- Omeros by Derek Walcott
Faber, 325 pp, £17.50, September 1990, ISBN 0 571 16070 0
- Collected Poems by Norman MacCaig
Chatto, 456 pp, £18.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3713 4
- The Mail from Anywhere by Brad Leithauser
Oxford, 55 pp, £5.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 19 282779 0
- An Elegy for the Galosherman: New and Selected Poems by Matt Simpson
Bloodaxe, 128 pp, £6.95, October 1990, ISBN 1 85224 103 9
During the 18th and 19th centuries verse surrendered its longer discursive and narrative forms to prose and confined itself more and more to the short lyric and the sequence of short lyrics. Much of this century’s verse appears to be continuing the process by avoiding paraphrasable meaning altogether. One need only point to the work of Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery to show how successfully some of it sustains our expectations while ultimately refusing to deliver the semantic goods. Having extracted a poem’s point, runs the usual defence of such teasing evasions, readers will have no further use for the poem itself: indeterminacy thus insures a poem against prompt expiry and may even keep it enduringly fresh. Furthermore, if a poem can be paraphrased, it will fail to reflect the radically ‘meaningless’, indeterminate nature of our experience. Derek Walcott’s poems, informed and invigorated as many them are by a coherent ideology, don’t conform to this negative aesthetic. Their ideology, however, is a cultural version of it.
Until recently, as the Barbadan poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite says, West Indians ‘have been unable to afford the luxury of mythology’. Colonial history offers merely divisive images which can only provoke nostalgia, remorse, shame or rancour. Hence many West Indian writers have sought to re-align themselves with the cultural traditions of their various continents of origin. Brathwaite himself, for example, found an authentic West Indian identity in Ghana, where he lived and taught for eight years. His long poem The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (1973) satirises the continuing attachment of the West Indian middle class to the European religious and social legacy, suggesting West African – and in particular Akan – culture as a preferable alternative. Walcott wouldn’t deny his African or his European ancestry: but, having been born and brought up in St Lucia, and spent most of his life in the Caribbean, he has reservations about forcing links with ancestral traditions. ‘It would be equally abhorrent to me to say “I wish we were English again,” ’ he told an interviewer in 1979, ‘as to say “I wish we were African again.” The reality is that one has to build in the West Indies.’ The African revival, as he sees it, may provide a ‘startling access of self-respect’, but can’t help West Indians to root themselves more firmly in the Caribbean.
For Walcott, then, the first step towards creating a West Indian identity is to resist the meanings conferred by history or mythology since the histories and myths in question are based elsewhere. In cadences as Emersonian as its sentiments, his essay ‘The Muse of History’ celebrates the ‘great poets of the New World, from Whitman to Neruda’, whose ‘truly tough aesthetic ... neither explains nor forgives history’ but ‘refuses to recognise it as a creative or culpable force’:
Their vision of man in the New World is Adamic.
In their exuberance he is still capable of enormous
wonder. Yet he has paid his accounts to Greece
and Rome and walks in a world without monuments
and ruins. They exhort him against the fearful
magnet of older civilisations ...
Walcott’s meditative poetic persona can rarely be mistaken for the vatic and declamatory voices of the poets he praises (Cesaire and Perse are also included). If their focus is a clamorous ‘Adamic’ man, his is the Edenic scene. In poems like ‘Crusoe’s Journal’ and ‘The Muse of History at Rampanalgas’ (which later became Chapter 22 of his verse künstler-roman, Another Life, 1973), he seeks refuge in Caribbean landscapes which have never been marked by history or named by literature: ‘a green world, one without metaphors’, where the historian goes ‘mad ... / from thirst’ and ‘the only epics’ are ‘the leaves’. Watching the urban world, he conjures a similar restless repose. His favourite time in town would appear to be midday on a midsummer Sunday, when his subjects are stilled by heat and resting from work, and history seems to pause. Midsummer gives its name and moment to the sequence of hexameters (published in 1984) evoking the menace and boredom stirred in ‘oven alleys’ where ‘heat staggers the drifting mongrels’; and Sundays, ‘idling from the thought in things’, recur with extraordinary frequency throughout his work, getting at least a passing mention in five successive poems in In a Green Night (1962). In the Caribbean the ‘past is an infinite Sunday’, says the narrator of Omeros, and ‘better forgotten than fixed with stony regret’.
The ‘Adamic’ or ‘elemental’ vision, Walcott insists, is a ‘social necessity’ (a necessary response to the displacement and dispossession in every West Indian’s past), and correspondingly determined, vigorous, optimistic (if also optative) and even elated. Where Walcott directly confronts the emptiness of the Caribbean natural or social scene, however, elation is always qualified, and sometimes overwhelmed, by pathos and anger. Elsewhere he expels such feelings by paying his ‘accounts to Greece and Rome’ and wandering through the ‘monuments and ruins’ of the Old World before turning, with considerable relief, to establish his Eden in the New. History and mythology are turned against themselves, invoked and then dismissed.
