Caught by the River

The River’s Voice, Common Ground

16th December 2007

From the preface:

The River Meander must be a wonderful sight, its Turkish curves so tantalising that it has given the English language a verb and a noun. King Tantalos, up to his neck in Phrygian water that receded whenever he bent his head to drink, gave us the teasing verb. Intricate language and stories hang in the air, condensing when needed to enrich another place. Springs and great rivers – and all those bournes, becks, burns and brooks in between – not only provide us with our basic requirement for life, but have helped us to explain and to share knowledge of the world around us.

The real rivers, which may terrorise or delight us, are intriguing for their particularity. The variegation found in a single river valley and the differences among catchments are part of the great workings of nature, time and geology, and the efforts that we humans have made to control and use water for our own ends.

Even in England, where we had learnt to share the power of the stream with wild creatures and plants, leating it to drive mills, diverting it to flood meadows, damming it to pacify and to please, some of our activities are having profound implications. Through two centuries of industrialisation we have turned our back on the city river; in only five decades, intensifying farming practices have filled the country river with chemicals; engineering has straightened the meanders, rendering the river more, not less, unpredictable. Fashions in fear and development, have conspired to push running water away from our everyday experience, increasingly reducing streams to ditches and finally to culverts. The explosion in the working and domestic use of water is depleting aquifers, those of ancient water, and causing the drying up of streams. And the selling of common water into corporate hands is retreat of the millennium.

We are united in our need for water, but are increasingly divided by its scarcity; its profusion – or big ideas for its use.

Think of Aral, the biggest lake in central Asia, which is now dry, and of the huge dams along the Hwang Ho; contemplate the impact of shrinking polar ice caps and retreating glacier in the Rockies and Himalayas. Then look at the spring, stream or river that is the reason why your settlement is where it is.

At the very moment when we need the closeness of water to feed our humanity and imagination, we seem to be denied literal contact, and. have lost sight and sound of its magic.

Our aspiration in bringing together mainly twentieth-century poetry in this anthology is to demonstrate a richness – seen and heard by keen observers with the capacity to distil ideas, language, and stories – which continues to offer a route to our own imaginations.

What the poems also show is our willingness to be inspired by the particularity of actual rivers. One simple observation links ancient wisdoms with fractal science, aesthetic observation with the seepage of language and names: ‘All rivers, small or large, agree in one character; they like to lean a little on one side.’ (John Ruskin,The Elements of Drawing, 1857 ). Common Ground’s work is based upon an idea of getting there better in the long run by going the long way round.

by Susan Clifford and Angela King, Common Ground, October 1999