Poetry gives us a way to look closely and contemplate deeply things we take for granted. In the Sea by David Elliott, illustrated by Holly Meade, transports us to the ocean’s depths and the seaside that surrounds it. Reading a good poem is like standing before a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Her rendering of a flower makes us see it as if for the first time.
With a great poem, we hear the music of language and apply it in a new way. Like the sounds of David Elliott’s poem “The Sea Horse”: “See the sea horse in the sea./ Where else would the sea horse be?/ For though it’s dainty as a wish,/ The sea horse is, you see, a fish.” In one brief poem, Elliott plays with homonyms (“sea” and “see”), our concept of a horse, alluding to its four-legged mainland counterpart, and also informing us of the sea horse’s delicate beauty (“dainty as a wish”). And who can think of a sea turtle, with its 30-year journey to return to its birthplace as anything other than a “[r]are instrument of nature,/ fair compass in a carapace” after reading Elliott’s ode to “The Sea Turtle”? Some children will ask about the word “carapace,” and those old enough will google it. Because they’ve already gleaned that a good poem is all about the mot juste.
Poetry also lets us grasp the unfathomable, as Elliott helps us do with “The Blue Whale.” The animal’s sheer size, length and heft is hard for adults, let alone children, to wrap their minds around. Elliott’s poem pays tribute to this monumental creature’s presence, not only in its majestic appearance (its “nose an island, a mountain”) but also by its impact through the centuries, as with his mention of how the blue whale “sings a chanty deep and slow/ of winds that rage and storms that blow” and “shipwrecked sailors down below.” He suggests the whale’s strength in battling Mother Nature, outlasting many a human confrontation with the turbulent seas.
It’s a humbling poem and, coming at the close of the book, reminds us of how we fit into nature, that we all inhabit this world together, humans and sea creatures alike. By its brevity and element of surprise, poetry issues a unique invitation to pause and reflect on the extraordinary creatures with which we share the planet.