Over the years, I’ve been drawn to Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ at times of lonely solitude. The poem is very aware of the individual’s minuteness in the grand scheme of things, and very emotive:
‘Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.’
But Arnold’s narrator finds ‘melancholy’, and what I read as separation from the sea. My own experiences of paying attention to nature’s ‘notes’ are more like inclusion. For me, there’s the sense of being part of a bigger, powerful, continuing picture, even if only in a small way. This response feels closer to Niedecker’s ‘Museum’ where layout reinforces the powerful spare message by vertically aligning ‘A man’, ‘Himself’ and ‘clam’:
‘ A man
bends to inspect
That Niedecker’s lines feature a shell beached up in a museum is bitterly ironic. In my lifetime alone, coastlines have suffered from erosion, pollution and global warming. Many current beaches and could easily become future (underwater) museums.
Of course, in a sense, everything is a museum of what it once was, including people; it’s whether those changes and adaptations are for the better or worse. My discovery of the thrill of outdoor exercise and new-found appreciation of nature date from a period when, for the first time in my life, I’d no immediate goals to strive for. My sons were settled in middle and high school, so neither my days nor my thoughts were structured around them as they had been previously. I wasn’t needed in the same totally encompassing way either. I’d also just completed a masters in creative writing; this had been hard work to fit in at the time, but finishing now left me without a sense of purpose. My cycling was necessarily confined to set routes, but my walking mirrored this lack of direction, often becoming wandering or exploring, even on holiday. On one visit to Newquay, I found myself in a Southern England version of Jen Hadfield’s striking Shetland ‘Daed-traa’:
‘I go to the rockpool at the slack of the tide
to mind me what my poetry’s for.’
Staring at the sharp limpets, mussels and barnacles clinging to the rocks in front of me, I realised that previously I’d probably have walked past without knowing what I’d missed. Lack of purpose was also ‘time to stand and stare’ as W.H. Davies puts it in his poem ‘Leisure’.
Early empty nest syndrome hit me in waves at different beaches over a few years. Each time, as I watched the sea surge, roll in and unfurl as surf, I felt the swell, rush and crash of pain and fear inside me (like Arnold perhaps). But these emotions dissipated as I was struck by the size and strength of the real tides. The poetry that resulted from this feels more like the beaches’ than my own, full of movement and mingling, friction and flection, sifting and settling. I can watch, feel, taste the lines but my presence within these poems is little more than a scratched trace in the sand that will be smoothed away with the next surf. I recognise too that the same is true of any poem that I write, and my presence more generally in the world. This still terrifies my ego, and yet, not as much as it once would have. Instead of being overwhelmed by painful emotions, I’m reminded to make the most of what I have while I have it. Simply breathing (and surviving) is purpose – a purpose shared by many species, I think, as I recall Susan Richardson’s blue shark poem, ‘Watched’:
“[…] Always flossing the loss
from your teeth. Always sleeking
with relief that we’re still here.”
If we can leave a small positive (rather than negative) trace as a person or as a writer than that is a bonus. But the actual living, writing, crafting and reading experiences in themselves remain the most important parts for me, the parts that give energy, that small ‘oh’ of wonder or ‘ah’ of satisfaction.
Bibliography – Part Four
Arnold, Matthew, ‘Dover Beach’ <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43588/dover-beach>.
Hadfield, Jen, ‘Daed-traa’, Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe Books, 2008), p.35.
Niedecker, Lorine, ‘Museum’, Lorine Niedecker Collected Works (University of California Press, 2002), ed. by Jenny Penberthy, p. 239.
Richardson, Susan, ‘Watched’, Words the Turtle Taught Me (Cinnamon Press, 2018), p. 24.
Some of the photo-poems in these articles were previously published in: ‘Photo-poems – Visual Art and Poetry Collaboration for a High-tech Age’ on The High Window (https://thehighwindowpress.com/2018/10/23/s-a-leavesley-photo-poems-visual-art-and-poetry-collaboration-for-a-high-tech-age/, Oct 2018).