He ‘swam for love, as I swam for glory’ – On poetry and wild swimming
I burst up out of the sea and steal a breath from the sky. My head is ringing with the cold as I paddle, seal-like, parallel to the shore. It’s a chilly Sunday in May, and I’m at Covehithe, a remote beach on the Suffolk coast. Behind me are woods, wildflowers and wheat fields pin-pricked with poppies. Before me is a yellowish sea, beneath stacks of grey cloud. But the sky is bright and I feel awake, properly, awake for the first time in months.
Tankers balance on the horizon, and four miles distant, the pier and lighthouse at Southwold print themselves against the clouds. Covehithe, has the unenviable claim of possessing the fastest eroding shoreline in Britain, almost visibly crumbling into the sea. The road leading down to the sand ends in mid-air like something from a Road Runner cartoon.
It has another, delightfully absurd claim to fame. It’s where the Monty Python sketch: ‘The first man to jump the English Channel’ was filmed. Needless to say, it’s an absurd joy. But thankfully it hasn’t brought hordes to these shores. There’s barely a soul abroad, and people are outnumbered by the upended tree stumps that litter the beach like discarded wooden crowns, worn smooth by the wind.
I’ve only heard about this place from a friend of a friend. My only companions are dog walkers, a couple out rambling and a lone photographer waiting for the light. The only amenity is a plastic bin at the start of a footpath that leads along the edge of a field and down to the decaying shore. In short, it’s hidden gem, and the perfect place to lose yourself in the exquisite pleasures of poetry and wild swimming.
For twenty years I’ve pursued the twin passions of poetry and outdoor swimming. My first poem to appear in a respectable journal was (unimaginatively titled) ‘The Swimmer’ back in 2000. I’ve kept that first thin volume ever since as proof of my ‘year zero.’ But it’s book ended by one of my most recent poems: ‘The Archbishops at the Lido’ which won first prize in the Crabbe/Suffolk Poetry Competition 2019. In between, I must have written and read hundreds of poems whose chief preoccupations are tides, water, swimming and memory.
By the time Matthew Arnold stumbled down to ‘Dover Beach’ to see that ‘the tide is full, the moon lies fair’ an immense poetic body of work had swelled on water, the sea and swimming. The rhythms of water and poetry are so interwoven, and so closely connected to the body’s own rhythms. The sense of complete immersion you feel when reading or writing a poem is so similar to that feeling of swimming in cold water. The exhilaration; that sense of intense connection and absolute focus is uncannily alike.
I know of at least one workshop that deliberately links the two endeavours – inviting poets to plunge into the iron-grey waves of the North Sea, before handing them a pencil and paper. There’s something about the body’s reaction to cold water – a simultaneous closing and opening of neural pathways that inspires a breathless immediacy. It can so often produce something fresh and original on the page, utterly charged with energy. The body and mind are in shock and behave in radically different ways.
Of course I’m not the first to make the connection between poetry and swimming. There’s a sensational episode in one of our earliest poems, Beowulf, where we find our hero locked in an absurd swimming contest with his childhood friend, Breca, the Bronding. They were to swim for seven days and seven nights clad in full armour, (‘battle-sark braided, brilliantly gilded’) and nothing can separate them: ‘While swimming the sea-floods, sword-blade unscabbarded/Boldly we brandished, our bodies expected/To shield from the sharks.’
It’s a classic piece of mead-hall boasting: ‘Then we two companions stayed in the ocean/Five nights together, till the currents did part us/The weltering waters, weathers the bleakest.’
And yet there’s more; he must fight off the creatures of the deep: ‘To the bottom then dragged me/A hateful fiend-scather, seized me and held me/Grim in his grapple’ until it can be disposed of by ‘My obedient blade’ and ‘by means of my hand-blow.’
Inspired by the same primal urge, albeit without the armour and sea monsters, Walt Whitman plunges in with his ‘Poem of Joys’, an ecstatic panegyric on the visceral physicality of the natural world. He marvels at ‘the swiftness and balance of fishes’. Stumbling over cuttlefish shells of exclamation marks to get to the water’s edge, he sings: ‘O to bathe in a good place along shore!/To splash the water! to walk ankle-deep—to race naked along the shore.’
So many writers and poets use swimming as a means of regeneration; a way of replenishing the well.
While living in Deia, Majorca, Robert Graves rarely went a day without his sea swim to reinvigorate body and mind. It helped him channel his energies and refresh his spirits.
Even the games-dodging, chain-smoking John Betjeman, was drawn into the water. It’s well worth seeking out the delightfully silly piece of footage on YouTube, of the Poet Laureate learning to surf in Cornwall. ‘I don’t know anything so exciting as getting a perfect surf,’ he claims, ‘timing’s one’s shoot off from the waves, riding along on the crest and coming far in shore.’ His sense of freedom and delight is self-evident. He returns to the sea repeatedly in his poetry. In ‘A Bay in Anglesey’, he watches it: ‘filling in, brimming in, sparkling and free/ The sweet susurration of incoming sea.’
