher by the bridge” had been presented in parentheses. These lines are therefore not clearly attributed—their origin is uncertain. The ‘whose’/’who’s’ paronomasia also conflates the issue of the origin of the voice with the questioning of identity that pervades the poem and its evocation of human-nonhuman relationships.

9An echo is by definition a bodiless voice, and yet the passage describes the ‘bent body of an echo’, thus investing the resounding sound of the river with a human physicality. In the same way, with the indignant evocation of ‘my larynx’, the Dart is presented as an already existing yet unused body invaded by an unknown presence. The same can be said of the ‘stone tent’ that describes the bridge, as well as the playful adjective ‘slippershod’. The passage thus riffs on an anthropomorphic re-creation of the river, which seems offended to be intruded upon and therefore talks back. Of course, there is an irony in that act of talking back, as this poetic voice is itself a human creation. But, beyond the humorous quality of this passage, Oswald is saying that hers is a poetics of lyrical discretion and attention to acoustic encounters (more on that later), as is also made self-evident from its assonantal and alliterative density.

10Moreover, the almost obsessive nature of the questioning in these few lines implies that the my larynx/your fingers opposition, which the voice is so desperately insistent about, might not be so clear-cut. Like water, the sense of bodily presence permeates the landscape, and the poem’s voice is given a present/absent body whose humanity is uncertain. In this passage, embeddedness therefore makes room for a kind of collective utterance, and voice becomes a modality of human listening into other forms of life.

11Thus, through Dart’s poetics of lyrical discretion as well as its communal ambition, subjectivity is also blurred and pluralized. Despite the indications in the margins, the text creates a continuous ambiguity as to who or what is speaking. The figure of the poet/listener is always present in the background and each of the voices she encounters is blurred and protean. When the poem reaches the mouth of the Dart, the last indicated speaker is a mysterious ‘sealwatcher’ who visits a cave where seals come to stay:

Flick out the torch, the only thread between down here and daylight
and count five while the sea suckles and settles.
Self-maker, speaking its meaning over mine.

[. . .] 
With their grandmother mouths, with their dog-soft eyes, asking
who’s this moving in the dark? Me.
This is me, anonymous, water’s soliloquy,

all names, all voices, Slip-Shape, this is Proteus,
whoever that is, the shepherd of the seals,
driving my many selves from cave to cave
 [. . .] (Oswald 2002, 48)

12As Tom Bristow has remarked, the flicking of the conceptual, projective light leads to the replacement of human language systems for the sea’s movements and sounds (Bristow 179). The sealwatcher’s voice merges with the movement of the tide, and the answering ‘Me’ contains a maternal and fertile multitude. This conclusive passage is indeed full of potentiality while it simultaneously comes full circle by echoing the opening question of the poem: ‘who’s this moving alive over the moor?’ (Oswald 2002, 1). The question, like the seals’ interrogation, was already ambiguous and protean, as it may be read with emphasis on the deictic (‘who’s this moving in the dark/alive over the moor’), suggesting a human presence, or with emphasis on the verb, (who’s this moving alive over the moor/in the dark), a possible variation which suggests an insistence on the uncertain flow of living presence symbolized by the central fluvial figure.

Transience, Memory, and the (Local) Myth of the Nation

13The river’s elusiveness and ubiquity are not the only characteristics that relate it to voice in Dart. The river’s flow is also a classic metaphor for the passage of time and Oswald’s conception of voice includes a dialectic of transience and memory. Voice in her work is shape-shifting, ungraspable and yet it contains the mnemonic mechanisms of its own persistence. In this poem, water is conceived of as a bearer of the traces of the past. In an interview for The Guardian Oswald explained:

I like the idea of water as a kind of rememberer or recorder of what goes on beside it. It is a kind of reflector, it reflects images and I think it also somehow records sounds. I have read that water has memory, that was quite an influence on the writing of Dart—there is that sense, when you come upon water in a dry landscape that it’s a kind of retention of thought. (Oswald and Bunting)

