Sunday, 6 April 2014

W. H. Auden - Fleet Visit

I wouldn’t say this is one of my most favourite poems, though it has got pedigree style – W. H. Auden’s, Fleet Visit.  I put it in my collection because it’s about sailors and ships and I’m reluctant to reject any poem that takes me some way out to sea.  Still, the poem does get my back up a bit, because Auden obviously viewed the life of the Naval man as a wasted, purposeless life – even disdain and contempt, verse 3, ‘The whore and ne’er do well ……… at least, are serving the Social Beast; They (sailors) neither make nor sell – No wonder they (sailors) get drunk.’  From that, I can see Wystan would never have joined the Navy.  The poem breaks up into two parts – comment on the sailors and what he thinks of sailors in general (first three verses), and an acknowledgement in the last two verses that a warship’s design is a beautiful thing to look at, ‘pure abstract design, By some master of pattern and line.’  A warship riding at anchor is an impressive sight and even though Auden admits this, he can’t help taking a final swipe at the wasteful purpose of the whole thing, ‘Certainly worth every cent, Of the millions they must have cost.’ …………. Not!

Fleet Visit
(W. H. Auden 1907 - 1973)
The sailors come ashore
Out of their hollow ships,
Mild-looking middle-class boys
Who read the comic strips;
One baseball game is more
To them than fifty Troys.
They look a bit lost, set down
In this un-American place
Where natives pass with laws
And futures of their own;
They are not here because
But only just-in-case.
The whore and ne’er-do-well
Who pester them with junk
In their grubby ways at least
Are serving the Social Beast;
They neither make nor sell –
No wonder they get drunk.
But the ships on the dazzling blue
Of the harbor actually gain
From having nothing to do;
Without a human will
To tell them whom to kill
Their structures are humane.
And, far from looking lost,
Look as if they were meant
To be pure abstract design
By some master of pattern and line,
Certainly worth every cent
Of the millions they must have cost.

Auden wrote Fleet Visit in 1951.  The sailors are American and I would say the port visit is around Turkey or Greece (‘…fifty Troys’).  If you can get past the somewhat Navy/military bashing mood of the poem, then there’s a discovery that the structure is quite good (very good, for me).  Two things I look for in a poem – ‘content’ and ‘construction’.  I forgive Auden the content because he didn’t have a clue, never been there.  But for the structure, I admire the neat rhyme pattern and meter.

Discovering Auden’s, Fleet Visit got me digging back through drafts of a poem I once wrote about sailors and ships.  I called it, The Ship’s Plans, and I think it makes a fitting link to Fleet Visit.  When I dusted The Ship’s Plans off, I was surprised to find that I’d actually written the original draft in a three feet meter (trochaic trimeter), same as Auden, and I wrote it with five verses – same as Auden.  That’s where similarity finishes.  My poem is a fitting counter to the suggestion from Auden’s Fleet Visit that the whole business of warships and sailors is not an ennobling profession.  I disagree with that suggestion and it’s what I try to convey.  One thing I do agree on is that a ship is but a cold, inanimate object without her crew.  It may be ‘pattern and line’, ‘abstract design’, but it’s those ‘middle-class boys’ through their daily human interaction that breathe into a ship all the emotions of success, laughter, struggle, disappointment, joy, friendship, failure, perseverance ……. they give her a heart.  And far from being an inhumane heart, one that simply and indiscriminately, ‘tell(s) them whom to kill’, heart comes from a brave, free world with all the organization, skill, knowledge and know-how to take a ship to sea

1999.  I was browsing through a second hand book shop in Sydney.  In the military section I noticed an old man, bent over, intent on looking at fold out drawings in a book.  I moved closer to see what the book was.  It was a historical, technical publication on a type of WWII destroyer or corvette – maybe the Tribal class or even the Daring.  I felt he was not going to buy the book.  His interest was in re-living memories.
The Ship’s Plans

Old man,
Looking at the ship’s plans,
Boy, but does it feel good,
Would you like to be there,
Living where you once stood,
Spray salt wind in dark hair,
Sun upon your back tanned.
Old man,
Were you once the third hand,
Standing on the deck plates,
In the after fire room,
Did you make it first mate,
Maybe in the wardroom,
Braided gold on cap band.
Old man,
Remember while you still can,
All the lines and detail,
Just the way you left her,
Sweeping bow to fan-tail,
The swell of ocean summer,
Ship’s side smartly manned.
Old man,
Together at Tapaktuan,
Sailed into the Black Sea,
Joined her in Southhampton,
With lads ashore in Sydney,
Shipmates and companions,
Skipping down the gangplank.
Old man,
The catapult and capstan,
Maintop, bridge and wheelhouse,
Before the bosun’s store,
Magazines and gun mounts,
Just as you had left her,
There on the old ship’s plan.
                                                                                          J. O. White

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