Here’s a poem that makes me want to go to the beach—which is odd considering that I hate the sun, hate the sand, and hate shore crowds. But the amazing repetition and sound devices that the poem uses make this one absolutely amazing.
SEASON AT THE SHORE
by Phyllis McGinley
On, not by sun and not by cloud
And not by whippoorwill, crying loud,
And not by the pricking of my thumbs,
Do I know the way that the summer comes.
Yet here on this seagull-haunted strand,
Hers is an omen I understand -
Sand on the beaches,
Sand at the door,
Sand that screeches
On the new-swept floor;
In the shower, sand for the foot to crunch on;
Sand in the sandwiches spread for luncheon;
Sand adhesive to son and sibling,
From wallet sifting, from pockets dribbling;
Sand by the beaker
From odious sneaker;
Sand in bed;
Sahara always in my seaside shanty
Like the sand in the voice
of J. Durante.
Winter is mittens, winter is gaiters
Steaming on various radiators.
Autumn is leaves that bog the broom.
Spring is mud in the living room
Or skates in places one scarcely planned.
But what is summer, her seal in hand?
Sand in closets,
Sand on the stair,
In the parlor chair;
Sand in the halls like the halls of the ocean;
Sand in he soap and the sun-tan lotion;
Stirred in the porridge, tossed on the greens,
Poured from the bottoms of rolled-up jeans;
In the elmy street
On the lawny acre;
Glued to the seat
Of the Studebaker.
Wrapped in the folds of the Wall Street Journal;
Damp sand, dry sand,
When I shake my garments at the Lord’s command,
What will I scatter in the Promised Land?
I know absolutely nothing about Phyllis McGinley other than the fact that she won a Pulitzer in 1960. When I read this poem, I had that feeling of sheer joy and I just smiled. It’s wonderful when something like that happens, especially when you weren’t expecting it.
The repetition of the word “sand” throughout the poem is powerful, and, like I said in the intro, that’s even more amazing given that I hate the feeling of sand on my skin. What’s more is that the repetition is more than just a literary device; it’s used as a literal representation of the fact that sand really does get everywhere when you go to the beach. The speaker finds it in the house, the car, the newspaper, etc, and that’s absolutely true to life.
In that last stanza, the poem takes a turn into something light-hearted and fun to something maybe a bit more significant. “When I shake my garments at the Lord’s command,/ What will I scatter in the Promised Land?/ Sand.” Great stuff. Sand is a very biblical element; just seeing a picture of a desert makes me think of The Ten Commandments and Charlton Heston’s strong Shatner voice declaring “Let my people go.” (Which is immediately followed by Yul Brynner demanding “So let it be written, so let it be done.”—what great lines!) Are there any biblical stories that don’t take place in sand? So is this poem more of a statement about the fact that sand connects people and places and stories, that it can be a central element of life?
Or maybe the poem is just light-hearted fun. Ah, who cares. I like it either way.