14Despite the apparent linearity of its trajectory, the poem does indeed offer several voicings of the past. History is incorporated into geography through the process of construction of the collective voice of the poem. In the central part of the collection, one of the speakers announced in the margin is ‘John Edmunds being washed away, 1840’. In this case, the voice, which is presented explicitly as a denizen of water (‘being washed away’), is detached from its body, and incorporated into the flow of the river. The mention of the date after a comma brings directly to the time of the character’s death, as if ‘the river’s mutterings’ carried a photographic memory of sorts. John Edmunds’s direct address to the reader/listener is indeed marked by a sense of urgency, as though continually failing to grasp his own voice:

all day my voice is being washed away
out of a lapse in my throat
[. . .]
if I shout out,
if I shout in,
I am only as wide
as a word’s aperture

but listen! if you listen
I will move you a few known sounds
in a constant irregular pattern:
flocks of foxgloves spectating slightly bending. . .

o I wish I was slammicking home
in wet clothes, shrammed with cold and bivvering but

this is my voice
under the spickety leaves,
under the knee-nappered trees
rustling in its cubby-holes
 [. . .] (Oswald 2002, 20–21)

  • 1 ‘Tithonus, 46 minutes in the life of the dawn’ was originally performed at the Southbank center in  (...)

15Again, this voice’s assimilation with the river’s body has collapsed the distinction between an internal and external world. Yet, as it progresses, this voice becomes more individualized: first, with the pervasive use of Devonian dialect: ‘slammicking’, ‘shrammed’, ‘bivvering’, ‘knee-nappered’, ‘cubby-holes’. And secondly, through the ghost of a surprising trochaic pentameter (flocks of foxgloves spectating slightly bending [. . .]), which is made more arresting by its assonantal and alliterative quality. This latter line has a kind of gratuitous presence—a way for the speaker to manifest his existence as a voice. Being no wider than ‘a word’s aperture’, the character’s appeal to the listener’s attention suggests his incarnation as a creature of voice. He is, like the Tithonus of Oswald’s eponymous performance piece,1 a Beckettian figure of exhaustion—he is a continually threatened presence (‘all day my voice is being washed away’), which clings on to his own words.

16And yet, the word ‘aperture’ recalls a photographic device, as though this watery voice was also the recorder of an instant. This brings us back to Oswald’s vision of water as ‘a rememberer or recorder of what goes on beside it’—in fact, John Edmunds’s character does not so much exist as a single individualized entity, but as a transient relational crossroads: he confirms his existence via a snapshot of the surroundings, and his voice is individualized through the local community’s dialect.

17But in Dart, local memory is also subtly articulated to a sense of national history, albeit in a largely critical approach. Despite the hyper localism of the enterprise and the influence of the very locally oriented Common Ground project (more on that later), the poem also demonstrates an awareness of the national myths associated with the Devon landscape and its river. In the last third of the book, a sewage worker is heard in five brief prose paragraphs. At the end of the last one, his speech is cut short, interrupted without any punctuation and without the marginal explanation given throughout the poem:

It happened when oak trees were men
when water was still water.
There was a man, Trojan born,
a footpad, a fighter:

Brutus, grandson of Aeneas,
But he killed his parents.
He shut his heart and sailed away
with a gang of exiled Trojans:

18The story that springs up here is a myth of the origins. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, Brutus is a descendant of the legendary Trojan soldier Aeneas. Having killed his father by accident, Brutus fled Italy with a gang of soldiers and landed in Totnes, near the mouth of the Dart, where he founded Britain after killing the last of the inhabiting giants Goemagot (or Gogmagog). In his study of new nature writings Jos Smith suggests a link between the second line and Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich’s insistence on the historicity of matter. Smith adds that the first line ‘It happened when oak trees were men’ ‘seems to be challenging the idea that Britain was unpopulated when Brutus and his men arrived from Troy’. While this re-telling is very careful to represent the river as a place dense with wildlife, its implication is that the nation-founding myth ‘eclipses pre-existent “races” of wildlife.’ (Smith 60) It also suggests that the myth is itself inscribed in the memory of these waters, a story carried (recycled?) in the flow of this river-poem.

