How can I analyze the poem "The Sea Is All Male" by Helen Segal?
Helen Segal is a modern poet from Johannesburg who first published in 1965. Her works have been categorized as "Southern African poetry," but in many of her poems, as in this one, she speaks about personal feelings and experiences. Her poetry has been praised for its technical skill and wit but has also been criticized (in this article) for a lack of clarity in themes and images owing to the introspective nature of the poem's writing.
According to this doctoral thesis, "The Sea is All Male" is primarily a reference to a fellow female poet's suicide by drowning in the ocean. The poem chiefly describes the experience of "some women" in the sea (which appears to be a metaphor for romance or for being dominated by men), why these women feel drawn to it, and how they are consumed by it.
In the poem's first stanza, the speaker asserts that the ocean is masculine, which is why it's both enticing and fatal for women. The ocean is chaotic, and it rejects anything imaginative. The second stanza could be interpreted in many ways due to multiple meanings of the word "consummation," but it's possible that the speaker here is asserting that women seek a kind of union or ultimate experience through romance (or in the sea, in the literal words of the poem). The third stanza emphasizes the link between the actual ocean and its representation as a powerful and forceful lover while describing women's physically intense struggle to swim beneath the waves of the sea. In the final, brief fifth and sixth stanzas, the women stop fighting the sea and float on its surface, tired and peaceful, their hair mixed with seaweed.
Overall, one interpretation of the poem may be that love (or male dominance) is too powerful a force to allow some women the space to find their own "ecstasy" or "heroic consummation." This view may be supported by the poem's many implications that the sea is a representation of maleness, love, and dominance. However, as I mentioned, Segal's poems have been recognized as suffering from blurry themes. We'd have to find an interview with Segal herself to be certain of what her intended meaning was in "The Sea is All Male."
Stylistically, the poem pleases the ear with several instances of alliteration ("secret depths salt-song," "brains and bones blood and brawn," "land-locked lover," "breaking brittle bonds") and pleases the mind's eye with a great deal of imagery ("the heavy waters," "jet to surface," "weedy hair"). Lines in the poem appear in free verse with no regularity or rhyme, suggesting the "reckless order of the sea" which is the poem's subject.
Finally, the poem invites comparisons to other works of literature, such as The Awakening by Kate Chopin (in which a woman also drowned herself in the sea due to her inability to cope with being controlled by men) as well as "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot, which also deals with the failure to find meaning in romance and which also evokes images of the floor of the sea and of seaweed on "combing waves." However, whether Segal intended to allude to works like these is indeterminate; her choices of images and theme may simply be original and universal.
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