Serraillier: The Ballad of Kon-Tiki

March 27, 2017

The Ballad of Kon-Tiki, and other verses
Ian Serraillier
(Oxford, 1952)
71 p.

When I bought this book I assumed it was intended for children, it not occurring to me that there might have been times and places where adults would read narrative poetry for their own pleasure. Nonetheless, that seems to be just what we have here: a verse account of the adventures that befell the Kon-Tiki expedition, not especially intended for children.

This expedition, if you do not know, was undertaken in the late 1940s by Thor Heyerdahl and five companions. They sailed a balsa-wood raft, “one flake of foam darker than the rest”, 7000 km across the South Pacific, from Peru to Polynesia, as an anthropological experiment. The story has been told, in prose, in Heyerdahl’s wonderful book The Kon-Tiki Expedition (which I wrote about some years ago). Everybody thought they were crazy to try it, and they sort of were, but they succeeded.

The poem begins with their preparations, with the warnings against rashness, and with the launch. We meet each of the sailors, and encounter a huge storm:

And the trade wind swept them northward
to a raging hell of waters, niagara confounded.
They were whirled about and pounded,
gulped down the ocean’s greedy throat
and spewed out again, up-ended,
checked in mid-somersault
yet still afloat.

Landlubber that I am, the thought of a storm at sea doesn’t immediately put me in mind of a throat. But I note with interest that the same connection is made by Eliot:

Also pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them…

so perhaps I’m missing something. Serraillier goes on to relate some of the more dramatic episodes in the expedition, such as the encounter with a whale shark, and the time one of the men fell overboard and seemed to be lost. But the greatest drama is reserved for the harrowing landing on the Raroia reef, a massive, bone-crushing coral reef against which they were pushed at their journey’s end, and which they, seemingly by a miracle, survived, though the Kon-Tiki was reduced to wreckage:

the cabin battered,
a house of cards collapsed on deck;
the helm in splinters, and the steering block
a mangled crock;
crossbeam and hardwood mast snapped off,
the bamboo deck ripped up and slapped
like pasted paper on the cabin wall.

There is nothing greatly profound about a poem like this, no layers into which to delve, but, on its own terms, considered simply as a narrative poem about a great and true adventure, I found it enjoyable.

*

“The Ballad of Kon-Tiki” takes up about half of this volume. The rest consists of a number of other poems, including (sans illustrations) “The Ballad of St Simeon”, which I wrote about last month; seeing it printed in sober black and white reinforces my sense that even that poem is not really intended for children. In addition we get “The Weaver Birds”, which tells an affecting fable about a bird who rescues his mate from trouble, and “The Bishop and the Devil”, a comedic poem in which a medieval French bishop uses the devil’s cunning against him, and a few shorter poems as well. Some of these I liked more than others, but I liked all of them to some extent.

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