Today’s post was inspired by this writing prompt:
I’ve been thinking about this poem lately, so when I read the section in the above post aimed at poets, I thought of it right away.
E. J. Pratt’s “The Lee-Shore” is about the Atlantic Ocean, but while drafting
, I had it in my head when contemplating waves on the shore.
I first read it a few years ago, and my memory is of a fast-paced poem, but when I re-read it, I found three semicolons, which slowed it down considerably. I feel that the poem’s overall tempo is moderate, but parts of it are fast and some are slower.
The female narrator’s heart cries, “Come home, come home,” and presumably these words come in a flash of panic. I think that the melodic flow of the poem prevents any part of it from becoming very fast or really slow. How good is she at reading the signal light? How many times is the signal sent? Does the signaler make mistakes and need to repeat? Her love out there on the ocean is probably scared too, so maybe his hands aren’t working too well and perhaps she’s having trouble understanding the signal, so it’s possible that there’s repetition involved and the time needed to send and receive “not to-night” would take more time than the poem shows.
Reading about something is so much different from the real events. The poem (or a story) is like a summary of things, but the reader has to feel the emotions and imagine the fits and starts of events. When a great big wave comes rolling in, maybe her panic blooms, and then dies down a little when there’s a moment of relative calm. In a way, the tempo is quite fast, considering how packed with events the poem is. To complicate things just a little more, there’s also a sad rhythm of longing for her love to be with her. If her fear is greater than her feeling of missing him, then the rhythm of events would be a lot faster than if she’s mostly wishing he were there with her. I think the latter is possible; it almost seems that the storm is trying to help her when the foam says, “Keep away from the crash of the storm at its height, / Keep away from the land, keep away.” This warning is quite musical, as though the sea were saying not to worry and to try and get some sleep.
So much of writing is condensed and left to the Reader to imagine or fill in. For example, a slow going romance novel leaves things out, sometimes because they don’t add anything to the story, or because they’re more fun to imagine than to state plainly. An example of the former is if the main character gets a call from a telemarketer that has no impact on the budding relationship. Readers probably wouldn’t care if somebody doesn’t want to buy some product. The writer wouldn’t be serving the story very well if they included some random sales pitch in it. The latter point about leaving things to the imagination is more subtle. In Pratt’s poem, it doesn’t seem as though much is being left to the imagination until we consider tempo. Even if you don’t live by the ocean, I’d wager that everybody has experienced some kind of storm in their lives, and filling in those details allows Pratt to let the poem flow in a musical way, instead of having to try and capture the cacophony of the waves and wind. By doing so, he makes the storm seem friendly and lets us imagine what it must really have been like to be there. Our hypothetical romance works because most people know what love is, and also how it feels to struggle with wanting something that maybe isn’t attainable. We can fill in the details of the mundane and also put ourselves in the characters’ shoes to experience the love that might be made, or the tension in the room while important words remain unspoken.
In writing, tempo is probably going to be faster than in real life, but also flatter, because the writer can smooth out the jumps and the waves if desired, but they also have the opposite option of varying the tempo throughout. A romance can go along smoothly for a few pages, and then suddenly jump with tension. On the other hand, a poet writing melodic verse might be taking a risk if they tried to vary the tempo in the poem, but it wouldn’t do any harm to try it. Maybe Pratt’s storm is unrealistically personified, but it’s appealing nevertheless. It keeps the poem moving along effortlessly, and I wonder if Pratt was trying to make the point that if you pay attention, the sea usually gives warning of impending disaster, and nature isn’t bad or uncivilized.