Category Archives: one poem, two forms

‘Old Sailors’ – one poem, two forms

Two tars talked of sealing and sailing; one said with a sigh
“Remember gulls wheeling and wailing, we wondering why,
“And noting bells pealing, sun paling — it vanished like pie!
“And then the boat heeling, sky hailing, the wind getting high,
“And that drunken Yank reeling to railing and retching his rye,
“John missing his Darjeeling jailing, and calling for chai?
“While we battened, all kneeling and nailing, the hurricane nigh,
“And me longing for Ealing, and ailing?”
His mate said “Aye-aye;
“I could stand the odd stealing, food staling, not fit for a sty,
“And forget any feeling of failing, too vast to defy –
“Home-leaving your peeling-paint paling too far to espy –
“All because of the healing friend-hailing, the hello! and hi!
“And, with the gulls squealing, quick-scaling the mast to the sky.”

That was the original version, published in Snakeskin. Two sailors talking, each with a long, rambling reminiscence. When I submitted the poem to Beth Houston for consideration for the ‘Extreme Formal Poems: Contemporary Poets‘ anthology she was assembling, she suggested reformatting it to break each line between the two talkers, leading to a rapidfire (and constantly interrupted) flow of memories.

Two tars talked of sealing and sailing,
One said with a sigh:
“Remember gulls wheeling and wailing—”
“We wondering why—”
“And noting bells pealing, sun paling—”
“It vanished like pie!”
“And then the boat heeling, sky hailing—”
“The wind getting high…”
“And that drunken Yank reeling to railing—”
“And retching his rye!”
“John missing his Darjeeling jailing—”
“And calling for chai—”
“Us battening, kneeling and nailing—”
“The hurricane nigh!”
“Me longing for Ealing, and ailing—”
“This mate said ‘Aye-aye’—”
“I’d stand the odd stealing, food staling—”
“Not fit for a sty!”
“Forget any feeling of failing—”
“Too vast to defy!”
“Home-leaving your peeling-paint paling—”
“Too far to espy—”
“Because of the healing friend-hailing—”
“The hello! The hi!”
“And, with the gulls squealing, quick-scaling—”
“The mast to the sky.”

Here the two sailors alternate every half-line. (I’m having difficulty insetting the second half in WordPress, the way it shows up in the printed book.) Beth Houston made a couple of other editorial changes, in part to create better sense within this alternation (for example, the original break of ‘His mate said “Aye-aye” is modified to “This mate said ‘Aye-aye’—”) and in part because her Extreme Formalism manifests in rigourous syllable-counting, and she ruthlessly eliminates the occasional excess syllable at the beginning of a line which I allow for conversational flow.

But I find it interesting to see essentially the same poem structured in two different ways. Does it make a difference? Does the new variant lose the “good nautical rhythm” and “finely composed wordy-whirlwind of images” that others have commented on, or does it enhance them? Is version preferable to the other? Does one read more easily, or is one more vivid, or is one easier to memorise? I’m stuck on this, and need outside opinions. I would truly appreciate a comment below from anyone reading this.