Walcott’s many transpositions of Classical and especially Homeric themes from the Aegean to the Antillean satisfy his ‘fever for heroic examples’. Yet they also link the Antillean to an idea of origin, pushing the intervening eras of Western history and literature into parenthesis. They end, more often than not, in contrast rather than similarity: his Caribbean characters fall short of their heroic counterparts, while, more poignantly, modern Caribbean life simply can’t be realised in images from the ancient Mediterranean. ‘This is not the grape-purple Aegean,’ the speaker of ‘Gros-Ilet’ tells Elpenor in Walcott’s last collection, The Arkansas Testament (1987). ‘The classics can console,’ concludes the title-poem of Sea Grapes (1976). ‘But not enough.’
Gros-Ilet, a small village on the St Lucian coast, is the main setting for Omeros, Walcott’s most extended and schematic exorcism of history and mythology. The poem is – to borrow Paul Zweig’s phrase for ‘Song of Myself’ – a ‘therapeutic epic’. Each of its main characters represents an unfortunate aspect of the West Indian inheritance which, as the poem progresses, is either cured or comfortably accommodated. Philoctete, for instance, is unable to fish because of a festering leg-wound from an anchor. Both the wound and the racial bitterness and self-hatred with which it is closely associated (‘ancestral wound’) are cured by Ma Kilman, the village obeah-woman and widowed proprietor of the ‘NO PAIN CAFE’. Major Plunkett, British expatriate, wounded veteran of the Second World War and now St Lucian pig farmer, is obsessed with Helen, the proud and beautiful young woman who used to work as his wife Maud’s maid. He identifies her with her island and tries to discover its ‘true place’ in imperial history. Together, his obsession and research make him neglect Maud and at her death, filled with remorse, he gives them both up. The female characters either provoke – or at least catalyse – the male characters’ misguided attitudes or play a decisive part in their cure.
The narrator, who but for the fictional cast around him is Walcott himself, and Achille, simple fisherman, exemplary St Lucian and the poem’s epic hero, are special cases. They alone are granted extended journeys, in the poem’s central section (Books Three to Five), to treat their particular cultural deprivations. Having questioned ‘his name and its origin’ for the first time, Achille is led by the cruciform shadow of a sea-swift back ‘home’ to the African river village of his forefathers. Here he’s forced to accept the discontinuities (language, livelihood) and the continuities (music, dance) between the cultures of his West Indian present and his ancestral past. He also witnesses the primal scene of dispossession, the capture of 15 villagers by slave-traders. The narrator’s affliction – which provides both title and basis for the poem – is to see St Lucian life through the lens of Homeric mythology. He conceives his Homeric metaphors when a Greek woman shows him a small bust of Homer and tells him the modern Greek for the ancient Greek’s name: Omeros. The bust reminds him of Seven Seas, blind St Lucian storyteller; and the name summons images of the St Lucian shoreline. By way of treatment, he roves in an almost disembodied state through Lisbon (Ulissibona: ‘a mud-caked settlement founded by Ulysses’), London and Dublin, reflecting on the imperial fallacy – repeated and excused by each crumbling fountain and commemorative statue – that ‘power / and art’ are ‘the same’.
Tell that to a slave from the outer regions
of their fraying empires, what power lay in the work
of forgiving fountains with naiads and lions.
Omeros is divided into seven books but its narrative falls substantially into three parts. The first two books, in which the various cultural ills are presented and diagnosed, are also a kind of double Iliad. Achille and fellow fisherman Hector are competing for the affections of Helen. Meanwhile, or rather two hundred years earlier, the British and French are fighting over St Lucia, which, as Sir Frederick Treves wrote in The Cradle of the Deep (1910), ‘is the Helen of the West Indies and has been the cause of more blood-shedding than was ever provoked by Helen of Troy. Seven times was it held by the English and seven times by the French ...’ Determined to consolidate this comparison, Plunkett looks for coincidences between the Battle of the Saints (the 1782 sea-battle in which the British fleet, under Admiral Rodney, finally wrested St Lucia from the French) and the Trojan Wars. After the double Odyssey with its European and African ordeals, the poem’s concluding books return to present-day St Lucia. The narrator, relieved of his ‘wrong love’ for the mysterious Greek woman, dismantles his Homeric metaphor and releases his characters:
There, in her head of ebony,
there was no real need for the historian’s
remorse, nor for literature’s. Why not see Helen
as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow,
swinging her plastic sandals on that beach alone,
as fresh as the sea-wind? Why make the smoke a door?
