Poetry Friday: 1922 (part 2)

I know I technically finished Alice Adams yesterday, and should move on to 1923, but I thought I’d give 1922 one more poem, especially as I haven’t started the next Pulitzer novel yet.  And an old favorite poet of mine, Carl Sandburg, published an anthology called Slabs of the Sunburnt West, so I thought I’d give it a look.  I ended up reading this poem called “Fins”, and I don’t know entirely what to make of it, or what Sandburg was trying to convey.  Our first Poetry Friday was a different poem of his, also about the sea, and I really liked that one.  I think I might like this one also, but I’m not sure—anyone’s reactions (or proposed exaplanations/interpretations) would be very welcome!  So, without any further ado, “Fins”:

Plow over bars of sea plowing,
the moon by moon work of the sea,
the plowing, sand and rock, must
be done.

Ride over, ride over bars of sea riding,
the sun and the blue riding of the sea—
sit in the saddles and say it, sea riders.

Slant up and go, silver breakers; mix
the high howls of your dancing; shoot
your laugh of rainbow foam tops.

Foam wings, fly; pick the comers, the fin pink,
the belly green, the blue rain sparks, the
white wave spit—fly, you foam wings.

The men of the sea are gone to work; the women
of the sea are off buying new hats, combs, clocks;
it is rust and gold on the roofs of the sea.

10 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1922 (part 2)

  1. Paul Hamann says:

    We’re all gonna die. We’re temporary; sea is permanent. Our work and combs won’t last, and it’s foolish to pretend so. Instead, let’s celebrate that we’re puny and the sea is big, that we’re temporary and the sea eternal.

    Not Sandburg’s best. Only the last stanza really does anything.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I hear you, Paul, but I wouldn’t dismiss the earlier stanzas as quickly. I think he’s clearly trying something, and I want to work it out. I think a phrase like “the moon by moon work of the sea” is meaningful (and nicely phrased), and so I wonder what the larger point is. I agree with your reading of the end of the poem, but it leaves me wondering why this is called “Fins”, and I wonder also why the poet encourages the sea, exhorts it even, to be what it is. Is it just more of the “celebration of the sea” you’re talking about? Maybe so.

      • Paul Hamann says:

        I guess I have a higher threshold than “trying something.”

        In any event, I’m reading the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner (as part of my letter-writing exchange with a venerable colleague of ours). Figure this way I’ve got a shot at finishing before you.

        I’m sort of glad you’re picking poets you like from the years rather than Pulitzer winners. I’m tempted to steal your idea with the Pulitzer poets. Less time-intensive, but just as rewarding. Plus, it’ll get my sorry butt reading poetry again (more than the yearly Best American Poetry book and whatever Steven Dobyns or Stephen Dunn come out with).

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          I won’t criticize your threshold…I just know that many good poems evaded me once because I set them aside too quickly. I’m not sensing this poem is one of them, the more I read it, but I figure it doesn’t hurt me to try.

          The 2005…actually, I bought Gilead years ago (well, clearly not more than 3-4 years ago), and have never gotten up the energy to read it. I’m curious about your take on it, but of course I won’t have read it until probably 12-18 months from now. I was about to suggest Arrowsmith to you, actually, as it’s Sinclair Lewis (so I’m hoping it’s decent) and it’s probably several weeks away from me right now. But it sounds like your free reading time is occupied for now. 🙂

          I’d originally thought about picking the Pulitzer winners (had even said so) but I’ve done nothing in that vein and don’t seem likely to. I can say, with conviction, that if you tackled the Pulitzer poets I’d be a frequent reader of / commenter on your blog, though, and I’d encourage you to give it a try. For all I’ve been frustrated by some of these books….well, really just Booth Tarkington so far, I suppose…this has been a really interesting and thought-provoking experience for me, and I’m looking forward to the rest of what lies ahead of me. I hope (and trust) you’ll let me know if you embark on this quest!

        • Paul Hamann says:

          Thanks, James. But I’m actually reading the 2008, not the 2005. My bad. And I may give Sinclair Lewis a shot. I’ll see if it’s available for my iPod, as that really helped me get through Tarkington.

  2. Bonnie Hood says:

    I happened to be on the phone with my Mom when I first read this poem on your site.

    Anyway, I read it to her, and here is her analysis: the beginning equates fishing the seas with being a cowboy riding the range, and also a farmer. The ending is just sexist. 🙂

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I’ll agree on the use of cowboy/farmer imagery (and the charge of sexism, I suppose :-), but I still wonder what he’s trying to convey. Thanks for offering your mom’s analysis, though–hopefully she’ll drop by sometime and comment for herself!

  3. SilverSeason says:

    I get something from the poem, but what I get may or not be what Sandburg intended.

    I feel the rhythm of the waves, the repetition, just as plowing turns up the repeated furrow. I see the light and color of the water. I hear the crash of the breakers, although this third stanza is less successful, too theatrical.

    I see a creature in the water, with its fin, its color.

    Finally I see the people of the sea, the men who work and the women who shop. Or perhaps metaphorically those who are involved with the power of nature (“gone to work”) and those who take it second hand (“off buying”). I don’t know why it is rust and gold.

    Your poetry Fridays interest me and remind to read poetry again.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for reminding me of this poem! This was a while ago, and I hadn’t looked at it since. I see some of the images you do….on this return, I think that the rust and gold may be the color of the sunset striking the waves? I feel a lot more passage of time in this re-read, as though Sandburg is chronicling the slow change in the light on the water, from the blue and silver of the afternoon to the pink of the early sunset and then the darker colors as twilight falls. I don’t know how to integrate that sense of time into my other reflections on the poem, but it’s there whether I like it or not. 🙂 I’m pleased that the Poetry Friday posts are spurring you into looking at poetry: without having to do them, I know I’d read and think about poetry less, and I’m glad of them for that reason!

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