The poetry of earth is never dead, Keats wrote.
Easy for him to say. When he put down those words in 1816, the poetry of earth was alive and well. The Industrial Revolution was a distant rumble. No one had ever heard of carbon footprints and global warming. London might be crowded, noisy, and dirty, but the “smile of the blue firmament” still beamed over great swaths of open countryside, woods, and hills. The grasshopper and the cricket sang freely, with no competition from jackhammers or cranked-up car stereos.
That was then. Nearly two centuries later, the poetry seems to have faded to a dull whisper. You have to listen hard for it. You have to edit a lot of visual clutter. Sometimes, you have to seek it out with single-minded intent. But once in a great while, at the most fortuitous moment, it rises from the deep and overwhelms you with its wild beauty.
I am thinking of a family vacation some years ago, rescued from sullen discontent by the poetry of a barnacle-covered giant and her offspring.
Awash in nostalgia for my own childhood summers at Cape Cod, I had dragooned three teenaged sons into a week on the North Atlantic coast. You’ll love it, I promised. Big waves, lobster dinners, digging for clams. A chance to connect with your mother’s roots.
They hated it. Languid holidays on Southern beaches had spoiled them for the bracing air and icy waters of New England. Our cottage had tranquil views and woodsy ambiance and no TV. By day, they complained about the rocky shore and brisk temperatures. At night, they whined about boredom. Like a manic cruise director, I alternated between rants on ingratitude and an endless quest for new diversions to shut them up and keep them busy.
The whale-watching expedition cost a fortune, but it used a whole day and I was desperate. We set out from Provincetown on a misty morning, dozy with Dramamine against the rolling seas and clad in the yellow slickers included in the hefty ticket price. As the shoreline faded and a curtain of rain moved across the water, I leaned against the rail and muttered my new vacation mantra: this-better-be-worth-it.
We sailed for hours, pitching and rocking through what our guides described as “a little chop.” The marine radio crackled and blared. The only sign of sea life was a flock of scruffy gulls. I refrained from asking my fellow travelers if they were having fun yet. I really, really didn’t want to know.
Then the boat slowed and stopped and a cry went up. Out of the gray water, a right whale rose, breached, and dove again. We rushed from one side to the other as she repeated the performance, this time flanked by her calf. As they arced in unison beside us, I seemed to catch the mother’s eye. Steady, unblinking, her gaze held me for a full second and I felt the world fall away. As she plunged again, I turned to see the faces of my children, open mouthed in astonishment, silent with wonder.
The whale was dubbed “right” by 19th century fishermen, who deemed it the most desirable catch. For me, that day, it was as right as any creature under heaven could be. The poetry of earth sounded deep and strong and close at hand. All these years later, we still remember it: a week of discontent redeemed by one misty day at sea, a visible curtain of rain, the unwavering gaze of the right whale and her calf, just off the bow.