St Lucia itself now stands clear both of Greek mythology and of its own colonial history.
But only to face the problem of the present – tourism – and invite comparisons with the modern Aegean. Its beaches now look ‘just like everywhere else, / Greece or Hawaii’. The terms of dispossession applied to the past also find a bathetic echo in the descriptions of the present. In Africa, Achille ‘was his own memory’; the African slaves carried ‘the nameless freight of themselves’ across the Atlantic: now, Gros-Ilet is a ‘souvenir of itself’. At this point the poem turns for its narrative model from Homeric epic to Dantean allegory (already invoked by the loosely hexametric terza rima used – with one brief interruption by some Audenesque couplets – throughout). A figure alternately resembling the bust of Omeros and Seven Seas appears to the narrator in a dream-vision and – a Virgil to his Dante – leads him around St Lucia to its volcanic crater, Soufrière. In the ‘lava of the Malebolge’ he’s shown the ‘traitors’
who, in elected office, saw the land as views
for hotels and elevated into waiters
the sons of others, while their own learnt something else.
He narrowly escapes joining the poets ‘in their pit’, but sinks into the mud when asked ‘whether a love of poverty helped’ him ‘use other eyes, like those of that sightless stone’.
Whether he’s condemned here for not loving poverty – that is, for not being poor (as, in one account at least, Homer supposedly was) – or for wanting St Lucians to remain poor rather than grow wealthy from the tourists, is not made clear, and the poem ends in stalemate between the exploitation of the islanders by the tourist industry and the narrator’s idealistic nostalgia for their agrarian, uncommercial way of life (‘Hadn’t I made their poverty my paradise?’). Walcott often acknowledges that the process of development is unlikely to be reversed, but plots his ideals all the same. Hector leaves the sea to drive tourists from the airport to the seaside hotels and ends up dying in a crash. Achille, meanwhile, though forced further and further from Gros-Ilet’s new marina to find fish, remains alive and afloat.
Despite its epic properties – invocations, supernatural agents and military heroism among them – and its occasional novelistic dialogues, Omeros is essentially an allegorical poem. One man one feature: the narrator apart, its characters aren’t presented in any convincing depth. They’re not caricatures, however, but emblems occupying clearly defined positions in a narrative which in its turn contains none of the innocent detail so necessary to realism and has a wholly discursive thrust. Details dominate (and often obscure) the events and actions they attend; though at first apparently innocent, they reproduce the poem’s larger meanings in miniature. The sea and the sea-swift preside over almost every page: the one, ‘a wide page without metaphors’, swallowing history and drenching every West Indian ‘survivor with blessing’, the other mediating between the Old and New Worlds. Other images shadow the narrative and reinforce its allegorical progression. The struggle for supremacy between lizard and cannon, for example, spans the entire poem. The original St Lucians, the Aruacs, as we learn at the start, are supposed to have called the island Iounalao, or ‘where the iguana is found’. When history invades, in the Battle of the Saints, the cannon is ‘an iron lizard ... fixed towards the French sails’. Plunkett, the battle’s historian, is at once disarmed and enraged by the sight of an iguana and the threat of the Aruac name (‘History was fact, History was a cannon not a lizard’). But his bluster’s in vain since finally ‘lizards emerge like tongues from the mouths of cannons’ – only they can endure the metal’s heat.
During the course of Omeros the narrator is instructed by his various muses in the responsibilities of his art. From a reader’s point of view, however, social responsibility is the poem’s foundation rather than its destination. The rich texture of its poetry seems to be sustained and underwritten by the strength of its commitments, its declaration of cultural independence. Indeed, craft and conviction are mutually protective. As Kenneth Clarke wrote in Landscape into Art (1949), the ‘less an artefact interests our eye as imitation, the more it must delight our eye as pattern, and an art of symbols always evolves an art of decoration.’ Walcott embellishes the bare semantic framework of his narrative with lots of devices, including personifications, inventories (most notably, a wonderful list of colonial memorabilia unearthed from Plunkett’s tea-chest), and constant alliterative and assonantal effects. There’s an uninhibited and vigorous figurative language, its variant metaphors often stretching sentences across several stanzas.
The roar of famous cities
entered the sea-almond’s branches and then tightened
into silence, and my crab’s hand came out to write –
and down the January beach as it brightened
came bent sibyls sweeping the sand, then a hermit
waist-high in the empty bay, still splashing his face
in that immeasurable emptiness whose war
was between the clouds only.