19At the end of the story of Brutus, the giant appears ‘walking towards them/a flat stone in each hand:’ (Oswald 2002, 33), and the voice of the savvy stonewaller is introduced. For Smith ‘The stonewaller is Gogmagog.’ He reminds us that ‘Stonewalling, unlike bricklaying, requires the careful use of the pre-existent order of shapes to make its lines. [. . .] And the stonewaller is under threat from the origin myth of the nation about to impose itself’ (Smith 61) But the poem does give him a voice, and a patient, expert one at that. If the figure of the giant is clearly put in continuity with that of the stonewaller, I think that the abrupt transitions from technical prose to more traditional rhymed quatrains, and back to prose, must not necessarily be read as a worried note regarding an overbearing sense of nationhood. On the contrary, they suggest a continuity between the practical attitudes of local river-workers to water and a mythical backdrop that might relate them to the rest of the land. When listening to the presence of the past in the river, the poem is simultaneously listening into the multifarious unity of those forms of life.

The Sound of Work and the Poem’s Inquiry into the Nonhuman World

20In an article entitled ‘Voice(s) of the Poet-Gardener: Alice Oswald and the Poetry of Acoustic Encounter’, Mary Pinard insists on the influence of acoustic ecologist R. Muray Schafer on the work of Oswald. Pinard underlines the importance of Schafer’s attempt at ‘an understanding of sonic properties and especially their relation to music’, as well as his ‘assertion [. . .] that sound is the acoustic manifestation of place and that it can be studied, even surveyed like land through the considerable sensitivities of the ear, [which] suggests that if we are deaf to soundscapes, then we are deaf to a whole world’ (Pinard 19). Pinard also pinpoints Oswald’s interest in Schafer’s distinction between two types of music, which she evokes in her preface to an anthology entitled The Thunder Mutters, 101 Poems for the Planet (2005):

Murray Schafer, one of a growing number of acoustic ecologists, divides music into two tribes: that of the flute, which represents ‘internal music breaking forth from the human breast’, and that of the lyre, which is ‘external sound, god-sent’. While the flautist sighs out his sounds, the lyre player’s task is to discover ‘the sonic properties already there in the materials of the universe’, which is as good a description as any of what this book’s about. (Oswald 2005a, ix)

  • 2 The anthology takes its title from John Clare’s ‘The thunder mutters louder and more loud’, which o (...)

21Oswald also defines the three types of poems selected in her anthology, among which are the ‘work poems’ that pay attention to its rhythms and sounds and thus, according to Pinard’s analysis of the anthology, ‘[yield] a language that then enables a vigorous overlapping or encounter’ (20).2 Oswald herself is a former gardener: after graduating as a classicist at Oxford, she became a gardener in London and then in Devon. In the same preface to the anthology, she evokes the importance of gardening, specifically raking, to the poetry of nature:

A dew’s harp is a rake (in old Devon dialect). This book is dedicated to the rake, which I see as a rhythmical but not predictable instrument that connects the earth to our hands. Raking, like any outdoor work, is a more mobile, more many-sided way of knowing a place than looking. When you rake leaves for a couple of hours, you can hear right into the non-human world, it’s as if you and the trees had found a meeting point in the sound of the rake. [. . .] Those who play the dew’s harp are, as it were, running their fingers over the leaves, listening in, finding what’s already there.
Oswald 2005a, ix)

22The rake is a mediation for one’s ‘listening in’ the environment. It underlines the irrelevance of subject/object distinctions by emphasizing a link between a body and its surroundings. It is clear that an awareness of the poetic value of physical work’s liminality was already central to the composition of Dart. In her prefatory note, Oswald insists on presenting her poem as the product of a recording of the voices of people living and working on the Dart. She made sure that these people’s relationships with the environment was one of direct interaction through physical work and involvement. Dart thus takes a step back from the work poems presented in the anthology: despite the obvious poetic re-workings, it has a verbatim quality that must not be overlooked, not least because it makes for a better understanding of the discrete attitude of the walker/listener vis-à-vis the work of poetic composition.

