Last night, for no obvious reason, these words popped into my head:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
They appeared in my mind suddenly, completely without context, and at first I could not recall where I had heard them. I ran through the possibilities, and eventually decided they must be from the end of The Great Gatsby, a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald that has never really interested me. But those particular words obviously did — why else would they pop into my mind completely unbidden?
Gradually I realized it was because they are poetry, in fact a short poem in themselves.
When I was in my college years, I developed a poetic form I called “Fragments.” It came to me after reading translations of ancient Greek poetry, some lines of which exist only as short, isolated fragments of lost, larger poems. So for a time, I wrote “fragments,” in which one may begin the poem in the middle of a thought with words like “…But if I tell you…” or “…And so they vanished…” — new, brief poems written as though they were fragments from some lost, longer work.
The quote from The Great Gatsby is, for me, essentially a “fragment” poem divorced from its wider context, and that it is a poem in itself becomes obvious if we present it like this:
…So we beat on,
Boats against the current,
Borne back ceaselessly
Into the past….
It is also, of course, a metaphor comparing human life to boats struggling against a current that continually bears us, no matter how we beat against it with our oars, backward.
There is a very similar (though completely non-metaphorical) summer hokku by Kitō:
The little fish
Are carried backwards;
The clear water.
If we look again at the Fitzgerald quote, we find that its effectiveness is not only due to its evoking the contrary forces of trying to move forward while being carried backward, not only due to its metaphor, but also due to its alliteration, the repetition of the “b” sound and the “s” sound:
So we Beat on,
BoatS againSt the current,
Borne Back CeaSeleSSly
Into the paSt….
There is also the repetition of the “n” sound:
So we beat oN,
Boats agaiNst the curreNt,
BorNe back ceaselessly
INto the past….
And there is the pleasing, double-beat harmony between “beat on” and “borne back.”
This sort of thing draws our attention to the fact that in books, some lines supposedly of prose are actually lines of poetry. But of course as you have read here in earlier postings, some lines of what is presented as poetry because of the division of lines turn out, on closer examination, to be merely prose disguised as poetry. Do not be deceived, and do not fall into the trap (as even some prominent published poets do) of thinking that merely dividing what is inherently prose into “poem” lines makes it a genuine poem.
We can see the real thing in the “Gatsby” fragment.