Caught by the River

Alice Oswald – The Thing In The Gap Stone Stile

Katherine Venn | 22nd July 2008

by Katherine Venn

It is Alice Oswald who I credit with really getting me into poetry as an adult – both reading contemporary poetry, and also writing myself. I remember reading a piece about her and her book-length poem, Dart, some time in the summer of 2002, in The Times. I was so captured by what I read that I went straight out and bought Dart (published that year) – the first time I’d bought contemporary poetry since I was at primary school, I think.

Dart, which went on to win the 2002 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, totally took me aback. It’s one long book-length poem that follows the river Dart from its source to the sea; in the poet’s own words, it’s a ‘rivermap of voices’, a ’songline’ of all the people who work on and play around the river. It’s pastoral and muscular, elusive and absolutely poetic… and totally captivating. I would recommend it to anyone, especially people who don’t think they like poetry. It’s quite extraordinary. I remember copying bits of it out in letters to friends.

one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones
glides in the trills
eels in the glides
in each eel a fingerwidth of sea

Having not been all that interested in poetry since I was a teenager, it suddenly seemed essential, and I slowly began to find my way towards enjoying it again. The following spring/summer I began trying to write my own poems (something I’d not done since I was nineteen), and the summer after that, feeling uncreative and frustrated, I signed up for an evening poetry course/class, which was a workshop for both reading and writing. And it was this course that really woke something up in me. But I trace it all – my interest in both writing and reading poetry – back to Alice Oswald, and that chance encounter through the pages of a newspaper, with Dart. I hope I get the chance to thank her in person one day.

Last week I read her first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, which I’d been trying to get hold of for a while a few years ago before eventually giving up; I think it was elusive for a while because it was initially published by OUP in 1996, which axed its poetry list in 1998. Happily, it’s since been republished by Faber. The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile won a Forward Poetry Prize (for best first collection) and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize in 1997.

One of the things that fascinated me about Alice Oswald, and which is reflected in this collection, is the poet’s love of gardening and the natural world. The interview I read in The Times all those years ago mentioned that she was a gardener on the Dartington estate in Devon (her entry on says she still is, but I think I’ve read elsewhere that she’s no longer a full-time gardener, and no longer lives in Devon). I remember thinking what an idyllic existence this sounded. Not that I’m a gardener myself; but I love writers who can write about the natural world, about the power and pull of outside, in a non-sentimental, non-Romantic way.

There are lots of gardening/outdoors poems in The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, and they were some of my favourites: ‘Pruning in Frost’, ‘The Glass House’, ‘A Wood Coming into Leaf’, ‘April’, ‘The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile’, ‘Gardeners at the Resurrection’ (which reminded me of Stanley Spencer’s wonderful painting ‘The Resurrection, Cookham’)… And then lots of poems about love and the difficult beauty of relationships, my favourites being ‘Sleep’, ‘Wedding’ and ‘The Melon Grower’. There’s also one long poem called ‘The Three Wise Men of Gotham who set out to Catch the Moon in a Net’, which is funny and beautiful and altogether fantastic (as well as hinting towards Dart, I wonder?)

It’s very, very hard to choose a favourite: there are so many. But if favourite = the one that I would most like to memorise, then it’s probably this, ‘Prayer’ –

Here I work in the hollow of God’s hand
with Time bent round into my reach. I touch
the circle of the earth, I throw and catch
the sun and moon by turns into my mind.
I sense the length of it from end to end,
I sway me gently in my flesh and each
point of the process changes as I watch:
the flowers come, the rain follows the wind.

And all I ask is this – and you can see
how far the soul, when it goes under flesh,
is not a soul, is small and creaturish –
that every day the sun comes silently
to set my hands to work and that the moon
turns and returns to meet me when it’s done.

There’s a fascinating interview with the poet here. Jeanette Winterson says of her that ‘Alice Oswald is the real thing – a true poet of great power and capacity. She writes about the natural world and our relationship to it, reminding us that there is such a thing as a world we didn’t make, and one that we badly need, for sanity’s sake.’ And then there’s this brilliant piece on poetry by Alice Oswald herself, which has lots of fascinating detail about the way she sees poetry (’danced language’) and how she writes it.

The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, Alice Oswald (Faber and Faber, 2007)