Those are pearls…

A post about poetry, as Nichola Deane over at Casket of Dreams is pointing the way to some roaringly good work (as well as writing with precise lyricism about Richard Hawley – do have to disagree with her about Dean Martin, tho’, there are few things more rock’n’roll than the careless swing of ‘Sway’, sung by a man so laid back that he held off Mafia influence by just not really caring about them).

Anyway… she’s also championing Robert Lowell, who I’d read a little of a few years back and pegged as (yet another) dodgy confessionalist.

I was quite wrong:

‘A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket,-
The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had steamed into our north Atlantic Fleet,
when the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light
Flashed from his matted head and marble feet,
He grappled at the net
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs;
The corpse was bloodless, a botch of red and whites,
Its open, starring eyes
Were lusterless dead-lights
Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk
Heavy with sand. We weight the body, close
Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,
Where the heel-headed dogfish barks at its nose
On Ahab’s void and forehead; and the name
Is blocked in yellow chalk.’

The opening sentences of ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’, which marvellous poem ND quotes and dissects fascinatingly, showing less of it than I have but making much more of it.

Reading the above made me think of other sea poems, and in particular W. S. Graham’s magnificent ‘Nightfishing’. It’s unavailable online (you’ll have to buy the Faber Collected Poems, worth every penny IMHO), but here’s a taster. W. S.’s poetic alter ego is trawling for fish off the Devon coast; the sea breaks over the boat and then sluices out again –

‘See how, like an early self, it’s loath to leave
And stares from the scuppers as it swirls away
To be clenched up. What a great width stretches
Farsighted away fighting in its white straits
On either bow, but bears up our boat on all
Its plaiting strands. This wedge driven in
To the twisting water, we rode. The bow shores
The long rollers.’

A lovely brief passage, but more importantly it catches the metaphoric tension that drives and energises the poem. W. S.’s descriptions of the processes of sea going, of fishing, become a way of talking about the mind’s progress through a poem, the self’s onward motion through life; the poem becomes a subtle and complex meditation on the stormed and freighted journeys through time that are an inevitable condition of our enforced, dynamic lives within it.

So, the sea sparking two very different but equally cool poems; I hope you enjoy them!

2 thoughts on “Those are pearls…

  1. Will have to dig out the W.S. Graham again now. Have you read Loch Thom? Watery but quieter.

    Of course Lowell does do some dodgy confessional stuff (The Dolphin) but that’s at the fag end of his career. Before that is the beautifully confessional Life Studies, a book I go back to repeatedly.

    Thanks for the elegant ‘ping.’ And I take your point about Dean Martin, although I still can’t imagine him moshing…

  2. A pleasure! Hmm, no – will have to go and seek it out. I’ve got an older selected poems of his; hopefully it’s not in there so I have an excuse to go and buy the Collected! And will have to check out Life Studies too, thanks for the recommendation…

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