Anne Ridler’s poem Bathing in the Windrush is an evocative and elemental piece – a halcyon meditation on children swimming. They inhabit two worlds – one of the earth, the other of the water: ‘Smiling above the water’s brim/The daylight creatures/Trail their moonshine limbs below.’ Once in the water, they become subsumed – a part of nature again – at once more graceful, more animal and they ‘move like swanbeams through the yielding/pool.’ It’s as if nature has claimed them for its own, and in return grants them the gifts of lightness and felicity. She concludes: ‘These are like symbols, where half seen/The meaning swims, and drawn to the surface dies.’ It is as if a spell is cast in the water itself; once we return to the mundane world, the spell is broken and we lose that miraculous sense of buoyancy.
There is a darker sensibility in Eliot’s Death by Water sequence in ‘The Waste Land:’ lamenting: ‘As he rose and fell/He passed the stages of his age and youth/Entering the whirlpool.’ The water changes us, but it’s a reminder than we ourselves are little more than water and dust. Entering the water brings risk. It is sometimes a baptism, sometimes a rebirth, sometimes a death.
Into this canon, it feels churlish not to admit Michael Stipe’s oblique lyricism in REM’s beautiful and beguiling, Nightswimming. It’s a song of memory, regret and the luminous moment. He perfectly captures the illicit thrill of night swimming: The fear of getting caught/Of recklessness and water/They cannot see me naked. Water and memory stir together. The moon, ‘low tonight’ creates forces and ebbtides of its own, acting on us in ways we cannot resist. Yet the luminous moment dims with the fading memory: ‘These things they go away/replaced by everyday.’
Carl Phillips’ sensuous poem ‘Swimming’ explores similar territory: ‘I love the nights here,’ he asserts. ‘I love the jetty’s black ghost-finger, how it calms the harbour.’ The water represents childish fears too: ‘An old map from when this place was first settled shows monsters everywhere. But it’s worth the risk: ‘I dive in, and they rise like faithfulness/itself, watery pallbearers heading seaward, and/I the raft they steady. It seems there’s no turning back.’
It’s a heady mixture of fear, tempered with adventure and reward. Sea swimming is at once a return. It comes at a cost and a shock. It’s a reminder that we are part of the world and its rhythms – not above it or outside it. When we are held in the water we give ourselves back to nature; we surrender the autonomy afforded by evolution; it’s at once a regression and a reminder of our fragility. It impels us to live life more intensely, to value ourselves more, each other and the world.
Roger Deakin, the great swimmer and nature writer has practically inspired a tradition all of his own. Judy O’Kane’s meditative tribute ‘Waterlog,’ after Deakin’s book of the same name, is a rich and densely layered study on the man’s life and work, marveling at how close he got to the essence of things. She pictures him mid-swim at frog’s-eye level in the waters that circled his Elizabethan home in Suffolk: ‘He’s circling the moat, his forearm/gliding through the weight of the water/fluid, fluent, and I float in his wake.’ Crucially, she makes the explicit link between the rhythms of water and writing: ‘Everywhere liquids move in rhythms/he says, his pen never lifting/ from the page.
Deakin’s own writing frequently reaches the pitch of poetry itself. His prose is rich with metaphor and simile and freshly-minted phrase-making. As he lolls in the waters off the Suffolk coast, he sees ‘the giant puffball of Sizewell B’ while the shore itself disappears in the rising swell. He swims beneath ‘an orange sickle of a new moon’ which hangs ‘in a deep mauve sky.’
Meanwhile Louise Gluck’s poem, Pond begins in darkness, but glints into focus: ‘Night covers the pond with its wing/Under the ringed moon I can make out/your face swimming among minnows/ and the small echoing stars.’ The night creates an alchemy of its own: ‘In the night air/the surface of the pond is metal.’ Water and the powers of darkness have a transformative effect.
Perhaps the last word should go to Byron, and his poem, Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydo. He compares himself (at least at the outset) unfavourably with Leander, that fabled swimmer and lover of Greek legend who nightly swan across Hellespont (The Darndelles) to woo Hero, even in ‘dark December.’ He begins: ‘For me, degenerate modern wretch/Though in the genial month of May/My dripping limbs I faintly stretch/And think I’ve done a feat today.’ But he confesses his exploits cannot be compared with brave – or foolish – Leander’s: ‘But since he cross’d the rapid tide/According to the doubtful story/To woo, — and — Lord knows what beside/And swam for Love, as I for Glory/Twere hard to say who fared the best:/Sad mortals! thus the gods still plague you!/He lost his labour, I my jest;/For he was drown’d, and I’ve the ague.’
It’s a delightful piece of self-deprecating humour – but how classic of Byron to make himself the victor in the end, feeling every bit the adventurer, but escaping with little more than a cold. It betrays that giddy sense of the heroic (mixed with the slightly hare-brained) that every wild swimmer feels as they stand shivering on the shore, post-swim, wondering where they might find nearest mug of hot tea.
Christopher James has won the National Poetry Competition, as well as the Bridport, Ledbury, Oxford Brooks and other poetry prizes. His new novel Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Beer Barons is available for pre-order and latest collection, The Penguin Diaries is out now.