Guest poem submitted by Mark Penney:
(Poem #1597) Voyages - I
Above the fresh ruffles of the surf Bright striped urchins flay each other with sand. They have contrived a conquest for shell shucks, And their fingers crumble fragments of baked weed Gaily digging and scattering. And in answer to their treble interjections The sun beats lightning on the waves, The waves fold thunder on the sand; And could they hear me I would tell them: O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog, Fondle your shells and sticks, bleached By time and the elements; but there is a line You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it Spry cordage of your bodies to caresses Too lichen-faithful from too wide a breast. The bottom of the sea is cruel.
Comment: The archives have strangely neglected Hart Crane; there's been just one of his poems before. He died very young (32) and his oeuvre is small -- the Complete Poems of Hart Crane is just 250 pages -- but still, it seems weird to ignore one of the seminal poets of the first half of the 20th century. Crane is one of those people (Sylvia Plath is another, Rimbaud too) where knowing the poet's biography hugely changes the way you read the poetry. But ignore what you know about HC for a moment (if you know anything at all, that is), because this is a great poem even without reading Crane's life into it. I love the way this poem captures the fundamental innocence of children playing on the beach, while simultaneously pointing out the inherent lack of innocence in the scene. Even the kids' play itself is less than innocent: "conquest," "scattering," "crumble," etc.; and they're playing with sticks "bleached by time and the elements." The surf and the sun, normally pleasant images, are transformed by Crane into a thunderstorm. The third stanza, of course, gives you the reason for all this transformation of a happy day at the beach into a grim foreboding: "there is a line you must not cross," for the sea will seduce you and then drown you. "The bottom of the sea is cruel" has a grim certainty about it that contrasts mightily with the fluidity of all the imagery that comes before it. It's almost like the poem is betraying you, in the same way that the speaker says that the sea will. Is the speaker of the poem being overprotective? Overly worried about these kids? How, after all, can he know from experience that "the bottom of the sea is cruel"? Or is the sea being used as a metaphor for lost innocence in a larger sense? I love the ambiguities in this poem. And then there's the fact that when Crane wrote the "Voyages" sequence (this poem and five others that follow it) he was having an affair with a Danish sailor. "There is a line you must not cross"? Oodles of ink have been used up, in academic circles, arguing about what "Voyages" might or might not have to say on the subject of homosexuality. And then there's the eerie fact that Crane committed suicide by jumping off a ship . . . You see what I mean about how the biography changes the poem. --Mark