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This article is taken from PN Review 205, Volume 38 Number 5, May - June 2012.

The Songlines of Alice Oswald and Thomas A. Clark
Singing at the Right Pace
Ben Smith
In his essay 'Good, Wild, Sacred', Gary Snyder recounts a journey that he made by truck through the Australian outback in the company of a Pintubi Elder. As they reached a line of hills, the Elder began speaking very rapidly, telling stories about wallabies, the Dreamtime and lizard girls, moving from one story to the next without pause. Snyder writes,

I couldn't keep up. I realized after about half an hour that these were tales to be told while walking, and that I was experiencing a speeded-up version of what might be leisurely told over several days of foot travel.1

This anecdote raises interesting ideas about the relationship between language and the ways in which poets or storytellers engage physically with the landscape that they write, speak or sing about. In Australian aboriginal culture, the act of recounting these stories or 'songlines' connects the speaker with the history of the landscape, its creation and the naming of its constituent parts during the 'Dreamtime'. By speaking the names of trees, rocks and hills, the Pintubi 'sing the world into being' in a process that echoes their Ancestors' initial act of creation.2 This process requires close attention to the details of the landscape as well as time for remembrance and contemplation - this is afforded by singing the songline at walking pace, but not, as Snyder points out, by singing it from the back of a truck. If the rhythm of the language becomes divorced from the ...


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