Thursday, 8 November 2012

John Masefield - Navy poems.

When I think I might like to write poems of the Navy, sailors, ships and the sea, there is no greater master and influence than John Masefield (1878 - 1967). Of course his best known poem is 'Sea Fever'.   Everybody knows it and so did I:
  "I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and
              the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white
             sails shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea's face and a gray dawn
But it was another Masefield poem that got me trying to imitate him in an attempt to express my own experiences at sea - A Ballad of John Silver.  This is a rollicking pirate verse that absolutely creates the time of pirates of old under sail.  It's got an 'aarh me hearty' rythme to it that begs one to commit it to memory and recite aloud while driving to work.  It's the voice and the accent that comes through - spoken as if there was a pirate romanticly reminiscent of the good old days.  I don't think you can write something like this unless you have intimate knowledge of the subject.  Masefield was never a pirate, but he certainly spent time at sea in sailing ships and maybe there were pirates they came across.  In a poem, content is one thing, and then there's the crafting.  It's when you come across a poem you love that you start pulling it apart, to see how it was put together:

A Ballad of John Silver (John Masefield)
We were schooner-rigged and rakish, with a long and
      lissome hull,
And we flew the pretty colours of the cross-bones and the
We'd a big black Jolly Roger flapping grimly at the
And we sailed the Spanish Water in the happy days of
We'd a long brass gun amidships, like a well-conducted
We had each a brace of pistols and a cutlass at the hip;
It's a point which tells against us, and a fact to be
But we chased the goodly merchant-men and laid their
      ships aboard.
Each verse is constructed with four lines (quatrains), with each pair of lines rhyming (couplets).  To me, the meter is seven beats (heptameter):
Then the dead men fouled the scuppers and the wounded
      filled the chains,
And the paint-work all was spatter-dashed with other
      people's brains,
She was boarded, she was looted, she was scuttled till
      she sank,
And the pale survivors left us by the medium of the
O! then it was (while standing by the taffrail on the
We could hear the drowning folk lament the absent
Then having washed the blood away, we'd little else to
Than to dance a quiet hornpipe as the old salts taught
      us to.
O! the fiddle on the fo'c's'le, and the slapping naked
And the genial "Down the middle, Jake, and curtsey
      when she rolls!"
With the silver seas around us and the pale moon over-
And the look-out not a-looking and his pipe-bowl glowing
      red.  ..............
You could almost want to be a pirate, except for the 'washing blood away' bit.  With 'John Silver' in my head I had to give it a go.  My poem "Tankermen" is un-ashamedly influenced by John Masefield.  Is that plagiarism or copyright or something?  I'm mindful of 'Men at Work' ripping off a riff out of 'Kookaburra in the old gum tree' and getting into trouble.  No, I do feel 'Tankermen' captures some of what it was like to be on a Navy tanker or oiler in the 70's and I could not have re-created that without learning from the masters.

2010. I served three years on HMAS Supply, 1978—1980.  Supply was built in 1952 at Harland and Wollf shipyard,
Ireland.  She was flogged by the Royal Navy fleet auxiliary before being handed over to the RAN in 1962.

We were tough, tenacious tanker-men,
  on a broken rusting wreck,
And we spent more time in harbour,
  than ever on a heaving deck,
We had long black lengths of fuelling hose,
  like a proper oiler should,
And a tension winch set forrard
  of where the after Castle stood.

In the fleet we held no status,
  being told to trail behind,
For others played the dashing game,
  while we just killed off time,
But if you thinks we were a harmless bunch,
  have another think my tar,
Cos we could’ve blown em all to hell,
  with the touch of a lit cigar.

As for the oils and grease, and the fuels and gas,
  products of our trade,
The one you thinks could hurt us,
  well it hadn’t yet been made,
So we’d oil our backs with OMD,
  til we shone with a lustrous sheen,
And wash our hair with avgas too,
  and bathe in diesoline.

Aah, standing on the tank deck,
  with shorts and sandals ought,
A DDG in a break away,
  and another replenishing port,
With the pumps now fully pumping,
  and the jack-stays dripping wet,
And the skipper yelling signalman,
  send the Daring she’s up next.

Then settled down beside us,
  we’d pitch on a gentle tide,
Like as if we dozed an old grey sow,
  umbillicalled either side,
And the dozing seemed to lull us,
  on a true and steady course,
Two hundred nautical miles south,
  and a hundred steaming north.
And when the fuelling was all over,
  it’s beer up for each mess,
And the clickity clack of mah-jong bones,
  played on the open deck,
Be the sun is scorching high above,
  burning the China Sea,
Or the moon’s a silver shining ball,
  low on the distant lee.
Aah, the tankermen of yesteryear,
  with their big old lumbering ships,
Have put away the heaving lines,
  and packed up all their kit,
For the maritime safety naval board,
  made up some silly rules,
So away the men with their lives at risk,
and away the furnace fuel.
                                              J.O. White

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