Not All At Sea: Reading Whitman’s ‘Sea Ship’

lilac
 Lilac, but not as we know it. Calderstones Park  May 11

A colleague showed me this lively poem by Walt Whitman yesterday, and in the same hour a plea came round in The Reader’s weekly ‘Swaps for Reader Leaders’ email, for  more poems that are pre-1900, so I thought I’d read this here, then put in the swaps box. Perhaps I’ll get to Silas Marner later, as today was going to be a gardening day, but at the moment, it’s both windy and wet out in the garden.

 

After The Sea Ship

AFTER the Sea-Ship—after the whistling winds;
After the white-gray sails, taut to their spars and ropes,
Below, a myriad, myriad waves, hastening, lifting up their necks,
Tending in ceaseless flow toward the track of the ship:
Waves of the ocean, bubbling and gurgling, blithely prying,
Waves, undulating waves—liquid, uneven, emulous waves,
Toward that whirling current, laughing and buoyant, with curves,
Where the great Vessel, sailing and tacking, displaced the surface;
Larger and smaller waves, in the spread of the ocean, yearnfully flowing;
The wake of the Sea-Ship, after she passes—flashing and frolicsome, under the sun,
A motley procession, with many a fleck of foam, and many fragments,
Following the stately and rapid Ship—in the wake following.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

This is a sketch poem  – thinking back to what I wrote a while ago about types of poems, which I’d begun to roughly categorise as ‘stories’, thinking’ and so on… this is another kind of poem, a poem which is (partly, largely)  a picture. The urge to record in pictures or, (since the days when humans created language)  through language pictures is deep and ancient and when it strikes you, it is urgent.  But what is it?

The pictures that usually top this page are pictures of things I’ve seen during my day and felt the urge to record. The world is full of stuff, beauties, ugliness, remarkable things. Some of them strike me with a kind of longing. I am moved by admiration for whatever it is and at that point, out comes the camera. I don’t think it is about possession, I don’t want to have the thing thus captured, but about noticing. I want to single it out, and then to notice it, to pay attention.

I think that’s what a poem like this does. It is a poem that notices lots of movement, and wants to record all the moving parts that go into making a grand  picture of a great sea ship, seen, I think, at close quarters. As I begin, I don’t think it is out at sea but rather crossing a harbour. On re-reading, I also think the picture might be taken – I should say written – from the ship itself, as we stand at the stern and look down into the water. Ach, I don’t know: the perspective keeps shifting – one minute I’m watching the great ship from afar, next I’m on it.

Let’s start by reading the poem aloud.

 

AFTER the Sea-Ship—after the whistling winds;
After the white-gray sails, taut to their spars and ropes,

The ‘whistling winds’ make me feel I’ve been on, can imagine, the ship’s journey. Those two afters in the first line seem to put the poem in a time-place. I stay with that for awhile in line one but in line two, my vision shifts. I’m looking  at the ship passing close to me, as if I was on a quayside, and I see the great sheets, the ‘white-gray sails, taut to their spars and ropes’. It’s coming in after a journey. but then I look down and  my perspective shifts;

Below, a myriad, myriad waves, hastening, lifting up their necks,
Tending in ceaseless flow toward the track of the ship:
Waves of the ocean, bubbling and gurgling, blithely prying,
Waves, undulating waves—liquid, uneven, emulous waves,
Toward that whirling current, laughing and buoyant, with curves,

At first, I still seem to be there, on the quayside, watching the movement of the ship through water, I’m seeing the river, the water in motion, the waves ,each in clear detail ‘ lifting up their necks’. But then, ‘waves of the ocean’ suddenly puts me somewhere else and its at this point that I think, I’m looking over the stern of the ship, looking into that amazing water churn and trail that follows a big ship. What an enormous amount of movement! I have to look up the word ’emulous’ (seeking to emulate, or motivated by a spirit of rivalry). My attention is concentrated on the behaviour of individual waves. These three lines last a long time as I read them, and they all give me pictures of  the movement of the water in the wake of the ship. Then we move again, and see the ship from another place:

Where the great Vessel, sailing and tacking, displaced the surface;
Larger and smaller waves, in the spread of the ocean, yearnfully flowing;

Suddenly this like a view, the whole of the ship, ‘the great Vessel, sailing and tacking’: we pan out. The great Vessel, with its capital ‘V’  seems to gather a sort of power, or size, partly generated by the adjective great, partly  by the whoosh of looking up to the capital letter! Then the ship is past and we see the water again, notice the water. It’s as if our eye keeps seeing one part of it, Ship, sails, spars, water, a wave, more waves, ship. It’s so big, you have to look at it in pieces.

If we were reading this in a Shared Reading group what might happen? People might remember great ships they had seen, been on. We might talk about the difference between sail and steam. Someone in an old people’s home might have been a sailor or a ship’s entertainer or a Wren during the war and they might tell us about it. that is reading at a very long distance from the poem. but it is also the expression of thoughts, pictures, mind, memory generated by the text.  In Shared Reading groups that is as an important part of the literary experience.

I’m trying to think what has happened to me as I’ve read.

I think I’ve used all my memories (and false memories, bits of old film and telly) to fill out the language code of the poem with bits of my experience. I think I’ve remembered the water I watched many times as a child on the Mersey Ferry. (I allow myself to remember: when we moved to Liverpool in the summer I was eleven , I continued to attend Wirral Grammar School for a while – maybe a year? Half a year? Travelling by bus down to Ferry, then taking the ferry across to Woodside, then the bus  to Bebington. God knows how long took me each day to make that journey and I’m sure I must have often been late, but the ferry journey each morning (I don’t remember coming back at night!) was wonderful – the water lashing, the waves, the rain, the wind and the churn as we came to the landing stage, hypnotic.

I think all that was activated as I read, but also the experience of being on a tall ship at Liverpool’s Albert Dock, the noise the sail, the ‘white-gray’ of it. Other memories real or secondhand came too. the side of a great ship passing slowly by – probably from a film. The ship my uncle sailed to Australia on sometime in the 1960s.

The image generating part of my brain has had a full workout, making pictures of Whitman’s words. This isn’t a thought poem: I don’t think while reading it, I see. It’s a sketch I’ve enjoyed looking at, no, more like an experience than a sketch. Is that another category in my list of types of poem? Read it slowly, allow the pictures to bubble up to the surface.


An early recording of  the opening of ‘America’ , thought to be of Whitman himself, is available on this wikipedia page.

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