Image: West Sands, St. Andrews © Welcome to Scotland
Excerpt From History by John Burnside
St Andrews: West Sands; September 2001 Today as we flew the kites - the sand spinning off in ribbons along the beach and that gasoline smell from Leuchars gusting across the golf links; the tide far out and quail-grey in the distance; people jogging, or stopping to watch as the war planes cambered and turned in the morning light - today - with the news in my mind, and the muffled dread of what may come - I knelt down in the sand with Lucas gathering shells and pebbles finding evidence of life in all this driftwork: snail shells; shreds of razorfish; smudges of weed and flesh on tideworn stone.
At first glance, this poem can seem to make very little sense; the structure is erratic, the sentiments are vague, and many of the lines give the impression of being unfinished. However, there are several details which give clues as to the poem’s meaning, and the poet’s own thoughts and feelings.
Title and Context:
The title of this poem is very important in helping the reader to understand the poet’s mindset at the time the poem was written. The word “History” would suggest that the poem is about an event which has happened in the past, and yet the first two stanzas of the poem both begin with the word “today”, which suggests that the poem is about an event happening in the present. This implies that the poem is written about an important event – one which was happening at the time the poem was written, but which will make history. The line underneath the title tells us what this event is; the poet specifically states that the poem was written in “September 2001“, which strongly implies that it is about the aftermath of 9/11.
The poem is written in free verse structure, with no set line or stanza lengths, and no rhyme scheme. As you can see in the excerpt above, the length, spacing and placement of lines on the page is quite erratic, which creates a sense of falling. This could mirror the literal falling of the Twin Towers on 9/11, but could also suggest that, in the aftermath of such an event, the poet feels that his sense of security is collapsing. The structure does seem to become slightly less disjunct as the poem progresses, which could perhaps indicate that the poet does manage to gather his thoughts somewhat.
At the end of the first page there is a quatrain – “At times I think what makes us who we are / is neither kinship nor our given states / but something lost between the world we own / and what we dream about behind the names”. This stanza stands out from the ones before it due to its more organised structure, which could imply that this is a significant message in the poem. In this stanza, the poet indicates that he feels there is nothing concrete which defines a person, and that people’s thoughts and actions cannot always be explained using logic, which may be his rationale as to why a person could bring themselves to commit acts which others consider to be unthinkable, such as terrorist attacks.
Themes, Imagery and Tone:
The key theme of this poem is a sense of uncertainty: the poet is uncertain of what makes us who we are, what is important in life, and how he can be expected to live a normal life after an awful event has shattered his worldview and made him aware of his mortality and the finality of actions.
One way in which this theme is conveyed is through the repeated use of contrast between the concrete and the abstract. For example, he mentions “the news in my mind, and the muffled dread / of what may come”, which is a very vague and abstract idea (particularly given the use of the word “muffled”, which implies that even the poet himself does not know what it is about the future he fears), but then goes on to list specific items which he finds on the beach with his son – “shells … pebbles … snail shells; shreds of razorfish”, which he describes as “finding evidence of life”. This could suggest that the poet takes comfort in finding tangible and familiar things, as they remind him that the small and fundamental aspects of the world have not changed.
Another idea which the poet explores is his attempts to find a connection between these concrete and abstract elements. One way he does this is by specifying that the poem takes place on a beach; a beach is comprised of either sand or stones, which individually are solid, but collectively behave somewhat like a fluid, giving the impression of being partway between the two. Additionally, beaches sit between the land (which is solid) and the sea (which is fluid), providing a kind of bridge between them (an image which is echoed later, when the poet describes being “on the dune slacks with a kite / plugged into the sky”). This could suggest that the poet is trying to make sense of the world by connecting abstract ideas and concepts with the things he can see around him.
Overall, the poet seems to feel that experiencing a disaster (even if this is only a second hand experience – the poem specifies that the poet has still been affected by the events of 9/11 despite being on another continent) can shatter your perception of the world, and that the only way to rebuild it is by focusing on the tangible things in the present moment, which are real and unchanging.