It’s 5:30 in the afternoon at Newcomb Hollow Beach, and I am sitting on the sand directly in front of the parking lot so as to catch the last fifteen minutes of sun on the beach. The surf is regular and moderate, but only one paddle-boarder pushes leisurely out onto the surface of the sea between swells, stands up on his board, and then, as my granddaughter Coco puts it, he begins to “sweep the ocean.”
There are only a couple of dozen people on the beach. They are spaced out over perhaps a third of a mile, and though most are too far apart for conversation, they are connected by a common orientation. That is, whether seated or standing on the beach, or even standing in the swash of the surf itself, they are, without exception, looking seaward.
Robert Frost contemplated this phenomenon in his short, deceptively-simple poem called “Neither Out Far Nor in Deep.”
It begins: “The people along the sand/All turn and look one way. / They turn their backs on the land. /They look at the sea all day.”
And it ends: “They cannot look out far. /They cannot look in deep. / But when was that ever a bar/to any watch they keep?”
This little poem, so static in tone, so deliberately plain in language, has always seemed to me to be consciously crafted to have no overt or specific meaning. Or rather, the meaning is inherent in its very stillness, its lack of movement or progression. Even the question at the end of the poem - “but when was that ever a bar/to any watch they keep?” - is framed to be self-answering. We don’t learn anything from this poem. It just affirms, with absolute, quiet authority, what we already know: “The people along the sand/All turn and look one way. / They turn their backs on the land. / They look at the sea all day.”
This time, however, I realize that Frost gets it right not just poetically, but geographically as well. That is, this mass, trancelike orientation from the beach toward the water only takes place at the ocean. We don’t stop and stare that way at a lake, no matter how large or beautiful it is. Oh, we may step out on a lake deck and stand there for several minutes entranced by the loveliness of a sunset, or the majestic sight of a mountain, or the call of a loon, or even a motorboat going by, but not much longer than that. If we do stay longer and appear to be behaving like the people on the ocean beach – that is, not looking at or doing anything in particular, we are likely to have someone come up to us and ask, with concern, “Are you all right?” That would never happen on the ocean beach.
No, it’s the sea, and specifically the surf that mesmerizes and holds us in this peculiar, trancelike way on the beach. The sight and sound of the surf creates a sense of some universal, unending message that we can never quite see or hear, but no matter. We keep listening, and watching, for something.
We cannot look out far. / We cannot look in deep. / But when was that ever a bar/to any watch we keep?