"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
Today’s poem appears in a photo because I can’t do the indents properly in WordPress, and a poem’s appearance is important. The visual and aural content of poetry is part of what distinguishes it from prose. If you centre a poem, leave italics out, change punctuation or line breaks, then you’re changing the decisions made by the writer. So here is today’s poem as it should be seen:
There’s no older tradition in literature than the tale of a journey, drawing parallels between a physical voyage and the journey through life. It was probably one of the reasons for inventing poetry, making a long story memorable through patterns of sound. Even the Odyssey, composed in the Bronze Age, built on an existing tradition of heroic sagas. Andrew Greig’s adventure in Found at Sea, if smaller in scale, is full of salt and adrenaline. It’s a sequence of poems about a short sea passage with a friend from the main island of Orkney to the unoccupied island of Cava. They camp overnight. They come back. It’s a small adventure, but even a small adventure gives scope for self-examination.
This poem from that sequence is a good contrast to Edna St Vincent Millay’s Inland, which we looked at last week. Millay’s poem crammed the sensuality, the exhilaration and possibilities of the sea into a tight shape, with rhymes and repetitions to give structure. Greig does it very differently – breaking up form, interrupting himself and letting the journey unfold through a sequence of poems which jerk and shudder and spill. They use log book extracts and the odd SHOUTED WORD or exclamation to give a feeling of immediacy and travel under sail.
This piece winds metaphor and fact together very tightly. It’s explicitly about ‘our lives/ going forward and clockwise’ but also a precise description of a boat trying to make way, knocked off course ‘by forces so pervasive/ we don’t even see them.’ You don’t need to over-explain in a poem. The reader is as bright as you are.
The first stanza is full of contradictions and antitheses – we are slaves and gods, servants and rulers. In case those analogies seem too grand for a short journey in a small boat, Greig drops in some bathos to lessen his own pomp – ‘that is to say, sailors’. It’s a good trick when you want to disarm readers or reassure them. The line breaks aren’t arbitrary: white space tumbles around the words, redoubling the effect of some line breaks and giving a lively sense of unpredictable movement.
Found at Sea, as the title suggests, is a mid-life collection in which Greig assesses his life on land with family and other commitments, and tests himself against a wilder background with a male friend. That’s the subtext of this poem, and in particular of its ending. In his book On Poetry Glyn Maxwell declares that ‘recurrence of words isn’t repetition. Ever,’ meaning that if a word is repeated, it has a different effect. Here, the poem finishes with a repeat; ‘No, adjust, /adjust.’ Does the sailor try to take a bearing on something transitory, something fleeting? No. Things change, and the sailor has to adjust. The repetition gives the instruction extra force, like a man bracing himself for a storm. The last line is just ‘adjust’ on its own, with a feeling that the poet is reconciled to that idea of changing tack.
A man testing himself with the ordeal of a journey, and coming home more settled than before? It may not be an original idea but there are no original ideas in poetry. Sex, death or shrubbery; all subjects have been covered. In the end, we are writing about being human, and our readers are human too.