When I listen to the constant low thrum of the sea from my house on the Northumberland coast, what strikes me most about it is its energy, its sheer force, which is often enough to shake the building. Sometimes I lie awake at night listening to it, and reflect on the role of the oceans across the whole planet – in climate regulation, geological process and in the creation and evolution of life on Earth. The rush of breaking waves makes me wonder at the fragility of our own species in contrast to the sea’s enormous antiquity and power, but I’m also excited by the opportunities which the sea presents for science to harness that power to overcome some of our present energy and climate challenges.
Two years ago, radio producer Julian May and I came up with the idea of making a programme together about what the sounds of the sea mean to different people who listen to it. I was to write a poem sequence that would link the voices of – among others – the fishermen of my youth, who remembered the days of wind-powered sailing boats, and the climate scientists with whom I’ve worked more recently. We originally intended to deliver the programme a year ago; but my own health problems and family circumstances intervened to throw us off schedule. As my friends will attest, this has been, and continues to be, an extremely challenging time.
Nevertheless, in spite of all obstacles, and largely thanks to Julian’s hard work, here it is at last – a programme with the many voices of the sea running through it, from the gentle whisper of tide over mud, to the steady roar of surf, to the thud of breakers crashing onto rocks.
You’ll hear the words of people who, more than most of us, listen to these sounds. Melissa Reid is a visually impaired competitive surfer at Porthtowan in Cornwall. The writer Lara Messersmith-Glavin, whom I first met at the FisherPoets’ Gathering in 2014, grew up on a salmon seiner, fishing out of Kodiak Island, Alaska. Lara recalls in an essay from her brilliant book Spirit Things how the sounds of the sea brought fear as well as comfort. David Woolf, Reader in Marine Physics at Heriot-Watt University, is based in Orkney, and works on wave energy projects. He tells the life story of a wave, and considers the role of the oceans in the climate crisis. Fisherman Stephen Perham, rowing his picarooner out of Clovelly harbour, shows how, when fishing for herring without an engine or any modern equipment, learning the sounds of the sea is essential.
The susurrations of the sea are culturally important, too, finding their way into language and music. At his piano musician Martin Pacey illustrates how Benjamin Britten captures these in his Sea Interludes, and how they reflect mood and character. For Stephen Perham as for me, the words people use to describe that sea are themselves sea susurrations.
Woven through the programme are excerpts from a new sequence of poems, which I’ve written in response to the sounds of the sea. They run through the half hour like ‘lippers’ (small breaking waves), a ‘hobbly’ (rolly) sea, or the ‘lift’ of an ocean swell.
Producer: Julian May
BBC Radio 4
Thu 15 Dec 2022 11.30 am
Mon 19 Dec 2022 16.00 pm
Julian May recording on the rocks at Beadnell, Northumberland (photo: K. Porteous)
There’s also still time to catch Briggflatts – A Northern Poetic Odyssey, a Sunday Feature, presented by Rory Stewart, produced by Andrew Carter, and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 27th November.
Described as a ‘neglected masterpiece of 20th-century modernist poetry’, Briggflatts is, in Bunting’s own description, ‘an autobiography’ – both of Bunting himself, and of the ancient Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, which in the 7th century AD stretched from the Firth of Forth to the Humber. At that time and in the centuries which followed Northumbria produced the Lindisfarne Gospels, and heroic historical figures from St Cuthbert to its last King, Erik Bloodaxe – all of whom feature in Bunting’s poem, where they are closely interwoven with echoes of Persian poetry featuring Alexander the Great.
I first encountered Briggflatts in school, and later read it more carefully in a workshop at the University of California, Berkeley, led by the Anglo American poet Thom Gunn, who hugely admired it. For reasons I have never quite fathomed, it has always troubled me. I agreed to take part in the programme to try to explore why that is. In the course of re-reading it, and learning more about Bunting’s own life story, I discovered how it reflects some of the contradictions in his personality and life. The love story upon which the whole poem is predicated took place – or ended – when Bunting was 15, and his beloved Peggy Greenbank just 11 years old. I find this disparity in age and background — and particularly her youth — extremely troubling.
I’ve always sensed an overbearing masculinity in the poem, which makes me uncomfortable. I feel that it does not give Peggy a real voice or a presence beyond the speaker’s needs. For me, this is symptomatic of a poem which lacks any connection with real, lived Northumbrian lives and voices. But that is never what Bunting intended the poem to be. The programme touches on these complexities. My own contributions are very brief, but the programme features more extensive and illuminating interviews with Bunting’s editor, Don Share; publisher Neil Astley; academics and writers such as Peter and Margaret Lewis and Mandana Mashayekhi-Ghoyonloo; Diana Collecott, co-founder of the Basil Bunting Poetry Centre at Durham University; Pamela Coren, writer and clerk of Brigflatts Quaker Meeting House in Cumbria; the historians Robert Colls and Michael Wood; and many others. I am grateful to Andrew Carter and Rory Stewart for the opportunity to take part in the programme, and to all at Brigflatts Quaker Meeting House (below) where the interview was recorded.
Brigflatts Quaker Meeting House (photo: K. Porteous)