Submarine Poetry

April is National Poetry Month. Now you may be wondering what that has to do with submarines. Poems, ballads and music have a long history in the naval world. In 1798, two musicians, a fifer and a drummer were put to sea on the USS Ganges. By the mid-1820’s, ship’s bands were extremely common. The USS Constitution had a 20-piece band onboard in 1825. The songs, poems and ballads sung by the crews, also known as “sea shantys” were set to a specific rhythm for hoisting the sails of a ship in unison. In 1865, in an early publishing that carried the term shanty, it was written that “Every man sprang to duty. The cheerful chatty was roared out and heard above the howl of the gale. The cable held very hard, and when it surged over, the windlass send the men flying about the deck, as if a galvanic battery had been applied to their hands” (G.E. Clark). The arts have played an integral role in naval tradition just as much as the strict codes and time-honored ceremonies have. This past January, we wrote a blog about New Year Eve’s deck logs. This is one manner in which poetry has found its way into the workings of a vessel. But poetry and music have long been a part of telling the stories of life on the sea. Below we have shared some of the submarine poems we know and love. Please share with us poems or songs you know, remember hearing or ones you may have even written yourself.
In 1915, Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem “Submarines”. The work was set to music by the English composer Edward Elgar as the third in a set of four war-related songs. The title of the whole work was called “The Fringes of the Fleet.” The piece goes as follows:

 

The Ships destroy us above

And ensnare us beneath,

We arise, we lie down, and we move

In the belly of death.

The ships have a thousand eyes

To mark where we come…

But the  mirth of a seaport dies

When our blow gets home.

 

The work Submarine comes from a larger piece by Kipling which was called Sea Warfare.  This book holds a poem titled The Trade which is also about the submarine service. It reads:

 

They bear, in place of classic names,

Letters and numbers on their skin.

They play their grisly blindfold games

In little boxes made of tin.

Sometimes they stalk the Zeppelin,

Sometimes they learn where mines are laid,

Or where the Baltic ice is thin.

That is the custom of “The Trade.”

           

Few prize-courts sit upon their claims.

They seldom tow their targets in.

They follow certain secret aims

Down under, far from strife or din.

When they are ready to begin

No flag is flown, no fuss is made

More than the shearing of a pin.

THAT IS THE CUSTOM OF “The Trade.”

 

The Scout’s quadruple funnel flames

A mark from Sweden to the Swin,

The Cruiser’s thund’rous screw proclaims

Her comings out and goings in:

But only whiffs of paraffin

Or creamy rings that fizz and fade

Show where the one-eyed Death has been.

That is the custom of “The Trade.”

 

Their fears, their fortunes and their fames

Are hidden from their nearest kin;

No eager public backs or blames,

No journal prints the yarn they spin

(The Censor would not let it in!)

When they return from run or raid.

Unheard they work, unseen they win.

That is the custom of “The Trade.”

 

Another poet who wrote about submarines was Cale Young Rice. Born in Kentucky in 1872, Rice witnessed the birth of the United States Submarine Force and the beginning of submarine development as a part of the US Navy. Rice describes the idea of sailing beneath the ocean waves only as an outsider would. His poem titled Submarine Mountains was written in 1921.

 

Under the sea, which is their sky, they rise

To watery altitudes as vast as those

Of far Himalayan peaks impent in snows

And veils of cloud and sacred deep repose.

Under the sea, their flowing firmament,

More dark than any ray of sun can pierce,

The earthquake thrust them up with mighty tierce

And left them to be seen but by the eyes Of awed imagination inward bent.

 

Their vegetation is the viscid ooze,

Whose mysteries are past belief or thought.

Creation seems around them devil-wrought,

Or by some cosmic urgence gone distraught.

Adown their precipices chill and dense

With the dank midnight creep or crawl or climb

Such tentacled and eyeless things of slime,

Such monster shapes as tempt us to accuse

Life of a miscreative impotence.

About their peaks the shark, their eagle, floats,

In the thick azure far beneath the air,

Or downward sweeps upon what prey may dare

Set forth from any silent weedy lair.

