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.