Posted by: John Looker | 25 March, 2012


This is the third poem in a series looking at life through work:


Let’s spin the globe, spin it towards the sun –
slowly now – we’re looking for a likely place,
a place where the sea or the ocean touch the land
and men have always put to sea in boats,
have moored their boats or dragged them on the shore
with heavy limbs after the homeward run. 

Here will do,
here where the wild Atlantic batters the coast
and the heaving tide has carried a fragile fleet
up on to Portugal’s sand. The boats are beached
and the sardine catch laid out in boxes for the buyers,
and men with wide-brimmed metal hats
will carry the fish on their heads, salt water dripping,
up to the trucks and out of view. 

Soon the men will hear how much they’ve earned.
A decent trip? Not bad.
The catch? So so.
Not as much as in the glory days
but the weather held, the fish were there, the gear behaved
and (although this isn’t said) they all returned. 

Spin the world,
and find the trawlers active in early morning
off Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New England.
Spin it and in the darkness look for vessels
ranged around the Pacific ring of fish,
tuned to their weather warnings, studying sonar,
watching the stars in shoals expiring slowly
and the depths putting on new colour,
as the day – a day of promise –
is unfurled.


© John Looker 2012

For the first in this series, see  “Work (a noun)” at: 


  1. Hi John, a beautiful poem about the busy ports, fishermen and ships, I can smell the tar 🙂
    Another piece about work and I like this one very much because it somewhat hits home!


  2. John, I’m really enjoying this series!


  3. i imagine crashing waves, pilot boats, and spinning lights of warming high above the sea.

    David in Maine USA


  4. Thank you Ina, Fred and David. That’s a relief! It’s an unusual subject, and I wasn’t sure whether it would have much appeal.


  5. This world of the internet which we are both part of John constantly reminds me of the similarities which exist no matter where we are on the globe.

    The same worries, the same concerns, the same joys

    The same feelings in Portugal and in Nova Scotia – the same unspoken relief that they all returned.

    Beautiful poem



  6. This is superb. It makes me think of a Shakespearean song. The ingenuous light touch, the view from the wrong end of the telescope, as if from God’s “perspective,” the firm clarity but universality of the images (Samuel Johnson would not find that objectionable), the over all agapeic tone, like a blessing. It recalls finally that wonderful phrase I first heard in King’s Chapel Cambridge one time I was visiting by son: World Without End.
    Truly unique. Could Auden have done it? The question dies in the air.
    Bravo. A fine fine performance, with such lovely echoes and overtones.


    • You are extremely generous, Tom. I hardly know what to say, except that there must be a significant flaw in your analysis.


  7. I should have mentioned the shaped aspect of the stanzas, with such discreet rhyme!


  8. I love the idea of some unseen hand spinning the globe; it could be a god-like figure, or perhaps the writer, or maybe both – very interesting. I’m also interested to hear you say that you thought the subject might not appeal; it is the way you write about your subject that makes it so appealing, vivid and thought-provoking. I especially like the final line of this one, because it made me think of a boat sail unfurling, as well as a day unfurling. I’ve really enjoyed reading this series of poems.


    • That’s very kind of you, and most encouraging. The next in the series will be short and simple, for contrast, and the one after a bit more difficult to get right again.


  9. Ah, this is wonderful, John. It reminded me of a passage in ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ where Hardy describes the sensation of standing on a hilltop at night and feeling the earth spinning through space. Beautifully constructed, of course, and with a firm, muscular feel that perfectly matches the subject. Tremendous work once again. N.


  10. John, Ethel says to put down that you are a gorgeous poet, and, of course, she’s right–as always.
    What strikes both Ethel and I is that the common and simple can be so beautiful:
    …The boats are beached
    and the sardine catch laid out in boxes for the buyers,
    and men with wide-brimmed metal hats
    will carry the fish on their heads, salt water dripping,
    up to the trucks and out of view.
    In some ways this is a simple description, but the language!, “fish on their heads, salt water dripping,” takes it out of description into the elevation of poetry.
    Beginning with spinning the globe and and ending with the command, “Spin the world,” makes this is a song of power, literally sweeping up the world’s oceans into the last stanza, rising and rising like a great soprano’s voice, reaching into a music that leaves you tingling with suspense and wonder. How can the voice rise so high so beautifully? How can the poem, exploring work, after all, sing with the rocking of the sea without a horizon near?
    Soon the men will hear how much they’ve earned.
    A decent trip? Not bad.
    The catch? So so.
    Not as much as in the glory days…
    All of this music in the end elevating the common tongue of men after a day of hard work talking about how they’d done, always remembering better, other days, echoing into the language of humanity through centuries of going to sea in boats, netting their catch, and then selling it so they can go home and be who they are in their lives.


  11. Easy to spin a globe. Any little kid can play god with a globe, peering down—I know I did. If you’ve got a good one, you can feel the ridges of the mountains. But to spin the world…that takes a god playing at being a little kid. Did Archimedes really say, Give me a place to stand outside the world with a lever and I will move the world? Sure, sure, right Archimedes, a place outside the world. You are a scientist, not a poet (and not a little kid). John, I think I detect a movement here. It’s quite brilliant (in the seemingly modest John Stevens way): pairing up the work-a-day world of fishing with the impossible work of moving the world: the ‘work’ here is the work of the poet, right? I don’t want to put words in your mouth—at least it’s an interesting subtext. ‘Men carrying fish on their heads’…seems about a good a description of the work of the poet as I can think of.
    Why did man take to the sea? It must have seemed scary. Think of all those maps showing the edge of the world. Monsters out there, eh mate? Being a deep sea fisherman is still one of the world’s most dangerous professions—and considerably more so than cartographer. What about the poet?
    Consider how two ambitious poems start:
    And then went down to the ship,
    set keel to breakers forth on the godly sea…
    Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
    from the straight road and woke to find myself
    along in a dark wood…

    Extremely ambitious poems…Dante seemly ends in success, but Ezra…
    That I lost my center/ fighting the world
    Maybe all types of work have their dangers…
    I would like to echo what Ina and Tom said: the smell of tar and the softness of a Shakespearean song…
    And I can’t wait until you write the poem about the work of writing a poem.


  12. Jim, Thomas, Nick: thank you all; I’m going to find it tough to live up to your generous compliments. I’m relieved you all find the piece sufficiently interesting.
    For me, it began with – literally – the work of fishermen and (as Thomas says) their lives, but it was meant to encompass other work and lives also (poem-writing occurred to me too Jim, but only after I’d started.) I know and really like the Ezra Pound poem, and Hardy’s book, but I don’t recall that particular passage.


  13. I love this! The connection of men to the sea across the world is so well portrayed with the detail of the Portugal crew and the more general view of oceans and ports from one who spins a globe. The line that really moved me was: and (athough this isn’t said) they all returned.
    This, along with the title, spoke of so much more. How they go out every day, no matter the weather, risking their lives to feed families and earn their living. That lightness of good cheer makes the job possible when facing rough seas, long days away from her, uncertain catch and maybe not coming home. All the fishermen I’ve known have that kind of quiet bravado, tell a good story and laugh in the face of danger, but you can’t miss the telling lines around their eyes. And we, on land, sit and spin a globe, oh the adventure we think – the romance. Beautiful, well-thought piece with just enough detail to cast men and their nets upon visible seas, but leaving enough unsaid for the reader to imagine.


    • I’m glad you liked that line in particular – thank you. And I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on the fishermen themselves and those you have known: ” you can’t miss the telling lines around their eyes” – that expresses it very well indeed.


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