Poetry Friday: 1918

When I announced that I was starting this blog, a question posed to me by a former student, Krista Gustafson, was whether we’d have “Poetry Fridays”.  A class I taught several years ago was so taken by poetry (particularly read aloud) that every Friday I’d take 5 minutes at the end of class and just offer them some poetry–whatever whim took me that day.  Krista may have been joking (she does have a good sense of humor), but I think she was a little serious, and the more I think about it, the more I like it.  So, every week on Friday I’ll offer a poem published in the United States in the year of the novel I am reading (often I’ll try to choose from that year’s Pulitzer-winning work of poetry, but I won’t limit myself that much).  It’ll be a poem I found interesting, and hopefully worth discussing, but I won’t offer any comment at first–just a poem.  Please offer your comments and reactions (positive and negative) and I’ll join in.  If it connects with what I’ve been reading (novel-wise), that will be interesting, but I’m not intending to steer it that way.  Let’s just look at a poem now and then, and watch them change over the years along with the novels (or perhaps stay the same).

Today’s poem is by Carl Sandburg, and was published in his book Cornhuskers in 1918 (there was no Pulitzer winner for poetry this year):

“The Sea Hold”

The sea is large.
The sea hold on a leg of land in the Chesapeake hugs an early sunset and a last morning star over the oyster beds and the late clam boats of lonely men.
Five white houses on a half-mile strip of land … five white dice rolled from a tube.

Not so long ago … the sea was large…
And to-day the sea has lost nothing … it keeps all.

I am a loon about the sea.
I make so many sea songs, I cry so many sea cries, I forget so many sea songs and sea cries.

I am a loon about the sea.
So are five men I had a fish fry with once in a tar-paper shack trembling in a sand storm.

The sea knows more about them than they know themselves.
They know only how the sea hugs and will not let go.

The sea is large.
The sea must know more than any of us.

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5 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1918

  1. Tselil says:

    Too bad the sea is not actually as invincible as suggested… I feel like the sea does lose, i.e. dying coral reefs and sewage. But the sea does tend to make me feel like I am powerless before it; maybe people feel like they can dump sewage into the ocean because it does feel so invincible.

    I really like the “houses like dice” line.

    AND I am very glad you have decided to do poetry fridays!

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I’m glad you’re enthusiastic about the poetry, Tselil–so far the turnout seems a bit low, but I think it will build over time.

      I agree that, viewed through a biological or environmental lens, the sea is proving much less resilient than it probably seemed in 1918. When I read about the state of the world’s fisheries or look at the environmental status of beaches and tidal habitats around the globe, it becomes very depressing. It’s hard to think that, before I am old, fish will become a delicacy enjoyed only by the rich.

      The enormity of the sea for Sandburg, though, I assumed had to do with a capsized boat, and five lost sailors who were embraced by the sea and not let go. (I’m open to other interpretations, but it seemed straightforward to me.) And I pondered his last lines a bit–there is something uniquely immense about the ocean. It is as close to the infinite as we can come (save, perhaps, the expanse of the night sky)–trackless, almost featureless (in comparison with the land), and ready to swallow up almost anything at a moment’s notice.

      The one thing I still wrestle with is that the sea knows more about these (lost?) sailors than they know about themselves. Sandburg hints at it…he must have a guess. What is it the sea knows? Or is he simply moved by the idea that nature is larger than us, to the point that he decides the sea must have this kind of near-omniscience?

  2. graham says:

    Whenever I read Sandburg I think I’m reading someone from the 50s, 60s, even present. Then I remember he was 1910s. Seriously ahead of the curve.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Graham, I feel like I agree with you, but I can’t pinpoint why/how. Given that you’ve spent a lot more time than I have (especially recently) thinking about poetic style, could you take a stab at specifically what it is about Sandburg that makes him sound a lot more modern than other writers of his time period (like Frost, for example, who’s very talented but who no one would confuse with a post-WWII poet)?

      • graham says:

        I think largely it is the frankness and freeness of his verse. He writes in a style that, if someone gets clocked in the face with a bag of bricks, he would say “he got clocked in the face with a bag of bricks.”

        He’s capable of Prettying Things Up, but doesn’t do it too often.

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