April 12, 2016

Monday, April 21, 2014

Source Poems: "Sea Fever"

For National Poetry Month 2014, I have invited 17 authors and poets to guest post about source poems. In this series of essays, each writer will describe a single poem's significance in his or her life.

We return to the water today with guest blogger and Maryland-based poet Pat Valdata.

Pat Valdata
Sea Fever, Spring Fever

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t like the ocean, and boating, even though the only boat ride I took as a child was the Circle Line’s sedate cruise around Manhattan. Something about traveling on the water appealed to my child’s mind for reasons I couldn’t fathom (pun intended!). Then, when I was in sixth grade, I discovered John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking,

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

Between the alliteration and the alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, I could hear the rhythm of pitch and roll in every line. This was the first poem to give me the “aha!” moment of hearing how the sounds represented the sense. I loved to recite: “To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife….” Say them out loud—isn’t it a fun line to speak? I loved then, and still love, how the wavy smoothness of “the gull’s way and the whale’s way where” transitions into a sudden punch of frigid wind “like a whetted knife.”

I had always enjoyed reading poetry, from Mother Goose to A Child’s Garden of Verses. [Previous Source Poem posts about A Child's Garden of Verses include "The Land of Counterpane" and "Rain."

But “Sea Fever” was the first poem that piqued my interest in craft, not that I could have expressed it just that way when I was in sixth grade. By the time I took literature classes in high school, though, I was seriously interested in matters of craft, although my own poetry consisted of overwritten, angst-filled creepy lines meant to channel Edgar Allan Poe, or short, pithy verses that I thought were as sophisticated as anything written by Dorothy Parker.

And then I read an untitled poem by E.E. Cummings and was fascinated by the poem’s appearance on the page; by sounds like “Just/mud-luscious”; by his trick of writing “eddieandbill” and “bettyandisbel” to visually show the closeness of the two pairs of children who are inseparable at play; and by the mysterious “balloonMan” whose goat-footedness led me to the encyclopedia to learn more about Pan, who is the perfect mythological character to represent springtime, fertility, and eddieandisbel’s & billandbetty’s foreshadowed sexuality.

Cumming’s poetry, which was avant garde when he wrote it, still seemed hip and fresh when I first encountered it in high school (okay, so it was a long time ago). Then it seemed the very opposite of Masefield to me, and it led me into the world of free verse poetry. But now I see how similar the two poems are in their treatment of sound effects; how Cummings, in his use of typography and repetition, is also paying close attention to rhythm; and how both poems celebrate the irresistible wildness of nature that draws me outdoors in just-spring and to the ocean (or at least the Chesapeake Bay) every chance I get.


By Pat Valdata

On the anniversary of your dying alone
I stood on the hard-packed shoreline,
back turned toward the insistent wind.

I picked up a clamshell covered in spume,
ridges smoothed by the tumble to shore.
In the heavy, polished, concave core
I ground sand grains under my thumb.

A gust pushed me three steps closer
to the hiss of spray, the retreating surf,
where wave after wave thrummed ashore,
pushed by last night’s thunderstorm.

I tasted a filigree of freezing foam.
Salt on my fingertips. Too much like tears.

A note about this poem: “Surf” isn’t a new poem. It won the Eastern Shore Regional Poetry Competition in 2006. But it is representative of the “semiformal” way I often write now, paying attention to rhythm and mixing rhyme and off-rhyme, and in doing so, acknowledging the influence of poets like Masefield, Cummings, and many others.

John Masefield, painting by William Strang
Source: The Telegraph
Pat Valdata is poet and novelist whose most recent book is Inherent Vice, a book of poetry published by Pecan Grove Press in 2011, the same publisher that printed her poetry chapbook Looking for Bivalve, which was a contest finalist in 2002. Pat has twice received Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council for her poetry. In 2013 she was awarded a grant from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation for a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Thanks to this grant and residency, she completed the manuscript for a forthcoming book of poetry that was awarded the 2015 Donald Justice Prize. Pat lives in Elkton and works at the West Chester University Poetry Center.

Previous posts in this series:
Diane Mayr on a haiku by Basho


Diane Mayr said...

"Surf" is gorgeous.

I tasted a filigree of freezing foam.


Linda B said...

I only 'get' to visit the ocean, often wonder how I'd be if I had ever lived near enough to experience it all the time. I like hearing your journey of remembering the Sea Fever poem, in awe of its sound. Makes me wonder if more young people would be taken in if more rhythm was shared. And then your poem, like Diane, I love the filigree line, but also "I ground sand grains under my thumb." brings me there. Thank you!

skanny17 said...

If you read my post you saw how Sea Fever was a part of of my childhood. It was a treasured poem and still is. "Surf" is one I relate to almost intimately . I love your use of the waves thrumming. It is the pull of the water and its beauty and power that brings me there on almost every trip "home" to visit family. The ocean seems a part of me and is the perfect place for remembering.
Janet F.