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Midsummer, Tobago -- Derek Walcott

       
(Poem #993) Midsummer, Tobago
 Broad sun-stoned beaches.

 White heat.
 A green river.

 A bridge,
 scorched yellow palms

 from the summer-sleeping house
 drowsing through August.

 Days I have held,
 days I have lost,

 days that outgrow, like daughters,
 my harbouring arms.
-- Derek Walcott
This is the first Derek Walcott poem to feature on the Minstrels, a
situation for which you can blame my abject lack of familiarity with
post-colonial poetry in general and Walcott's work in particular. This will
not do; I really do need to read more Walcott. It's not just that he's an
"important" poet [1], he's also a very good one. Caught between European
culture and Caribbean experience, he has spent a lifetime seeking to resolve
the post-colonial paradox; in a poetic career spanning half a dozen decades,
his work has been of a consistently high standard.

Walcott's poems are about voyages. Not necessarily physical ones; he's
equally concerned with the links that connect past and present, and the
journeys of the mind between them. He fills his verse with ruminations on
the nature of memory and the creative imagination, the history, politics and
landscape of the West Indies, his own life and loves, and his enduring
awareness of time and death. These themes are explored with insight and
tact; they are also, in Walcott's hands, infused with the rarest of
qualities, a sense of _place_.

Walcott's poems are excellent proof of the fact that it is possible to write
"poetically" using free verse. His language is elegant and evocative and
never forced; his merging of various linguistic influences (the vibrant
Creole of his native Caribbean, the stately Latin and Greek of the classics,
the workaday English of his Boston years) gives his poetry a richness and
texture lost to many more traditional poets, while the absence of formal
structure gives it a suppleness equal to the demands of his themes.

Today's poem is short, but astonishingly vivid, and deceptively subtle.
Walcott uses the stillness and uniformity of summer days to highlight the
inexorable passage of time; one day follows another, "drowsing through
August", until suddenly years have gone by, years which can never be
reclaimed. A resolution that might easily have slipped into pathos in the
hands of a lesser poet is handled here with delicacy and care, so that we
are left with a sense of poignancy and loss, yes, but also of nostalgia and
quietude. Notice the skill with which Walcott paints his landscape in the
opening lines: he uses less than a dozen words, but they are enough. Notice,
also, the sheer perfection of the analogy that concludes the poem: the
phrase "like daughters" adds layers of depth and meaning and feeling to the
whole. Wonderfully done.

thomas.

[1] I'd be the last to consider "importance" to be any sort of criterion for
the appreciation of poetry.

[Nobel Committee announcement]

Derek Walcott won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. Here is the text
of the statement made by the Nobel Committee, announcing the award:

"This year the Swedish Academy has decided to award the Nobel Prize for
Literature to Derek Walcott. Walcott, who is 62 was born in Saint Lucia but
now lives in Trinidad. He has both African and European blood in his veins.
In him West Indian culture has found its great poet. He also has a chair in
English at Boston University.

Walcott showed his mettle early on. As the title of his substantial volume
of "Collected Poems 1948-1984" shows, he was already writing poetry of
lasting value at the end of his teens. Like Brodsky and Paz he has an
intense belief in poetry and poets and he has made this one of his themes.

Otherwise it is the complexity of his own situation that has provided one of
the most fruitful sources of inspiration. Three loyalties are central for
him - the Caribbean where he lives, the English language, and his African
origin. In the poem "A Far Cry from Africa", he says "How choose / Between
this Africa and the English tongue I love?" One of his major works, the long
poem "Another Life" (1973), is devoted to his development and the course of
his education in this environment.

In his collection of poems "The Arkansas Testament" (1987) he continues the
broadening of perspective which is also a characteristic of his oeuvre.
Among these poems can be found works dedicated to Marina Tsvetaeva and W.H.
Auden ("Strict as Psalm or Lesson, / I learnt your poetry").

Walcott's latest poetic work is "Omeros" (1990), a majestic Caribbean epos
in 64 chapters - "I sang our wide country, the Caribbean Sea". This is a
work of incomparable ambitiousness, in which Walcott weaves his many strands
into a whole. Its weft is a rich one, deriving from the poet's wide-ranging
contacts with literature, history and reality. We find Homer, Poe,
Mayakovsky and Melville, allusions are made to Brodsky (" the parentheses of
palms / shielding a candle's tongue"), and he quotes the Beatles'
"Yesterday". Walcott's metaphors and images are numerous, and often striking
- "And beyond them, like dominoes / with lights for holes, the black
skyscrapers of Boston". He captures white seagulls against a blue sky in the
image "Gulls chalk the blue enamel". His poetry acquires at one and the same
time singular lustre and great force.

Walcott is in the first place a poet but he has also produced interesting
work for the theatre. His masterstroke was "Dream on Monkey Mountain"
(1970), a striking but scenographically demanding Caribbean fresco. The same
dream-like atmosphere can be found in several of his plays, such as "Ti-Jean
and His Brothers" (1958) and, to a certain extent, in "The Last Carnival"
(in "Three Plays" (1986), which deals with two important decades in the
recent history of Trinidad. A significant feature of his plays is the skill
with which the author plays on his own complex range of voices. It is
impossible, however, to reproduce this in the totally different language
situation of Sweden.

Walcott's style is melodious and sensitive. It seems to issue principally
from a prolific inspiration. In his literary works Walcott has laid a course
for his own cultural environment, but through them he speaks to each and
every one of us."

        -- http://www.nobel.se/literature/laureates/1992/press.html

9 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

David Kwabi said...

i think this poem is simple, highly descriptive and sharp. there are very few words, carefully chosen, i must say, but very effective in portraying the inevitable passage of time. excellent.

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