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The Ocean -- Dar Williams

Guest poem sent in by J. Goard ()
(Poem #1682) The Ocean
 When I went to your town on the wide open shore,
 Oh, I must confess, I was drawn, I was drawn to the ocean.
       I thought it spoke to me.
 It said, "Look at us: we're not churches, not schools,
       Not skating ponds, swimming pools,
 But we've lost people, haven't we though?"
 Oh, that's what the ocean can know of a body,
 And that's when I came back to town.
 This town is a song about you.
 You don't know how lucky you are.
 You don't know how much I adore you.
 You are a welcoming back from the ocean.

 I went back to the ocean today,
 With my books and my papers, I went to the rocks by the ocean.
       But the weather changed quickly.
 The ocean said, "What are you trying to find?
       I don't care, I'm not kind,
 I have bludgeoned your sailors, I have spat out their keepsakes.
 Oh, it's ashes to ashes, but always the ocean."
 But the ocean can't come to this town.
 This town is a song about you.
 You don't know how lucky you are.
 You don't know how much I adore you.
 You are a welcoming back from the ocean.

 For the ones that can know you so well
 Are the ones that can swallow you whole.
 I have a good, and I have an evil.
 I thought the ocean, the ocean thought nothing.
 You are a welcoming back from the ocean.

 I didn't go back today.
 I wanted to show you that I was more land than water.
       I went to pick flowers.
 Oh, I brought them to you – "Look at me, look at them,
       With their salt up the stem."
 But you frowned, and I smiled, as I tried to arrange them.
 You said, "Let me tell you the song of this town."
 You said, "Everything closes at five.
 After that, well, you've just got the bars.
 You don't know how precious you are,
 Walking around with your little shoes dangling.
 I am the one who lives with the ocean.
 It's where we came from, you know,
 And sometimes, I just want to go back.
 After a day, we'll drink till we're drowning,
 Walk to the ocean, wade in in our work boots,
 Wade in our work boots, try to finish the job.
 You don't know how precious you are.
 I am the one who lives with the ocean.
 You don't know how I am the one.
 You don't know how I am the one.
-- Dar Williams
Dar Williams is a singer-songwriter whose work is typically classified as
folk-pop.  Her songs range from the simple and melodic to the richly
orchestrated to the rather "talky", but her writing presents a consistently
high standard of poetic craft.  (Some other outstanding examples of musical
poetry include "When Sal's Burned Down", "February", "The End of the
Summer", and "Southern California Wants to be Western New York".)  I have
heard second-hand that she has referred to "The Ocean" as her "only rock
song"; this assertion seems somewhat more plausible up to the time of the
song's release (her second of five albums) then it does today, but even so,
it strikes me that its consistently anapestic verse speaks to a greater
connection with folk or blues.

In "The Ocean", we are presented with a narrator and an interlocutor (most
likely a lover but possibly a close friend or relative); the narrator's
perspective is developed until the third full verse, in which a presumably
taciturn interlocutor is moved to challenge this perspective as highly
presumptuous.  In general terms, the narrator is revealed as an artsy or
intellectual type ("my books and my papers"; "little shoes dangling") with
volatile emotions, while the interlocutor is more of a stolid, reliable

Irony abounds in this work.  Take, for example, the contrast between the
narrator's plea, "I wanted to show you that I was more land than water", and
her revealed preference for drawing attention to "the salt up the stem",
i.e., the visible effects of the ocean.  Similarly, the insistence that "the
ocean can't come to this town" is belied by the actions of the very person
who asserts it, in essence bringing the ocean into the town by incessantly
expressing her despair.

Yet we can pursue this analysis a step further: an analogy seems warranted
between the distressing effect of the ocean on the narrator, and the effect
of the narrator on people close to her.  From this vantage point, the song
takes on a more sinister tone.  (Do you like my mixed metaphor? :-> )  Given
the narrator's clear identification with the ocean in the first verse, and
her revealed condescension ("You don't know how lucky you are...") and
carelessness toward a loved one, the frightening description of the ocean in
the second verse might be seen as a (wholly unaware) self- description of a
person with sociopathic tendencies, who believes that she is uniquely
attuned to despair and angst, and who has a generally draining effect on

"The Ocean" is among Williams' most profound work, and likely her most
intricate.  In its literary structure, my first comparisons would be to the
dramatic monologues of Robert Browning ("My Last Duchess"; "Soliloquy of the
Spanish Cloister"), and to Nabokov novels such as "Lolita" and "Pale Fire",
with disturbed and delusional narrators bouncing their heavily filtered
worldviews against much more balanced, sympathetic, and curious characters.

One final point: punctuation of the final line (okay, the final two
identical lines) is difficult, and any choice risks misleading.  The rhythm
of this line, as with the earlier "You don't know how..." lines, has the
expected two-syllable pause in its anapestic rhythm ( ' - - ' / ' - - ' ),
so that it could be interpreted either as two sentences (i.e., "You don't
know how to live with the ocean.  I am the one who knows.") or as one (i.e,
"You're not aware of the fact that (or the way that) I live with the
ocean.")  I personally prefer the latter sense, but it's probably even
better that there's a lasting ambiguity.

J Goard


There's an official Dar Williams site at

39 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

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Dar Williams is one of the most great writers in the new poetry, I used to read about this topic when I was young, I love two sentences in this poem.

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It is a fantastic poem, I love all your publications so far, so many unusual poems, in a good way of course.

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