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Poetry Through a Poet's Eyes

Tides by Mary Oliver Everyday the sea blue gray green lavender pulls away leaving the harbor’s dark-cobbled undercoat slick and rutted and worm-riddled, the gulls walk there among the old whalebones, the white spines of fish blink from the strandy stew as the sick hours tick over; and then far out the faint, sheer line turns, rustling over the snack, the outer bars, over the green-furred flats, over the clam beds, slippery logs, barnacle-studded stones, dragging the shining sheets forward, deepening, pushing, wreathing together wave and seaweed, their piled curvatures spilling over themselves, lapping, blue gray green lavender, never resting, not ever but fashioning shore, continent, everything. And here you may find me on almost every morning walking along the shore so lightfooted so casual. I will go through this poem, stanza by stanza, pointing out what is conspicuous or note-worthy to me, and explaining how it contributes to the overall sensation of the piece. The first stanza starts with a sort of emphasis of the sea’s permanence and abstraction–

Oliver is not merely speaking of the sea in a daily, mundane sense (as the rest of the poem will show), but the fact that it’s presence is felt every single day, without rest, and that feeling comes through in its shimmering colors, delivered with no commas in-between: blue gray green lavender. The start of the second stanza also makes good use of the lack of commas; the flow of the phrase “slick and rutted and worm-riddled” is disrupted by the use of “and” rather than a comma, giving it a somewhat jumbled delivery, reminiscent of seabed itself, a jumbled mass of shells, sand, worms, weeds, and stones. The second stanza ends with a broken phrase that leads right into the third. The use of “and then” is not just a simple transition, but is effective in that it adds a slight degree of tension, not altogether unlike using the same phrase in a campfire story right before jumping into a frightening sequence. This time, of course, the tension is positive, instead starting the process of looking out beyond the shores, the lines of shallow waves dragging back and forth over the flats and seaweed. This “phrase break” adds a steady, gentle flow to the poem as a whole, occurring between all of the stanzas except for one… The sixth and final stanza stands alone in several ways; what makes it stand out actually helps tie it back into the rest of the poem. For the first time in the entire piece, we are introduced to an authorial element: Oliver herself. She is there, bearing witness to the sea and its behavior, and as such the poem goes beyond a simple description/concept and becomes an intimate, first-hand account- a human experience of a natural phenomenon. More importantly, she mentions her calmness, emphasizing her passive view of the environment as “so lightfooted so casual”. She is present, but does not seek anything beyond being a witness. She does not want a part of the sea’s comings and goings, scourings and wreathings, pushings, deepenings, or rustlings. She is simply there to watch, as she does “on almost any morning”.


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