Monday, August 13, 2007

Note to Self: Check into Poetry by Derek Walcott

(After reading a review of SELECTED POEMS by Derek Walcott in WEEKLY STANDARD, August 13, 2007.)

A recent review of Selected Poems by Derek Walcott has brought the Nobel Laureate to my belated attention. In his Nobel lecture (1992), he describes a recent visit to his native Trinidad, which has a sizable East Indian population. He describes the preparations for a traditional Indian play, play as worship, but by people several generations removed from the land of those traditions. He writes:

I, out of the writer's habit, searched for some sense of elegy, of loss, even of degenerative mimicry in the happy faces of the boy-warriors or the heraldic profiles of the village princes. I was polluting the afternoon with doubt and with the patronage of admiration. I misread the event through a visual echo of History - the cane fields, indenture, the evocation of vanished armies, temples, and trumpeting elephants - when all around me there was quite the opposite: elation, delight in the boys' screams, in the sweets-stalls, in more and more costumed characters appearing; a delight of conviction, not loss.

What does all this have to do with poetry? "Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole." (Read his speech at Nobel Prize. org.

The review in WEEKLY STANDARD by writer Patrick J. Walsh praises Walcott for his "passion" and, in a broad sense of the word, his religiousness. Walcott clearly believes in meaning, and poetry as a way to distill it. Maybe that's an old-fashioned notion. Writing of his own students at Boston University, Walcott relays how young students "repeat what other teachers have told them: 'this thing has too much should not use rhyme.'" This is peculiar to American culture at this time, he says, and concludes, "I think when democracy becomes too assertive it becomes fascist." I'm not sure how to interpret that. The teachers, and probably their teachers, are going to have developed their critical opinions in the era when modernism and Marxism were closely intertwined, and for them, rhyme, universality, and form itself were considered elitist, controlling, and fascist. For those teachers, "God" is an embodiment of all that's wrong with traditional society. Walcott mourns the loss of God in literature and life.

I'm not sure I could enjoy his poetry in the way I've enjoyed Lawrence Raab's, Linda Paston's, or Jane Kenyon's. I read that he has updated Homer and created other epics. I suspect that he sustains a tone of portentousness that would wear on me.

But I do love this excerpt, cited in the review:
Rhyme remains the parenthesis of palms
Shielding a candle's tongue, it is the language's
Desire to enclose the loved one in its arms.

Three lines, three metaphors, and a whole creed's worth of beliefs are there, returning to his theme of "love," and language as a way to "embrace" or "reassemble" on a page what is loved. And, as one who likes to write rhymes, I can attest to taking the kind of loving care he describes here. The second rhyme must be like the second parenthesis, enclosing something meaningful, or it's no good. Bad rhyme, which fills pop music and youthful poetry, is empty parentheses. Good rhyme moves beyond expressing an idea; its rightness and neatness makes it identical with the idea.

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