But one desire on all their slopes is found,

Desire of food, the awful hunger strife,

Yet here, it may be, was begun our life,

Here all the dreams on which our vision dotes

In unevolved obscurity were bound.

Too strange it is, too terrible!

And yet It matters not how we were wrought or whence

Life came to us with all its throb intense,

If in it is a Godly Immanence. It matters not,—if haply we are more

Than creatures half-conceived by a blind force

That sweeps the universe in a chance course:

For only in Unmeaning Might is met The intolerable thought none can ignore.

 

While these two poets wrote beautifully on submarines, nothing can compare to a poem written by a submariner himself.  Written by Tim Butterfield while deployed on the USS Houston in 2000, Ode to the Submariner is a wonderfully written piece telling the story of a submariner as only a submariner could.

 

Take her Deep, Take her Low
May you never have to Emergency Blow

Out in the Ocean’s Deep
Without even a Peep

You track both Man Made and natural things
Without even emitting a ping

Your shaft and screw run around
And run others into the ground

Your weapons are harnessed in racks
Just waiting for the word to target their tracks

Back during the Cold War
We tracked the enemy both near and far

The skimmers all wonder
How they could make such a blunder
When they think they see a periscope’s glare
But all it is a submariner’s Green Flare
The submariner outfoxed them again
And showed them who owns the Ocean’s Great Den

We sometimes take Seals
And feed them a great meal
Then off they go
To put on their own show

The Boomers patrol out there
In places no one else knows where
Silent and Deadly
But Smooth and Stealthy

When submariners return to port
Coming from places of every sort
They go from bar to bar
Just to see how much and how far
And how many and how much
They can outdo one another

In this and that way
So they can tell all on the boat
That they beat their sub brother

They also make new friends
Both yonder and here

Though they sometimes get wild and go bare
Are up until the crack of dawn or beyond
They are all quite fond
Of the sex that is so fair
Some people call it crazy
But never call a Submariner lazy
’cause come what will and what may
He knows how to make the enemy pay!

The Quartermaster plots our course
Through Nav Hazards both many and few
He keeps his calm even through ORSE
And we always arrive inport ahead or when we are due

The MS’ forever slave to get us our grub
Which is served with a flare by an FSA nub

The A-Gangers are always busy
Keeping their systems fixed so we get underway
Though their workload would make the rest of us dizzy
To them it’s just another part of the day

The Radioman makes sure we get our e-mail
Through State 5 seas, hurricanes, and tsunamis, without fail
They also ensure we receive all pertinent news
Like Sports, news, and the occasional birth news

The nukes back aft work as a team
So efficiently with a full head of steam
That we keep getting the Engineering “E”
For all to know and others to see

The IC men and NavETs work as a group
To ensure we never get out of the loop
From navigation and CAMS to monitoring and RADAR
They also ensure we pull in safe whether near or far

The Store Keepers
Are always the keepers
Keeping us up and running
So we have more time for funning

The Sonar Techs
Try to prevent all the wrecks
Listening for ships
Or the big bios blips

The FTs plot all our contacts
So none end up jumping on our back
The Torpedomen can’t wait for the day
When the weapons come out of their tray
And go for their targets out in the Great Way

The JOs are always in the Wardroom training
With knowledge they are a’gaining
Will help them in quals to join the halls
Of the qualified members of the Submariners band
Our Engineer owns the Reactor Plant
With all the power for the ship

To go at a mighty good clip

The smokers complain
Because they have only one lane
With which to enjoy
The sweet taste of nicotine

Out at sea we run out of milk, fresh fruit, and juice
Until we pull in and get us some more

The COB and XO love to make us clean
But they don’t do it just to be mean
For all the cleaning keeps dirt and dust out of machines
And also helps the crew from getting migraines

The Captain looks out for us one and all
And ensures we all have time with our families in the Fall.

We run silent, we run deep
We may get little sleep
But our pride runs just as deep
But in the end it is all worth it
When those we protect tell us how proud they are
Of the way that we did it[1]

[1] http://www.submarinesailor.com/poetry/OdeToSubmariners.asp

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