As a university teacher who lives in an inland city surrounded by mountains, streams, and rivers, I sometimes have a longing for the ocean, to see and smell and hear its rhythms. When I don't have time for the eight-hour drive to the ocean, I can still travel by verse. Each of the poems I've selected is in some way related to the sea, and each seems to invite us to remember that our vision is limited and fragmentary and that mystery surrounds us always. As Annie Dillard writes, "Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is try to be there."
At the Fish Houses
by Elizabeth Bishop
This tour starts "At the Fishhouses." I enjoy Elizabeth Bishop's confidence in repeating strong words and phrases "cold, dark, deep, and absolutely clear". Like the waves of the sea, her lines are mesmerizing in their echoes of earlier soundings. Describing herself and the seal at the water's edge as believers "in total immersion", Bishop invites us to immerse ourselves in the coastal scene she painstakingly and lovingly sketches in words. Her words help us to see the beauty in scenes and in objects others might overlook or despise. Darkness, weight, and smell are contrasted with iridescence, emerald and silver, and "principal beauty". The bone-chilling sea water "is like what we imagine knowledge to be" and the poem reminds us that it is an "element bearable to no mortal,/to fish and to seals". Siren Song
by Margaret Atwood
In "Siren Song", Margaret Atwood writes of another kind of mystery and knowledge that lives by the sea, and hearing her read the title of the poem, we understand the power of soft and seductive whispers. As Atwood tells it, most seductive of all is the appeal to our own egos, the repeated choruses of "to you" and "only you". There isn't much of the sea in this poem, just the warning to sailors and to us alike that if we forget the landscape (or seascape) and listen only to our own selves and narrow needs, we make our end with the other "beached skulls". And I love Atwood's aside at the end of her reading of the poem: "Now you know. Don't listen." You can hear the smile in her voice. Not Waving But Drowning
by Stevie Smith
There's more death and drowning in Stevie Smith's "Not Waving but Drowning," but unlike Atwood's, this poem calls us to unstop our ears and listen. And yet like Atwood's song, you can almost hear the dark humor in Smith's reading, especially in the cold, flat way she enunciates "And now he's dead". What is also intriguing is the dreamy, almost peaceful quality Smith gives to the words of the drowning man: "I was much further out than you thought". Here is another poem that emphasizes the numbing coldness of the sea, another poem that calls into question the sharp differences between what we see and what is real. The sea scours away artifice. Cape Porpoise, Maine
by Jane Duran
"Cape Porpoise, Maine" is a lovely yet melancholy poem by Jane Duran that compares offshore islands only reached at low tide to the elusiveness of memory and the past. Walking "across the mind at low tide--" she discovers that the mind, like the shore, is only navigable under certain conditions. It is her mother's past, "her childhood memories I still enjoy visiting", and she compares her mother's now "unfinished sentences" to "broken shells", reminders of a different life, fragments that still carry reminders of the complex beauty that was. I particularly love the last stanza in which she doesn't mourn for what is lost or vainly try to repair the brokenness, but only "as no solution, and with no ambition" determines to "walk where the water was". Donegal
by Robin Robertson
"Donegal (for Ellie)" by Robin Robertson is almost a mirror-poem to Duran's, as a man gazes ahead at his daughter's eager run into the sea while he follows, aware of his own lost youth. The poem's first word, "Ardent", describes the young girl and seems to contrast with the man's sombreness, but when we've reached the end of the lines, we realize that "ardent" is an equally apt characterization of the lingering father's love for his daughter, expressed in his willingness to carry her burdens and to allow her to escape and dance at the water's edge. In his reading of the poem, Robertson gives an almost lilting quality to the lines describing the girl, while the words describing the man are read slowly, almost cautiously and ponderously. And there is beauty in the way the sea serves as a metaphor for where the two are headed: she plunges into the deep; he remains in the shallows. Swimming
by Jan Kemp
Finally, at the end of this journey we find ourselves in Jan Kemp's "Swimming". The poem asks us to shed our minds and to return to pure physicality, for "Nothing reduces you to your skin like the sea". Again, we are brought up short by the shock of cold: a "plunge into reality". This poem asks us to consider which is more real: us or the sea? The sea propels and pummels the body, and Kemp's playful reading of the poem, with its rising intonations and surprising pause before the word "slips" calls to mind banana peels and pratfalls as she describes the action of the mind as it meets the ocean. There's gentle comedy in her challenge to "hold a handful of salt water", and there's laughter just beneath the surface in Kemp's reading. For more oceanic excursions, there's all the pleasure of the other thirty-some poems on the archive that are listed under the theme "sea".
Connie Ruzich is a Professor of English Studies at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in literature and linguistics. She holds a Ph.D. in Writing from the University of Pennsylvania and a Masters in English from the University of Pittsburgh. She views the environment of the classroom in much the same way as Pittsburgh writer Annie Dillard perceives the natural world: "Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is try to be there."