The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Poetry is harrrrrrrd

Posted on: April 16, 2008

What a difference a new (to me) contemporary poetry collection makes. Reading Walcott has led me to new ideas about the different forms of poetry collections, how they’re arranged, specifically, and how that influences my reading. It reminded me what a lot of work it is. I’m (pleasantly) forced to do minute analysis that I don’t do when reading novels (though I probably should but, argh, so many words and stuff! :p). I marvelled again at the big ideas that a poet would do his best to encompass and convey in a single page. Sea Grapes was not the only collection capable of doing this but if one is going to acquire new perspectives it’s best to do so with remarkable poems rather than bland ones.

Did I mention it was hard? Not that I should overstate things but I found his poems more difficult to close read than those in, say, Louise Glück’s Averno. There are still poems in her collection that I find opaque but it’s more due to the fact that I haven’t given them my full attention; and I feel that, once I find the right starting point,the poem’s other points will become readily apparent or more accessible, based on past experience. With Sea Grapes‘ poems I may find one entry point and follow that path to the end (if I’m very lucky) or part way and then have to step back and find another path in and another until I feel satisfied with what I’ve gleaned. Each poem is like a maze with several pathways to the end but in Averno the walls between the different routes are more permeable. Which is not to say that Walcott’s poems don’t work as unified wholes but he puts a lot into them and almost always chooses to do so with varying degrees of subtlety and complex interlinking. If I read a poem, like “The Virgins”, and got the main gist after about two or three readings — not close reading just repetition to get the poem’s basic sense — in one sense it didn’t feel like a Walcott experience. What? I’d think to myself. Must be some kind of trap here…he’s lulled me into complacency.

I’ve properly read the collection’s first five poems which worked as a loose group for me. They all have strong, obvious Caribbean connections where as the next few poems shift to New York, Europe and the Christian creation myth and I could see thematic connections but could not quite get into their situations; you’re working with my current, incomplete take on the book.

The book’s title is taken from the opening poem. Because of that I use it as the collection’s epicentre and when reading other poems, endeavour to find out whether they develop ideas, references or images in “Sea Grapes”. Averno worked differently: the title poem was placed in the middle as a kind of climax with various peaks before in the poems about Persephone, her mother and Hades. This realization has made me seriously consider the wisdom of buying “selected” editions without first trying the complete versions. Anyway, on to “Sea Grapes”.

That little sail in light
which tires of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home, could be Odysseus,
home-bound on the Aegean,
that father and husband’s

longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is
like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name
in every gull’s outcry;

This brings nobody peace. The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility
will never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore
now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,
since Troy lost its old flame,

and the blind giant’s boulder heaved the trough
from whose ground-swell the great hexameters come
to finish up as Caribbean surf.

The classics can console. But not enough.

A sea grape bush grows near beaches in tropical climates in the Caribbean area. It can withstand a high amount of salt and so is often planted to stabilize beach edges. It’s also edible and good as jam. And with that you’re immediately put by the sea, a setting that permeates the first few poems in this collection and courses through much of Walcott’s poetry. He works to establish the island image in the reader’s mind, particularly Caribbean ones, and then investigates how its past and present affects both his and the reader’s perspective. He does this through literary and biblical references, playing on assumptions and stereotypes (inverting and reversing them including his own expected role), working with contrasts and, in some moments, making a straight play at trying to encompass and define in words intangible, revelatory, powerful moments. There will be many similes to help readers out and Walcott is very careful in shaping our focus with word and verse length and rhythm to create effects that develop the poem’s meaning.

Note the diction in the first two stanzas. Walcott quietly builds the scene with short lines filled with one or two syllable words. They are tight, compact, focused until he starts to explicate his feelings. The third stanza acts as a transition and the rest are expansive with longer lines, longer words, less commas so that the less uninterrupted rhythm coerces us to break down his meaning rather than be caught up in stark images (although there is the “blind giant” near the end). The poem ends in brevity.

The enjambments in the first three stanzas help to compact meaning while still effecting a flow of continuous thematic development. The first break puts “home” with the “home-bound” Odysseus; his more appropriate “longing” for family contrasted with his adulterous one for Nausicaa (which is a departure from Homer’s The Odyssey if I’m remembering it right). He forges connections with other word arrangements as well with “Caribbean”, “Odysseus” and “Aegean” all at the end of successive lines.

One has a clearer idea of what techniques Walcott uses to convey a topic that’s discernible after a couple of reads. Observing the schooner sailing Caribbean waters reminds him of Odysseus’ ship sailing the Aegean. The ancient Greek’s own experiences of attempting to reconcile his familial obligations with his own desires reminds Walcott of his own conflict, one that partly lies with the Homer epic itself — the love he has for Western European art when his existence and residence was brought about by that region’s greed and inhumanity. It is “[t]he ancient war/between obsession and responsibility” taking place “under snarled sour grapes”. This frustration is why he describes the boat as being tired of its surrounds, so anxious to leave its “beating up” the water to get home. This projection of his interior mood on to the external objects is something that will pop up in subsequent poems.

The word “war” is a little jarring in the leisurely setting (yes, I can’t help but see it that way, there’s a guy chilling on the beach after all) and the fierce turmoil the word conveys also works against the poem’s quiet. Earlier on, I pointedly mentioned that Walcott “quietly” created various scenes because the entire poem appeals strongly to sight but not to sound. It has a banked quality, a restrained subtely that is broken only when he mentions a “gull’s outcry”. For me, though, that word isn’t a particularly sensual choice. This silence helps create a tension that is broken in a later poem. The adjective “ancient” before war is more important because it solidifies that link between now and the past and interjects the idea that Walcott’s problem is not singular, perhaps not even unique, for it “has been the same/for the sea wanderer or the one on shore/now wriggling on his sandals to walk home”.

Although the poem at the end conveys defeatism, as a reader, when I see such dour thoughts develop into such a beautifully evocative passage —

and the blind giant’s boulder heaved the trough
from whose ground-swell the great hexameters come
to finish up as Caribbean surf.

— it’s an optimistic moment, despite the bald, final statements that follow. There will always be a separation but it can be bridged if not erased.

Next: Walcott’s Frederiksted trilogy

5 Responses to "Poetry is harrrrrrrd"

Imani, this has been one of the most pleasurable readings about Walcott’s poetry. I’m looking forward to more.

1Love,
Geoffrey

Oh wow. I’m glad! I had a lot of fun doing it to despite my whinging in the post. I hope the others are as good for you!

Thank you. I must try and get hold of this collection because it looks as if it might cover some of the same ideas as his dramatised exploration of the Odyssey which I saw in Stratford some years ago and loved.

[…] in Sea Grapes because if I hold on to it for much longer it will never be completed. First part here which should be read or skimmed in order to better appreciate the […]

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