TS Eliot ’11 Part 4: Derek Walcott – White Egrets

Taking an executive decision here. I’ve decided to spend as little time as possible on the middling stuff and plenty on the best. So here’s White Egrets, easily the best book on the shortlist, and one of the best collections I’ve had the pleasure to read.

One of the key and repeated failings of the others is their inability to create a compelling central character, the speaking voice behind the poem, the guy you’re going to spend at least a couple of hours listening to (something it feels like I’ve been banging on about. But from an enjoyment perspective it’s probably the most important thing). There are numerous possible explanations for this, but I’m really trying hard not to go ad hominem against these chaps. They (with a couple of exceptions) aren’t bad, but when faced with the choice between ambition (and accordingly spectacular success or failure) and whatever the opposite of ambition is (inertia?), the latter is usually chosen. Which is possibly worse as it gives me that much less to write about and diminishes the returns for any deeper investigation. I’ll be going over the remaining seven books in varying degrees of detail, probably multiple books per post. In case you were wondering.

I raise the issue of voice because there’s a prevailing notion that poetry books don’t need them, that to risk poking the poet’s ‘I’ above the parapet is somehow unpoetrylike, almost (OH SHIT) prosaic. Well, [drumroll into microphone] poems and novels are both made out of words, and words uninvested with emotion and human interaction are boring. I’m fighting to hold back the specific complaints I have about other books, but I can’t help feeling if they’d read White Egrets before setting loose their own works I could write a duller but more contented series of articles.

It’s a commonly held assumption that a poetry book should have its best poems at the start and at the end and that dipping into the book anywhere should be as rewarding as reading from start to finish. How goddamn lazy are we? Suggest this to a filmmaker, novelist, even a painter, that the eye should traipse its own merry course through the work heedless of the author’s intent. It’s patronising and legitimises lazy thinking. [Perhaps talk about Walcott now – ed] We have to assume that the author has arranged his work in the way he would prefer the reader to approach it, that even if we drop all our poetry baggage at the door and pretend these are the only poems we’ve ever encountered, the cumulative alchemy performed will create something that could not be achieved (so effectively) in any other combination. So sure, you could pick out any one of Walcott’s individual poems and say here is an effective poem. Lo, I am moved. But follow the assembly instructions (Walcott has even numbered the things) and see what happens.

Again I find myself putting off actually talking about the work. Call it evidence of feeling in awe of what I have invited myself to sniff around [nice try]. Walcott has produced a piece of work I would happily give to anyone about whom I gave a care. It exhibits an uncommon generosity in its tone, a quick mind at work with an array of motifs that impact harder with each recurrence and an intense emotional drive, all the while steering the collection’s 54 intricately pitched poems that invoke death’s proximity without bowing to its authority between the whirlpool of sentimentality and the sea-monster of self-regard. Or, here’s what I would have written if I hadn’t bothered with those pesky degrees: it’s a complete book. It matches its ambitions, it illuminates the world for the reader, it invites one into an intimacy with an articulate writer who has made of his life a satisfying evaluation. It’s high time we heard a little of it. “Look, it’s / just the old story of a heart that won’t call it quits / whatever the odds, quixotic.” “In the cool lobby / the elderly idle. I was now one of them.” “How boring the love of others is, isn’t it, Reader? / This page, touched by the sun’s declining arc, / sighs with the same whinge, the Sonnets and Petrarch.” Yep, you’re not getting anything like the full sense of it. Watch me simultaneously backpedal and pretend I meant it. It’s a similar experience I had to reading Douglas Dunn: if the poem in its entirety was moving, trying to locate the precise locus of impact was impossible. Here’s an anecdote I’m pretty sure I heard on the West Wing (hoo we’re having fun now): it’s a show you could watch solely for the point about two-thirds in when Jed would sigh to Leo or Leo to Jed and say “there’s a concert pianist. He has his friend over to hear his new work. He plays it for him, the whole thing. The friend says, ‘it’s beautiful, but what does it mean?’ So the pianist plays it again.” That’s Walcott. There’s a facility to his work I can only attribute to a deep and prolonged engagement with a great variety of human beings, and only explain by analogy.

I mentioned novels earlier (I think), and how finding a poem ‘prose-y’ is probably the worst thing you can say about it. But White Egrets does have a novel’s feeling of involvement, a developed character at its core, and a sense of the world complicating and expanding in time with our assimilation of the book. It’s here I think Walcott really excels, where he strides into his own league. His understanding is not just of the subject matter of the poem but of the reader consuming it, an understanding that occasionally stops the poem in its tracks, or makes the logical step moments before would have anticipated it. The book not only welcomes but relishes the presence of a living reader before a static author and is at pains to give the book an emotional dynamic that reflects that arrangement. (We could do the whole death of the author thing but let’s not.) Poems shouldn’t be thought experiments or riddles with a set of clues and a solution. Poems probably shouldn’t allow themselves to be defined in terms of what they hypothetically ‘should be’, like there’s some moral obligation involved. But these poems work. There is only so much one can revolutionise formally, and lyric poetry will almost always operate around the nexus of hope/loss, love/death, with the restrictions of the format and emotional kinesis in constant tension. But the potential variety from these points is endless, and White Egrets pushes the lyric engine to its full capacity.

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