Down to the Sea in Sepia Ships

Good lord, I'm sort of on topic for Sepia Saturday this week.
Westport, Washington 1957 - Pondering a new concept
Having pondered well
 I had to memorize this seafaring poem and recite it in front of my 7th grade class. Drama! Never thought the day would come when I actually recalled the poem with fondness.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

Approximately 48 weeks of the year my father taught days and nights, hosted TV and radio poetry shows (on which I often appeared, thinking nothing of this media exposure), hosted student and professional readings at the library, bookstores and the university, handled correspondence courses, edited Poetry Seattle and Seattle Review, and juried poetry contests for everything from the Pacific Northwest Writers' Conference to Mother's Cookies. He couldn't say no. Well, he said no to Mother's Cookies the second time around. In what few off hours were left he wound down after class in coffee houses and pizza joints with adoring students.

For all his civic and academic activity, he still was compelled to take a brief vacation every year, between summer and fall quarters. The family usually demanded it, even if he wanted to keep on teaching. This is when he typically allowed himself to get sick. He never took a sabbatical but taught for about 140 consecutive quarters. We typically went to the ocean. Even here—perhaps especially here—poetry remained foremost in his mind.

On the ferry, 1959
Although intensely, encyclopedically autobiographical, his poetry is still only a partial picture of the man. Take for example, an early poem, "Zero Tide."

I walked from our cabin into the wet dawn
To see the whitecaps modulating in,
The slow wash of the word in the beginning:
Wind on the bowing sedge seemed from Japan.
A cloud of sandpipers wavered above the dune,
Where surf spoke the permanence of sun.
Back inside, I sat on my son's bed
Where he sweetly slept, guarded by saints and poets,
Oceanic sunrise on his eyelids;
I whispered "Sean, get up! It's a clamming tide,"
And thought of chill sand fresh from lowering waters,
Foam-bubbled frets across the hard-packed ridges.
"Sean, it's a zero tide!" From a still second,
He came out of the covers like a hummingbird.
"Don't wake up Julian." In the ale blue light
He dressed in whirring silence, all intent.
Along the empty coast the combers hummed:
Sleepy gulls mewled in the clearing mist.
My wife and baby slept folded in singing calm,
Involuted by love as rose or shell.

Sister ship ahoy
The old heave ho

Now, what's missing from this poem, what the reader seeking to know the real Nelson Bentley can't know from this piece, is that it was I who was doing all the actual the dirty work. While I lay in the clammy sand, up to my armpit in pursuit of a razor clam, its slippery foot-tip in my fingers, shouting for assistance with increasing irritation, my father stood fifty feet away lost in the fog of his coalescing pentameter. He sort of came to, and sauntered over looking perplexed and distracted while the wily bivalve struggled from my grasp. I did manage to catch enough clams for chowder however, and he got his poem.
On the sunny side of the boat

About ten years later... on Green Lake. From a sort of puff piece the Seattle Times did on Nelson in the late 1960s.
(Portions of this post are lifted from the talk I delivered at the University of Washington Creative Writing Program's 50th Anniversary celebration, held at Seattle's Henry Art Gallery on May 27, 1997.)


  1. This the second time I've used this in the last week or so;

    I must go down to the sea again,
    to the lonely sea and the sky;
    I left my shoes and socks there -
    I wonder if they're dry?

    Spike Milligan

  2. Thanks for sharing the wonderful memories, poems and photos - together they are much more than each set apart.

  3. What a wonderful post. Thanks for giving us a glimpse of your Dad and your family. I've never been to Westport, but I have been to Ocean Shores a couple of times. Great pictures!

    Kathy M.

  4. A most enjoyable and personal experience that you just shared with me. Thanks.

  5. Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing your family memories and photographs.

  6. I like the way the word "DESTINY" is part of the first photo. I have never been able to really get the feel of poetry. Maybe if I had had a father like yours I would understand it better.

  7. Thank you for sharing such a close family post. He was the sort of teacher we should all look up to. Wonderful poetry to match the pictures.

  8. Very clever post and photos. Isn't it funny about poems we had to memorize in school? I memorized "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," of which I remember only a few opening lines, but if you ever need to hear the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales recited in Middle English, I'm your girl.

  9. Perfect. Poetry, ships, boats, ferries, clams and the rest of the story behind the poem.

  10. When I make the rounds on Sepia Saturday I never know where it will take me. Thanks for sharing these photos, poems and memories.

  11. You are part of a wonderful family! Thanks for sharing such great photos and memories!

  12. I enjoyed the poetry. John Masefield's Sea Fever is definitely a classic, and your father's poem exhibits talent. Thanks for sharing.

  13. We were on the same lines this week!

  14. Nice to see you on topic, but it never matters, your posts are always fascinating - on or off topic.