These Old Poems #4:
James Joyce’s Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba & On the Beach at Fontana
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/11/02

  Okay, so this time I’m bending the rules & giving you an old fashioned 2-fer. The reason is because this ‘poet’ is not really a poet- rather a very poetic prosist- James Joyce. You know, the guy credited as the most influential prosist of the 20th Century. The reason I’m giving you a 2-fer is because not many people acquainted with the JJ of Dubliners, Stephen Hero, Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, Ulysses, or Finnegans Wake realize he released 2 slim books of poetry in his lifetime: 1907’s Chamber Music & 1927’s Pomes Penyeach. Both are terrible. Yes, musically they are sound- but overall they are triter than Thomas Hardy & dull as shit.
  The 2 titular poems are from the latter volume- easily the better book. The choice is to spare you the truly dreadful earlier poems. Let me state flatly- I believe JJ was a GREAT writer. But, he was not a great novelist- merely a pretty good 1, at best. The 2 viewpoints are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, JJ was a dreadful poet. He simply was not categorizable. I recall, years ago, when at the SUNY Brockport Writer’s Forum, a drunken professor who was a great JJ devotee, got into a row with some JJ detractors. The argument, however, had little to do with JJ’s writing- rather the crux was whether or not JJ suffered from syphilis, or not. The prof took the nay side- despite many bios to the contrary- from even JJ’s paramours. My point is few people can see JJ’s writing with an objective eye. Few not named Schneider, that is. Let’s hit the poems & show how each might’ve been improved.

Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba

I heard their young hearts crying
Loveward above the glancing oar
And heard the prairie grasses sighing:
No more, return no more!


O hearts, O sighing grasses,
Vainly your loveblown bannerets mourn!
No more will the wild wind that passes
Return, no more return.


  The title is fairly standard: an action at a certain place. The whole thrust of the poem- that of lost love & yearning- is trite. But we’ve read good & great poets resuscitate this dilemma before. Stanza 1: Line 1 is atrociously trite. Line 2 is the only good line as 3 & 4 are hackneyed as can be. Stanza 2: about 6 clichés in the whole stanza. Yet, the 2nd line of the stanza says something interesting. The problem is that it is terrible sounding- its music is gnashing.
  How to improve? Let’s gander:


Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba


I learned that young hearts crying,
Loveward above glancing oars,
Hear no prairie grass sighing:
No more, it is no more!


O sounds, forgotten grasses,
So vain your bannerets mourn!
No more the will that passes
Returns, no more returns.


  Line 1 now is less trite as it immediately 2nd persons the narrator- & allows for greater emotional freedom, & the whole trope of the stanza is less maudlin- especially lacking line 4’s initial injunction of ‘return no more!’ Plus the whole poem is far more musical as the rhythm has been greatly smoothed out- especially with the removal of the most clichéd parts! Stanza 2’s loss of ‘sighing’, ‘loveblown’, & ‘wild’, also leavens the poem away from melodrama. The speaker is portrayed less as a stereotype & more as a detached observer. As with many bad poems, this tweaking alone does not make it a really good poem- but it is a definite improvement: dramatically & musically. Another point to note is my almost unnoticed insertion of 2 commas in stanza 1. In the original lines 1 & 3 are separate acts, yet in the rewrite they can be read as separate, connected, &/or directly dependent upon each other. This is a small show of the power of punctuation that far too few poets, of any age, avail themselves of.
  On to the 2nd poem:


On the Beach at Fontana


Wind whines and whines the shingle,
The crazy pierstakes groan;
A senile sea numbers each single
Slimesilvered stone.


From whining wind and colder
Grey sea I wrap him warm
And touch his trembling fineboned shoulder
And boyish arm.


Around us fear, descending
Darkness of fear above
And in my heart how deep unending
Ache of love!


  The title is another ‘placement title’. Stanza 1 is actually a very intriguing narrative, description, & soundwise very perky & unpredictable- a good mimic of the described scene. Stanza 2 is not as good- but the last 2 lines are strong narratively. Thr descriptions of the wind & sea which precede it, however, suck. The music is not quite as strong. But stanza 3 is where it all hits the crapper. The clichés about fear, the heart, & love reek. Why would he go from such an audacious & interesting start to such a trite end? Simple. He wasn’t a good poet, & did not know how to latch on to something good he apparently stumbled on to. Now, with the poem’s glaring descent in mind, let’s hit it hard with a good rewrite:


Of the Beach at Fontana


Wind whines and whines the shingle,
The crazy pierstakes groan;
A senile sea numbers each single
Slimesilvered stone.


From warring wind comes bolder
Grey seas unwrapping warm
Touch from his trembling fineboned shoulder
And boyish arm.


Around us fear, preventing
The fear of darkness about
And in my heart, the steep unending
Ache they shout!


  The 1 letter change in the title- from n to f makes a big difference. ‘Of’ is a lot more nebulous- yet grand- than ‘On’. It also allows the poem to roam more easily- philosophically. Stanza 1 remains untouched. The 1st 2 lines of stanza 2 also leap upward with the switch from ‘whining’ to ‘warring’ wind & from ‘colder’ to ‘bolder’. That the wind ‘comes’ also makes the whole line, stanza, & poem more active. By having the sea unwrap its touch, rather than the speaker, we get a direct tie back to the title- as the whole world seems alive. Stanza 3 also gets notched upward with the near-rhyme presented by ‘preventing’- it mutes the dull quatrain while pits fear against itself- much more daring than darkness descending. The last couplet now ties the speaker directly & emotionally with the yowling & yelping world, rather than the original’s trite direct expression of sentiment.
  A so-so poem with potential has now become a daring poem- 1 which brings to mind some of the poems of John G. Neihardt that I discussed in a previous essay. The rewrite is also more in line with the general thrust of JJ’s prose writings. He was 1 who declared that he delighted in giving the critics puzzles to decipher in his writing. Odd, that such a daring prosist would be such a trite poet. His poems are so transparent it seems ludicrous to believe they could have come from a mind as JJ’s. But they did. Luckily, TOP exists to show the poets the errors of their ways!

Final Score (0-100):

James Joyce’s Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba: 50
TOP’s Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba: 65

James’ Joyce’s On the Beach at Fontana: 63
TOP’s Of the Beach at Fontana: 88

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