Saturday, September 12, 2009

Men at Sea, in verse and art

Verdigris —  Man at the Wheel

Blessed by your unwavering gaze
faithful fleets steer a course
long known to the fishermen of Gloucester.

At the helm, bronzed hands grip a spoked wheel,
sou'wester and visage age to a patina.
My father was one who sailed from this harbor

and returned with a trip of fish
all but one voyage, but you take note
of they that go down to the sea in ships.

See, you seek them even now.
Fog horn moans, salt waves sigh.
Light encompasses a churning dark sea.

Steadfast through nor'easters, winter's ice,
you emerge in summer's green, sparkling sky,
flowers at your feet, dedications

ringed around you, children perched
on your shoulder, grandmothers posed for
portraits and fathers making a pilgrimage to recall

fresh sea breezes and spin fishing tales and speak of
those now permanently cast in bronze tablets,
immortalizing the single memory of each man gone.

We say their names knowing but a few of their stories -
their perfect storm of ironies so nearly shared.
Troubles, fate, one last trip on board

an ill-fated vessel. Yet, you glorify them
and we cannot help but look out to sea
following your gaze to herald their safe return.

--- Pamela Mansfield

The above is the winning poem for Quarterdeck's recent civic poetry contest.  The event in question was  Massachusetts's decision to put The Man at the Wheel--the Craske sculpture that centers the Gloucester Fisherman's Memorial--on the next series of twenty-five-cent U.S. State commemorative coins.[1]

John J. Ronan, poet laureate for the city of Gloucester, Massachusetts (pronounced "GLOSS-ter" -- or, if you're from Beantown, "GLOSS-tah"), wonders why civic poetry is not more common.  One reason, he thinks, is that "Too many modern poets look down on civic, occasional poetry." [2]   Perhaps more people who otherwise wouldn't ever pick up a book of poetry, might, after reading or hearing a poem written in a civic context, change their minds about hating poetry.

Maybe it's not the venue or subject matter that invites some poets' disdain for civic poetry so much as the perception that authentic poems cannot be written about a thing unless one has some personal, important connection to it . One might, for example, wax poetic about a lover, favorite place, poignant memory or material object that carries specific relevance, yet balk at the idea of a poem penned for a public event, finding it too pedestrian and unworthy of consideration. (Might the discomfort have anything to do with a poem's being assigned or commissioned--as opposed to writing engendered by a genuine interest in the subject or as an act of spontaneity? Some of the world's greatest masterpieces of art,--for example, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel--were commissioned works.)

A poet need not be limited by a lack of enthusiasm for a particular subject or event to create a meaningful civic poem.  He can suggest parallels to something universal to which everyone can relate.  Last year one of the requirements for the commissioned poem for the opening of the new Leamington Spa Railway Station in Warwick, England was that one out of four submitted entries had to have been inspired by that year's National Poetry Day theme, which was "Dreams." Absent a suggested poetic theme, however, what could one say, poetically, about a railroad station opening?  I believe there are no non-poetic themes, and whether by inspiration or demand, there is Nothing about which one can't write a good poem.

Poet Robert Pinsky believed that poetry didn't just belong to poets, that it is also civic:  "Poetry month and the posting of poems on subway cars may violate some notion of the form's intimate quality. But the civic space is where language and makers live."[3]  At any rate, civic poetry is definitely alive in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Ms. Mansfield addresses her poem to the statue ("Flowers at your feet, dedications ringed around you, children perched over your shoulder..."), a revered public icon and symbolic reminder of the human drawn to, dependent on, and often at the mercy of the mighty sea.  Gloucester's Wheel Man still watches as its fishermen go to sea, immortalizing those who didn't return.

Homage on a bronze tablet for fishermen lost at sea, names on a wall honoring dead soldiers--such carved memorials, chiselled reminders of the absence of the persons honored, bring forth harbored memories of beloved faces, remembered conversations--in the case of the fishermen, of  their love and fear of the sea--reminders of their many journeys out and back with their nets, their endless stories.  These are what people think of when they see this Man at the Wheel sculpture.
John Masefield, poet laureate of the UK from 1930 to his death in 1967, also wrote about men at sea, immortalizing them in verse, as Gloucester's Man at the Wheel immortalizes them in stone:

The sailor, the stoker of steamers, the man with the clout,
The chantyman bent at the halliards putting a tune to the shout,
The drowsy man at the wheel and the tired lookout...
THEIRs be the music, the colour, the glory, the gold;
Mine be a handful of ashes, a mouthful of mould.
Of the maimed, of the halt and the blind in the rain and the cold --
Of these shall my songs be fashioned, my tales be told.[4]

Ah, the many tales of the sea in fiction and poetry and pictures, the exhilaration of being out adrift on the vast ocean, alone with the fish and the white-capped waves and the sky; the terror of an approaching storm, thoughts of loved ones back on shore--a wealth of material for writers and poets and artists to weave into creative outpourings about ordinary individuals battling the elements in an unpredictable universe.

There are countless poems about man and the sea, expressing awe, exhilaration, fear, despair, loneliness, or inner peace. The fisherman's wife will tell you the fish smell in her husband's hands, his hair, and his clothes never leaves no matter how hard she scrubs, and wonders why no one ever writes a poem about THAT.  (Monuments honor those who descend into earth's caverns to mine for coal and never return; why are there not more poems about them, not only the lost, trapped ones but those who return with Death implanted in the black dust in their lungs?  Are they not also brave souls worthy of  civic tribute and immortalization in poetry?)

Men and women of the sea and earth, and those who write about them, sing about them, or paint their images, like ocean waves that never cease, like winds that whisper untold stories--are the threads that form the fabric of the universe. Some live the life; others merely record it, define or magnify it; and some make of it a metaphor for something larger and more compelling--extraordinary, even--enabling others to experience something that transcends their everyday world, in a never-ending flow of ... connection.

It is this connection I feel when I see the boats in the photo above of Gloucester Harbor; when I imagine all men at the wheel; when I read the words of those who also, for whatever reason, find something that resonates with them about the men at sea.

Many thanks to Jonathan, a Massachusetts beekeeper and photoblogger at Beeps and Chirps for his kind permission to post the two photos shown here on my blog today.

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