23In that perspective, the poem acquires a documentary or even ethnographic quality—like an anthropologist the poetic figure aims at an immersive and direct experience of another mode of being. Given its attention to the natural world, it seems particularly fit to compare it with recent inquiries into human-nonhuman interactions. More specifically, I wish to focus on Eduardo Kohn’s groundbreaking How Forests Think, Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (2013). The book is an account of a four-year experience with the people of Avila in Ecuador’s Upper Amazon. But it is also much more ambitious, as it aims at broadening the scope of anthropology itself by including the study of human-nonhuman relationships. In How Forests Think, the Avila people are granted the status of guides to these relationships, in particular because of their daily effort to find food in this environment:

Getting food through hunting, fishing, gathering, gardening, and the management of a variety of ecological assemblages involves people intimately with one of the most complex ecosystems in the world—one that is chock-full of an astounding array of different kinds of interacting and mutually constituting beings. [. . .] This involvement draws people into the lives of the forest. It also entangles the lives of that forest with worlds we might otherwise consider ‘all too huma’, by which I mean the moral world we humans create. (Kohn 5)

24Like the people recorded by Oswald along the Dart, the Avila people’s specific involvement is informed by its practical nature. According to both Oswald and Kohn, such practicality allows for a deeper interlacing of one’s body-in-the-world with the environment. At times, certain tools provide an increased sense of liminality: for instance, Kohn’s reflection on the meaning of the cane seems to prolong Oswald’s own thoughts on the rake—or Dew’s harp:

Footing for the unsteady, a guide for the blind, a cane mediates between a fragile mortal self and the world that spans beyond. In doing so, it represents something of that world, in some way or another, to that self. Insofar as they serve to represent something of the world to someone, many entities exist that can function as canes for many kinds of selves. Not all these entities are artifacts. Nor are all these kinds of selves human. [. . .] A cane also prompts us to ask with Gregory Bateson, ‘where’ exactly, along it sturdy line, ‘do I start?’. (Kohn 6)

25Kohn describes his ethnographic work as an attempt to pay attention to Amazonian other-than-human encounters in order to ‘force us to question our tidy answers about the human’, his goal being ‘neither to do away with the human nor to reinscribe it but to open it’ (6). I believe that Oswald’s poetics of acoustic encounters has a comparable ambition.

26Her work does start from the human and her dissemination of the self operates on the same porous frontier between the human and non-human worlds. After the appearance of John Edmund’s voice (see supra), the poem features a blank page with ‘silence’ indicated in the margin. This silence happens roughly in the middle of the poem and indicates a plunge or selfless immersion in the current of the Dart. Yet, the passage reminds us that without the mediation of a human presence in the landscape, no poetry can arise. Significantly, the following voice belongs to a swimmer plunging into the river:

water with my bones, water with my mouth and my understanding
when my body was in some way a wave to swim in,
one continuous fin from head to tail
I steered through rapids like a canoe,
digging my hands in, keeping just ahead of the pace of the river,
thinking God I’m going fast enough already, what am I,
spelling the shapes of the letters with legs and arms?

