Clare Crossman reflects on her experiences of rivers and their flow, and the value of poetry in our relationships with water.
‘Here are your waters and your watering place
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion’
Robert Frost, Directive (1946)
I grew up in Gravesend in a flat, in a hotel, that looked right on to the Thames opposite Tilbury. Even with the gruesome definition of the word ‘graves end’ (where bodies were sent out to sea in Elizabethan England) I grew to love water. There were tugs, giant white star liners, and cruise ships; everything floated and passed my window. The river also removed painful things towards the sea.
I was not allowed to be afraid of water and was taught to swim when I was three-and-a-half. I was allowed to stare into the running depths of the river from the top of the wall that ran along it, my hand held so I would not fall in.
I am always returning to rivers, or they have never left me. The wild ones of the North of Cumbria where I was an adolescent, and the weir-dotted Lune in Lancashire with its sea breathing; and now in south Cambridgeshire, the chalk stream with its pools and springs which is the River Mel. This stream runs the length of the high street of my village. It is only short. It rises in a crystal lake with springs coming from a chalk culvert, it forms a passageway between two villages and across fields. Lived on and with, it turned mill wheels for bread, it grew watercress, and young men fished!
Clear water light
Whatever the size of the river, the surface always catches the light. The continual flow seems to tell of how everything constantly changes and moves forwards, despite meanders and diversions. The sound of water is a small music that is healing, and is always pouring and washing the world away. Rivers constantly make libation and, unless blocked or polluted, are a quiet salvation. A river too is always working, powering waits and mills, enabling travel, providing food. A river is about paddling, boats, kingfishers, afternoons of delight. The River Mel holds a constant temperature. In winter it has its own mist, fog and fret.
In the introduction to his Oxford Lectures given in 1995, The Redress of Poetry, the great northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney draws on water to define the scope of poetry. Beginning with the Robert Frost poem Directive, Heaney writes
‘The poem is like a broken drinking goblet stolen from the playhouse and dipped in the mountain stream because it too offers a clarification, a fleeting glimpse of the potential order of things ‘beyond confusion’, a glimpse that has its own reward. The poem provides a draught of the clear water of transformed understanding and fills the reader with a momentary sense of freedom and wholeness.’
Later on he writes ‘but in the end, the poem is more given over to the extraordinary, than to the ordinary, more dedicated to the world renewing potential of imagined response than to the adequacy of a social one’.
A deep argument
Poetry as a ‘draught of clear water’ filling the reader with ‘a momentary sense of freedom and wholeness’. This metaphor is such a beautiful one: reading a poem like drinking a glass of clear spring water. And water and poetry providing transformed understanding, freedom and wholeness.
There are deep arguments from poetry then not to let the river become polluted, clogged up, unavailable to consciousness to the whole bodily system of a human being in the Anthropocene.
Poetry explains why never being far from water, as this landscape is, asks to be celebrated and explored. We come from water; primeval fish grew feet and found land out of a watery soup. Our bodies are 80 percent water; without it, we could not live, we release it in our breathing and skin, then collect it as rain. H2O is a most mercurial element. Tough and vital in its texture. Along its length here, we are connected by it and can work together.