Archive for the ‘Shipwrecks and Disasters’ Category

SS Edmund Fitzgerald underway, photo by Winston Brown

Perhaps the oldest form of poetry in most languages, the art of story-telling in rhyme and meter, has staying power like little else in literary history.  Recording historical events, myths, and everyday happenings—comic, tragic, or somewhere in between—the ballad has traditionally been sung and accompanied by (frequently a stringed) musical instrument.  Yet many unforgettable tales in rhyme and meter stand sufficiently alone on paper, begging to be read aloud.

My English literature background is rich with balladry beginning with that bloody saga of Good vs. Evil, Beowulf.  In the 1990s, when we lived in a home with a vaulted wood paneled ceiling we hung the heads of a Javelina pig and a pronghorn antelope—both hunted, bagged, and bequeathed to me by my father.  As I viewed the mounted heads, I experienced a wash of Beowulf Medieval atmosphere; I just had to get out an old textbook and read parts of that gory drama in the ancestral hall.

Whereas some of the characters in the ballad had grown fuzzy or obscure in my head over decades, the mood and setting were indelible.  Mood and atmosphere are created by music, with or without words.

English literature is replete with balladry.  Some beloveds probably known to most aficionados of poetry are Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci and Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman.  Add The Rime of he Ancient Mariner, by Coleridge and haunting works by America’s own Edgar Allan Poe (examples: Annabel Lee and The Raven) and you have a start toward Balladry 101.  The canon is endless.

The tradition of story-telling via ballads set to music was big in the 1960s, with the popularity of folk music and wrung-out war-protests.  This music continued into the 1970s.  But since then, except in isolated parts of the country where (happily) folk music is inherent to the local culture, the ballad seems to have dropped through the floor—as if someone played a foul trick by suddenly opening up a hidden trapdoor on the floor of a stage, and absconding with a lot of life-quality in the process.

Now fakey-flashing lights, screaming, throbbing, gyrating about in indecent attire, and the glorifying of oblivion—all personified by The Coarse and Obnoxious (as well as The Just Plain Weird!) have supplanted the age-old entertainment mode of telling and re-telling the human story, both epic and everyday, in a format that implants one’s heart and mind forever.  As a society, we have lost the power of the ballad—and the loss is tragic beyond definition!

The stage lights went out and the metaphorical trapdoor opened up shortly after the immense popularity of what I believe to be one of the most significant ballads in contemporary times:  The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, by Gordon Lightfoot—a multi-gifted composer and troubadour.  With the obvious exception of fictional last minute commentary on the ship, Lightfoot documented the tragedy with careful selection of factual information.

The ballad triggered an inquisitive spirit in me, and in recent years I’ve read everything I could get my hands on concerning the Fitzgerald (pictured above in all its original glory.)  As far as I know, there is still a question:  Did the ship hit an uncharted shoal which jarred the hatches loose, or had they been improperly secured?  God knows.

Shipwrecks are among history’s most horrific events.  I have a penchant for reading about peril on high water, and oddly enough I don’t even like to be tossed about on a small inland lake in a sailboat.

Yes, I do swim and I love water.  Canoes and rowboats are wonderful!  Motors are okay, too.  But flailing in the wind?  No thank you—only in a book.  I have read about many ship disasters, including the Titanic which was massive in scope and devastation compared to the Fitz.  So why is the Edmund Fitzgerald foremost in my head?

Maybe because it happened in my recent lifetime, and less than three hundred miles from home.  Or even more likely, because Gordon Lightfoot wrote and performed an unforgettable song about the Fitz.  It’s all about The Power of the Ballad.

Margaret L. Been — April 23, 2016

Note:  Over decades of serious application to the art of poetry I have written many lyrical, philosophy-of-life pieces.  Ten years ago I decided to try writing a ballad, and I did exactly that.

The ballad is titled:  The Summer of Horses, and it is kind of a metaphorical-epiphany thing.  I was pleased with the effort, and the ballad won 1st Honorable Mention in the 2006 Wisconsin Writers’ Association Annual Jade Ring Contest.

God willing, and the creeks don’t rise, AND providing the days do not suddenly go berserk and hit 70-80° F., I will post The Summer of Horses on this site before National Poetry Month morphs into the Merry Month of May.

But please don’t hold your breath!  🙂

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“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down

Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumme.

The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead

When the skies of November turn gloomy.”

Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

The Great Lakes are famous for shipwrecks.  Over past centuries, thousands of lives have been lost as vessels went down in turbulent inland waters. 

According to Jenny Nolan of The Detroit News, “The first recorded Great Lakes’ tragedy was the sinking of the Le Griffin, belonging to the explorer LaSalle, with a load of furs in autumn of 1680.”

None of the Great Lakes is as potentially treacherous and unfathomable as Lake Superior, the largest of the five.  Many Great Lakes’ disasters have been forgotten, but one in recent history–the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior on November 10th, 1975–may continue to be remembered, as it has been immortalized in a haunting ballad by Gordon Lightfoot.

I’ve read a lot about “the Fitz”, both in books and online.  A couple of years ago, I printed out the entire NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD MARINE ACCIDENT REPORT–26 pages copied and pasted into a document which I saved in my files.  The exact cause of the wreck will remain a matter of opinion and speculation forever.

Were the hatches aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald improperly fastened so that water entered?

Did the Fitz pass over the Caribou Island shoal at a shallow passage inaccurately designated on the navigation maps?

In the devastating storm which beset Lake Superior that evening, did massive towers of vertical waves simply break the ship in two? 

Did the cargo (26,116 tons of taconite pellets) shift, causing a fatal list?

You can actually vote your opinion from the above possibilities on http://www.boatnerd.com/fitz .

Perhaps because the answers often lie undiscovered in the depths of oceans or lakes, there is a compelling fascination in connection with shipwrecks.  Shipwrecks speak of the power of God in a way that stops us in our tracks.  The power of God is awesome.  Sometimes it is just plain terrifying!

Admittedly, I don’t spend much time thinking about the sinking of the Titanic–although that certainly was a huge disaster.  But I’ll probably always remember the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald. 

Lake Superior is practically my neighbor, just a couple of hours north of our home in Northern Wisconsin.  And the Fitz has been immortalized in song!  There’s retaining power in narrative, especially when set to music! 

“The Captain wired in he had water coming in

And the good ship and crew were in peril.

And later that night when his lights went out of sight

Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

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