    S SSS            W

           Slooshing the Water open and


    for it Meeting shut behind me

He dives, he shuts himself in a deep soft-bottomed silence

Oswald 2002, 22–23)

27This body in direct contact with the flow of the river is clearly construed as a liminal space. Immersion does not mean fusion though—he remains ‘just ahead of the pace of the river’. Human language does not disappear in this passage; in fact, our linguistic rootedness in place is highlighted while the swimmer’s language is re-defined by this human-non-human interaction. One thing does go missing however—the ‘I’ of the word SWIM. The letter of the personal pronoun is dropped in favour of ‘the extension of embeddedness and involvement’ (Bristow 178). It becomes a drop of water disseminated throughout the passage: ‘me’ reappears in ‘Meeting shut behind me’ and the ‘I’ ripples through many words of the passage (slooshing, it, meeting, behind etc). Oswald’s use of the masculine pronoun adds an element of distance to the poet, suggesting that the swimmer is yet another voice in the acoustic environment. Not only is the human ‘I’ made discrete in this passage, it is not even attributed to the lyrical ears—a final disjunction that prolongs their attempt at self-effacement.

28Kohn’s (and Bateson’s) ‘where [. . .] do I start?’ becomes a worried ‘what am I’, when Oswald’s swimmer feels himself turning into a living language. Thus, following my comparison with the anthropologist’s inquiry beyond the human, one is struck to find affinities with the conception of semiosis he proposes. The latter is largely influenced by Charles Sanders Pierce’s tripartite division between iconic, indexical and symbolic signs. His view is that symbolic signs, which are conventional, and which include human language, emerge from iconic and indexical sign production. In that theory, not all signs have language-like properties, and not all beings that use them are human. In addition to that, ‘selves, human or nonhuman, simple or complex, are outcomes of semiosis as well as starting points for new sign interpretation whose outcome will be a future self. They are waypoints in a semiotic process’ (Kohn 33). In that perspective, I think that Oswald’s dispersal of the letters in this passage does indeed provide a poetic equivalent to Kohn’s inquiry into the semiotics of human-non-human interactions. The dropping of the ‘I’, which is continuous with the poet/listener’s poetics of lyrical discretion, does turn the swimmer’s gesture into a waypoint in a semiotic process. Furthermore, the alliterative quality of the text insists on the iconic nature of the language used, and thus points to the continuity of poetry’s irremediably symbolic material with other non-human entities.

29Such continuity is suggested right from the beginning of the book through the irruption of the nonhuman song of the lark. The first human presence is a walker, whose brisk voice is unsurprisingly blurred with that of the poetic figure when the lark appears:

 (Oswald 2002, 2)

30This is a moment of arrest, suspension, as suggested by its unusual typography. The passage recalls Emily Dickinson’s 861 poem: ‘Split the lark—and you’ll find the Music’. Yet, in this case, the ethereal music of the singing lark is not alluded to as a metaphor for the work of the poet, it comes to inhabit and shape the words of the poem. The central diphthongal echoes of the passage—‘around/one/note’—give it a ternary, precarious balance. This vibratory feel mirrored in the verbal triptych ‘spinning’/‘splitting’/‘mending’ evokes a micro-cycle, a miniature of the ecological milieu constituted by the poem itself.

31The identity of the speaker is uncertain and so is the auditor’s, the injunction to listen being therefore primarily addressed to the reader, which in turn creates a form of plural consciousness. The passage is also informed by a deep iconicity, to the point that this sounds like an attempt at presenting the unmediated sound of the lark, including it in what I would call a communal utterance. But this community, which is characterized by its fleeting nature, includes the human and the non-human: by pluralizing the listeners, the text’s poetics of lyrical discretion makes way for the thing itself as though the poem were intent on breaking the boundaries of the book.

Provincializing Poetic Language: a Site-Specific Poem?

  • 3 ‘vivid life’ is a quote from Hughes’s Poetry in the Making.

