Women writing sea poetry? Not much of it about.

The sheets of my heart
snapped taut to breaking, as a gale
stronger than longing filled the sail
inside me.

There's lovely, but more widely I find a dearth of strong poetry about the sea by women. There's plenty of great poems by men of course, most famously John Masefield's thundering cry to 'go down to the sea in ships' in Sea Fever. I am not claiming knowledge of all poetry across all time but still there seems little of it. I know of only two poets writing about the experience of the sea itself; the Portuguese Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, and our own, incomparable Welsh Gwyneth Lewis. I will come back to them in a moment.

There's lots of poems about the coast, about looking out to sea and comparing what is seen to something else. Even Sappho, island writer, only speaks of ships to dismiss them: 'some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest sight on this dark earth, but I say it is whatever you desire' (trans Balmer).  Various highflown women of the long, Romantic 19th century gaze outwards from the shore. Amy Lowell asks 'sea shell, sing me a song' and gothic Ann Radcliffe described the sailor's 'sad bride'. Dorothea McKellar cranes to catch 'one far glimpse of the open sea'.  In 1874 Frances Ridley Havergal publishes the excruciating Under the Surface in which she rhapsodises about the 'lilies white' on the surface, while bemoaning the 'slimy tangle and oozy moans' beneath.  I am sure she didn't mean the interpretations thrust upon the words by this polluted twenty-first century reader.

All the poems in the last paragraph (except Sappho) are in the National Trust's Favourite Poems of the Sea, a book about which I could rant for some time. Let me merely point out that only seven of the 56 poets represented are female and I do not think any were writing after the second world war. Even with the imposed restriction of the United Kingdom, the omission of Gwyneth Lewis is a scandal.

Adrienne Rich, the American poet who is one of my all-time favourites, rarely wrote about the sea.  In Diving Into The Wreck, she uses it as an unfamiliar rite of passage to confront uncertain memory saying 'there is no one/to tell me when the ocean will begin'. (Incidentally the link at the poet's name a youtube of her reading it, which is lovely.) She says 'the sea is another story, the sea is not a question of power ...you breathe differently down here.' In the poem she shifts from being the uncertain diver, to the discoverer, a mermaid, the ship herself and her 'half-destroyed instruments' and then finally the returners, the anonymous attendant figures at the edges of the mythology of the sea. For her, the ocean is a passage, a way to memory held half-buried and blurred. Although she is in search of 'the thing itself', for her, the ocean is not the thing.

Now we come to the first of my two favourites. The astonishing Portuguese poet Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen wrote constantly about the sea. Even the titles of her three collections translated into English show that:  Log BookShores, Horizons, Voyages; and Marine Rose. There are so many of her poems I could quote in full so I encourage you to look her up.  One is Discovery which opens with the beautiful lines 'Green-muscled ocean/Idol of many arms like an octopus.' Here we find a poet who is writing about the sea itself, the ocean as she sees it, not as metaphor or mythology. Like Akhmatova  she always wanted her work to be rooted in reality.  She said 'poetry is my understanding of the universe, my way of relating to things, my participation in reality.' Again, she was very popular in her home country, the first woman to receive the highest Portuguese award for poetry, the “Prémio Camões”. She is not well-enough known in English but there's an article about her here. (I wasn't able to get consent for publishing the poem so do follow the link to read it all. It is 13 lines long.)  

Finally I must praise Gwyneth Lewis. The first national poet of Wales she writes in both languages and I am glad Sea Fever is in English because I could not otherwise read it. This is the only poem I know of about the lure of the open sea, the particular nostalgia for freedom evoked by a sailing boat. It must be informed by the journey she made with her husband from Cardiff to North Africa in their small yacht Jameeleh, which she describes in her memoir Two in a Boat. Lewis knows what it is to feel that restlessness and the pull of the horizon, to know that she will be cold and frightened and yet still need to set out to sea. The lines at the top of this post are from Sea Virus, but I haven't heard from her agent to give me consent to publish it in full here: you can read it on the Poetry International site, and it's also quite short.  

As a final postscript, and feeling cheeky in such illustrious company, I add my own prose poem December:Dusk, in which the narrator floats in the liminal inter-tidal zone, at peace after the voyage. You can find it here on the lovely Ink, Sweat & Tears website which published it in 2014.

(The picture at the top is Roaring Girl's cruising chute, poled out and full of wind off the east coast of Spain in 2013, pulling us hard for Gibraltar.)


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  1. Nice, Sarah. And I hadn’t known that Gwyneth Lewis also writes in Welsh, so thanks for that.

  2. Great post, Sarah. I’m tempted – tongue firmly in cheek – to add Stevie Smith’s NOT WAVING BUT DROWNING to the list. And do you know Sener Jeter Naslund’s AHAB’S WIFE? A novel, but her writing about the sea is really poetry without the line spaces.

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