Saturday, May 02, 2009

The pale green Thames lies like a rod of rippled jade

Having mentioned last time Alice Oswald's poem for the Severn Project, I'm going to talk here about The River's Voice, a whole anthology that came out of another funded initiative: Common Ground's Confluence. They secured an Arts Lottery Arts 4 Everyone grant in 1998 for 'a three year project to help and encourage people to create new music for the River Stour. Confluence was a national project with a local focus. It offered participatory music projects, workshops, courses, concerts and events for people living in the catchment area, from Somerset and Wiltshire, where the Stour rises, through Dorset to the sea at Christchurch.'

The anthology has a beautifully written introduction by Roger Deakin, who had just recently published Waterlog. The cover is by Clifford Harper, the anarchist print maker whose appealing woodcut-like illustrations for The Guardian have been appearing over the last few years (many depict landscapes). The contents are a mix of old and new poems, with only one or two related directly to the Confluence project. This makes for a good anthology - it avoids the problem I found, for example, with Wild Reckoning: An Anthology provoked by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (2004), where the commissioned poems didn't match up to the older works collected for the anthology.

When is a river poem not a landscape poem? Almost always, I suppose, since it's rare to find a poet simply looking at a river without walking, charting or imagining its whole course, reflecting on its history, describing its wildlife, or simply relating an anecdote shaped by the river. Some of this anthology's rivers are abstract or unspecific, as in J. H. Prynne's 'Along Almost Any River'; eight of the poems are just called 'River', 'A River' or 'The River'. Still, here is a partial list of some real rivers and associated poets -
  1. The River Avon - David Wright
  2. The Charles River - Robert Lowell
  3. The Derwent River - William Wordsworth
  4. The River Duddon - Norman Nicholson
  5. The River Idle - Phoebe Hesketh
  6. The Liffey - William Oxley
  7. The Moscow River - Osip Mandelstam
  8. The River Otter - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  9. The River Severn - Charles Tomlinson
  10. The Tay - Douglas Dunn
- and of course there are several poets who write about the Thames. In fact, some of the poems that come closest to landscape painting are London scenes, like Wordsworth's 'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge' or this one by Oscar Wilde:

Symphony in Yellow

An omnibus across the bridge
Crawls like a yellow butterfly,
And, here and there a passer-by
Shows like a little restless midge.

Big barges full of yellow hay
Are moored against the shadowy wharf,
And, like a yellow silken scarf,
The thick fog hangs along the quay.

The yellow leaves begin to fade
And flutter from the temple elms,
And at my feet the pale green Thames
Lies like a rod of rippled jade.

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