32The work of Ted Hughes is a major influence on Oswald’s poetry, in particular because of its attention to the ‘“vivid life” of their subject’3 (Oswald 2014, xiii) and, consequently, of his poems. In 2014, she compiled an anthology of Hughes’s animal poems entitled A Ted Hughes Bestiary. In her introduction, she writes about her editorial work:

About two weeks through the task, I noticed an unusual brightness behind my eyes. It was as if the top of my skull had been wedged open and the poems were moving around in there like animals woken by daylight. Although the poems are here assembled and printed in a book, I challenge the reader to imagine them still unboundlike the Thought-Fox‘Brilliantly, concentratedly, / Coming about [their] own business’. (Oswald 2014, xvi)

33A few years earlier, in a Ted Hughes memorial lecture, she had spoken about the lasting impression Hughes’s Hawk in the Rain had made on her. Like when putting together the anthology, she had been struck by its ability to avoid the representative rift between the poem and the natural world:

It was a new idea to methat instead of describing something (which always involves a separation between you and the object) you could replay it alive in the form of sound. You could use poetry to reveal what it sounds like being outdoors: the overlapping of thousands of different noises: the rain’s rhythm, the wind’s rhythm in the leaves, the tunes of engines, the beat of footsteps. [. . .] That’s why his poems sound deeper and wider and richer than human language. They seem to include the whole sacred and speechless background of nature. (Oswald 2005b)

34Hughes’s near-shamanic attempt at conjuring up the thing itself is what draws Oswald to his work. The impulse is to sidestep the merely symbolic structure of language and thus open its boundaries, something that Eduardo Kohn calls provincializing language. Borrowing the word from Dipesh Chakrabarty’s famous Provincializing Europe (2000), Kohn proposes to use it in a broader sense in order to apply it to an anthropology beyond the human—not as a questioning of the Eurocentric nature of social theories, but as a way to describe how the symbolic is inscribed in a wider semiotic field:

considering those kinds of signs that emerge and circulate beyond the symbolic help us see that we need to ‘provincialize’ language. [. . .] I find provincialization useful metaphorically as a reminder that symbolic domains, properties, and analytics are always circumscribed by and nested within a broader semiotic field. (Kohn 38)

35The project of Dart is clearly to make us sense language ‘nested within a broader semiotic field’, i.e.: that it is part of a larger context of representational interactions. Which is why it is also redolent of site-specific and performance poetry that often insist on making both the audience and the setting formal elements of the poem’s event. Oswald herself noted that Hughes ‘produced two books which you could almost call site-specific’ (Oswald 2005). One may therefore wonder to what extent the site-specific paradigm inhabits the writing of Dart.

36From the same perspective, Jos Smith underlines the influence of Common Ground, an arts and environment charity that seeks ‘imaginative ways to engage people in their environment’.4 In the early stages of the writing of Dart, Oswald’s idea ‘was to orchestrate it like a kind of jazz’ (Oswald 1999). Oswald contributed two poems to their anthology The River’s Voice (2000), and according to Smith, the previous quote ‘brings to mind the participatory musical events that Common Ground had been choreographing along the Stour [. . .] celebrating the river and the cultures and working landscapes that it has drawn to its banks’ (Smith 55). If the musical element has become less evident in the final poem, the idea of engaging a local community around a natural landscape and working collaboratively towards a plurivocal celebration of it is clearly close to the project of Dart.

37In her panorama of the relationships of ecopoetics and British poetry, Fiona Becket notes affinities between Oswald’s poem and the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay (Becket 226). In fact, Oswald did take part in a site-specific project at Heale Garden three years before writing Dart. In an essay on the subject, she mentions her fascination for Hamilton Finlay’s work:

I was intrigued by the idea of putting texts back into the landscape. I’ve been thinking about language as a physical object for 10 years ever since visiting Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden at Stonypath, in Scotland.
His poems appear as puns, quotes, emblems, proverbs, fragments worked into the landscape. They’re normally very short—about one line—which gives them the virtue of inscriptions, that all their words exist simultaneously.
 (Oswald 2000, 42)

