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Carl Sandburg's "Young Sea"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Carl Sandburg

Introduction and Text of "Young Sea"

Carl Sandburg's "Young Sea" is composed of six free verse paragraphs, or versagraphs (a term coined by Linda Sue Grimes), which are uneven, ranging from two lines to five lines of unrimed, rhythmless word groupings. The speaker makes several claims that reveal rather mundane observations about the ocean.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error."

Young Sea

The sea is never still.
It pounds on the shore
Restless as a young heart,
Hunting.

The sea speaks
And only the stormy hearts
Know what it says:
It is the face
of a rough mother speaking.

The sea is young.
One storm cleans all the hoar
And loosens the age of it.
I hear it laughing, reckless.

They love the sea,
Men who ride on it
And know they will die
Under the salt of it

Let only the young come,
Says the sea.

Let them kiss my face
And hear me.
I am the last word
And I tell
Where storms and stars come from.

Reading of "Young Sea"

Commentary

The natural phenomenon known as the "sea" or "ocean" deserves better, and one would expect so much better from a poet as accomplished as Carl Sandburg—but nevertheless, here it is, worts and all.

First Versagraph: Unremarkable Opening

The sea is never still.
It pounds on the shore
Restless as a young heart,
Hunting.

The first versagraph begins with an unremarkable claim, one that a five-year-old might notice after her first fifteen minutes of ocean observation: "The sea is never still."

Then the speaker continues with another unremarkable observation, "It pounds on the shore," which is not grammatically accurate: he means, "it pounds upon the shore." The sea is not already on the shore; it has to travel upon the shore before it can "pound" there.

The lines, "Restless as a young heart, / Hunting," offer the first sign of poetic life in the poem. Here the sea is likened metaphorically, actually similically, to a young person who is "restless" and searching for something in life.

Second Versagraph: Precision Missing

The sea speaks
And only the stormy hearts
Know what it says:
It is the face
of a rough mother speaking.

In the second versagraph, the speaker offers a bit more substantial fare, as he claims that when the sea speaks, it speaks to those who are restless, those with a "stormy heart." He dramatizes the sea's offering by asserting, "It is the face / of a rough mother speaking."

The reader might assume that by "rough mother," he means a firm and disciplining mother, but the poet could have been more helpful if he had looked for a more precise term.

Third Versagraph: Metaphors Going Nowhere

The sea is young.
One storm cleans all the hoar
And loosens the age of it.
I hear it laughing, reckless.

Even though the sea is a "rough mother," in the third versagraph, the speaker asserts

that the sea is young, a young mother one presumes, unless the poem is merely a list of metaphors going nowhere.

The speaker then asserts that a storm clears the frost and makes the sea appear ageless. The speaker attests to hearing the sea laugh and declares that it is "reckless."

Fourth Versagraph: It Does Not Kill Everyone

They love the sea,
Men who ride on it
And know they will die
Under the salt of it

Sailors, explorers, and other "[m]en who ride on it" are the ones who love the sea. And even as they love it, they "know they will die / Under the salt of it." The reader will wonder how they know this, and why, since not all those who have ventured upon sea have died under its salt.

Fifth Versagraph: Ageism

Let only the young come,
Says the sea.

The fifth versagraph consists of only two lines wherein the sea speaks asking only that young people come to the sea—an unusual prejudice for an old thing like the ocean to harbor—(no pun intended, well . . . maybe).

Sixth Versagraph: Vapid to the End

Let them kiss my face
And hear me.
I am the last word
And I tell
Where storms and stars come from.

The sixth versagraph unfortunately does not rescue the vapidity of this work. The lines, "Let them kiss my face / And hear me," are unrelated to the final three, in which the speaker is making a failed attempt to allude to navigation tools and events. Sailors once employed the stars as guides for navigating to distance places, and they often encountered storms during their travels. But the sea did not "tell" them anything, much less the origin of stars; it merely provided a watery roadway on which navigate.

One comes away from this piece still wondering, why does the sea want only the young to come and kiss its face? And when the sea claims: "I am the last word / And I tell / Where storms and stars come from," what reader could resist responding, "No, I don't think you do"?

A Piece of Stink

The accomplished poet, Carl Sandburg, has written here a stinker. This example of poetastry bombs on so many levels: message, form, experiential, spiritual, truth-telling, etc.

As a poetry commentarian, when I write about stinkers like this one, I have asked myself: is this piece of doggerel worth wasting your time with? There are so many poems — worthwhile poems—which need a commentary: should I be spending valuable time on this one?

The answer is: Students and other neophytes to the poetry reading endeavor need to see the poems that have not measured up to poetic scrutiny. That, dear readers, is the reason that I bother to comment on "poems" that have not actually achieved the level we call "poem."

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the character of the sea?

Answer: According to this deluded speaker, the sea is young and very restless, and it speaks nonsense.

Question: What does the last stanza mean?

Answer: The speaker has the sea saying, "Let them kiss my face / And hear me." Well, perhaps a good solid smack in the face by a wave could pass as a kiss, and it would be heard as well. Then the sea claims: "I am the last word / And I tell / Where storms and stars come from," which is a ludicrous thing to have the sea say because the sea is not the "last word" and does not inform about the origin of storms and stars.

Question: When the sea speaks, who understands it?

Answer: According to the speaker, only those with "stormy hearts" can understand when the sea speaks.

Question: What does the storm do to the sea in Sandburg's "Young Sea"?

Answer: Storms make the sea rough and choppy.

Question: What do the following lines means, "I am the last word/And I tell /Where storms and stars come from."?

Answer: The speaker is making a failed attempt to allude to navigation tools and events. Sailors once employed the stars as guides for navigating to distant places, and they often encountered storms during their travels. But the sea did not "tell" them anything, it merely provided a watery roadway on which navigate.

Question: Is the sea used as a metaphor?

Answer: In Sandburg's "Young Sea," the sea remains literal, that is, it is nothing other than itself, while the various claims made about it include uses of personification.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on December 08, 2015:

Thank you, whonu! Indeed, Sandburg in one of the greats, despite a lapse or two. W. B. Yeats had some serious lapses, also, and he's considered one the greatest of the greats! Gives us all hope, really!

whonunuwho from United States on December 08, 2015:

As poets we all have our good and bad days in writing. Sandburg had many successful poems and though he may have not sparkled in each one, overall did a fair days work. Thanks for your reminder that we all could stand for a little polishing on occasion. whonu