38Ian Hamilton Finlay is a gardener and site-specific poet, and Little Sparta (formerly called Stonypath) is arguably his masterpiece—it is a garden near Edinburgh, designed by him and a community of gardeners, which contains some of his best minimalist garden poems. For example, ‘CURFEW/Curlew’ is a stone poem, or rather carved stone where, at nightfall, one can hear the sound of the nearby curlews. The experience of this site-specific work depends on the moment of the day, the season, the weather. So that the poem is part of a natural environment and functions, so to speak, in collaboration with the place. Yet, the boulder where the poem is carved is also clearly a seating, suggesting that it is not complete without a human presence to hear the birds. The poem echoes the importance of iconicity as described by Kohn, for the tiny variation is one that goes from the inward-folded, sad ‘F’ of the dreaded CURFEW, sternly carved in capital letters, to the alert ‘l’ of the curlew and its call (carved in a smaller, gentler font). In Hamilton Finlay’s work, the memory of the war is omnipresent, and the phonological and graphic substitution points to the healing power of the place, a particularly secluded spot in the garden. But the phonic overlap between the two words also serves as a reminder that the word curlew is itself derived from the peculiar sound of the bird’s call. Thus, this site-specific poem offers an experience of iconicity within the symbolic, and it does present itself as ‘nested’ within the stone, the trees and the call of the birds and what Eduardo Kohn would designate as their semiotic properties. Its language and poetic operation therefore appear as an emergent trait of the place, which in turn underlines ‘the ways we come to inhabit an ever-emerging world beyond the human’ (Kohn 66).

39Oswald’s poem does not evade the book in the way Hamilton Finlay’s did, but it is certainly not just a mapping. They share the same conviction that signs can be linguistic, animal, vegetal, and that the poem can work as a particularly fruitful ‘waypoint’ (to quote Kohn again) into the non-human. In both their works, it involves a distrust of the lyric ego, mostly because, in the words of Fiona Becket, it would ‘[recreate] the distance between the participant-viewer and nature that ecopoetics might seek to close’ (Becket 216). Which, as pointed out by Peter Howarth, involves a ‘performative sense that poems need to involve their settings’ and ‘that the river-poem needs the co-presence of its listening audience to happen’ (Howarth 200) Consequently, Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta is the work of an entire community of human (gardeners, stone-carvers and visitors) and non-human dwellers—in the same way, Oswald’s Dart is a community of voices disseminated and paradoxically reunited by the acoustic infiltration of the non-human within the human. They both provincialize poetry by attempting to show that it is always, in a sense, site-specific, ‘nested’ within the broader semiotic field of the natural world. In so doing, their poems acquire some of its ‘vivid life’.

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1 ‘Tithonus, 46 minutes in the life of the dawn’ was originally performed at the Southbank center in 2014, and later included in Oswald’s 2016 collection Falling Awake. It is based on the myth of Tithonus, the dawn’s lover, who keeps growing older without being able to die because Zeus has made him immortal. The poem’s voice is (mainly) Tithonus’s, who helplessly witnesses the dawn and fails to grasp this elusive yet perpetual phenomenon, like the river’s flow. Because of his cruel fate, he is reduced to a wisp of a man, a cricket in some versions of the myth, and his speech is characterized by its repetitive, obsessive but powerless nature. Like John Edmunds, he is a creature of words and a perpetually failing memory.

2 The anthology takes its title from John Clare’s ‘The thunder mutters louder and more loud’, which opens the book and captures the hurried rhythm of harvesters trying to beat the thunderstorm.

3 ‘vivid life’ is a quote from Hughes’s Poetry in the Making.

4 Source :

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Bastien Goursaud, « The river’s mutterings’: Lyrical Discretion, Communal Utterances, and Poetry Beyond the Human in Alice Oswald’s Dart »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 56 | 2019, mis en ligne le 21 mars 2019, consulté le 23 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Bastien Goursaud

Bastien Goursaud started a PhD in 2015 at Sorbonne Université under the supervision of Professor Pascal Aquien. His research focuses on the relationships of orality, performance and lyricism in contemporary British poetry.

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