Omeros’s characteristic qualities are perhaps thrown into sharpest relief when set beside a deeply uncommitted, agnostic poetry – the best of Stevens, say. For a start, its art is rooted confidently in, rather than groping hesitantly towards, a ‘supreme fiction’. An art of uncertainty inevitably enlists very different ways of keeping us interested, which include, in Stevens’s case, enough of a thought process to convince us that it’s looking for certainty and worth trying to follow; a stoical wit and humour to protect itself against the failure of its search; and what the art critic Robert Hughes calls (in a different context) a ‘prophylactic irony’ to obscure the poet’s exact attitude to his statements, making his own uncertainty itself uncertain. Such games, and indeed such rigours, are quite unnecessary to a work like Omeros whose first concern is to discharge its meanings without losing its life. When Stevens’s poems work, decoration and substance are indistinguishable. Omeros works so well because decorations are added freely, layer upon layer, to the groundplan. Of course, the fact that Walcott’s certainty is cultural while Stevens’s uncertainty is metaphysical means that they’re not substantially – only technically – at odds. And though their methods differ, their aims are in a sense comparable. Stevens tried to capture an ‘anti-mythological myth’ (as Auden put it) in words, and consistently succeeded in expressing his failure to do so. For Walcott, having the strength to live the anti-mythological, and anti-historical, myth is our greatest hope of transcending cultural differences. His may be the less convincing reality but it’s certainly the more compelling dream.
Like Walcott, Norman MacCaig is impatient with the limitations of lyric poetry. Walcott longs, in ‘Nearing forty’, for ‘the style past metaphor’; and ‘when would I enter that light beyond metaphor?’ the narrator of Omeros asks. Likewise, in ‘No Choice’, MacCaig says that he’s growing, as he gets older, ‘to hate metaphors – their exactness / and their inadequacy’. For both poets, comparisons are apt to impose too much interpretation on things that should be seen just as they are; both idealise Adam, ‘to whom’, as MacCaig says in ‘A Sigh for Simplicity’, ‘everything was exactly its own name’. But their peculiar brands of metaphor are quite distinct. Walcott’s are semantic, MacCaig’s visually exact. When Walcott talks of the crab’s ‘pincer with its pen like the sea-dipping swift’, he’s describing the natural forms of expression he wants to emulate. The simile is of course visual, but visual accuracy is not an essential part of its effect. MacCaig’s metaphors, on the other hand, can conjure objects with such a surprising vividness that Douglas Dunn calls them ‘landmarks in the history of the human eye’. ‘Hard to remember,’ he observes in ‘Loch Sionascaig’, ‘how the water went / Shaking the light, / Until it shook like peas in a riddling plate’.
Or how a trout hung high its drizzling bow
For a count of three –
Heraldic figure on a shield of spray.
The publication of MacCaig’s Collected Poems marks his 80th birthday. The volume reprints the earlier Collected Poems (1985), adding his last book, Voice-Over (1988), and 15 poems written since. Two stylistic shifts stand out in the development of MacCaig’s poetry. His first two books follow the densely symbolic and impenetrable style of the New Apocalyptic poets of the early Forties, and have been omitted from subsequent collections including this one. The lyrics of the next decade, from Riding Lights (1955) to Measures (1965), use regular metres and a formal yet conversational language to describe the Scottish landscape and study the subtle give-and-take between imagination and reality. In Surroundings (1966) – and for the most part ever since – MacCaig turns to free verse and a much more casual utterance. The most successful poems, it seems to me, come from the second phase – the first half of the Collected Poems. Typically, they bring together various, often quite unrelated metaphors for parts of the scene he’s looking at, adducing only the most sparing and unintrusive ‘point’ from it. After observing that stunning natural effects are hard to remember, ‘Loch Sionascaig’ concludes:
Yet clear the footprint in the puddled sand
That slowly filled
And rounded out and disappeared.
Tightness of form has sufficiently binding power to give the poems all the unity they need. The forms of which MacCaig seems especially fond (and which he uses particularly well) are tercets made of a couplet with an unrhyming first or last line, a head or a tail.
‘Deciding not to’ rhyme ‘is much harder’, Larkin said in his Paris Review interview. When MacCaig decides not to rhyme, the results tend to be worse. Metrical regularity tautens his work and seems to create more possibilities than it obstructs. Unfortunately, his later free verse also goes hand in hand with a more predominantly discursive and abstract content. ‘No Consolation’, for example, is a merely sophistical and crudely explicit rehearsal of the observation, subtly demonstrated in many previous poems, that the languages we invent to describe the world are arbitrary and inconsistent. ‘And how odd to suppose,’ it ends,
you prove you love your wife
by continually committing adultery
In a fair and perceptive assessment of MacCaig’s poetic career (in Verse), Douglas Dunn quotes Paul Valéry’s remark that ‘skilled verse is the art of a profound sceptic,’ and goes on to speculate that the ‘de-versification’ of MacCaig’s poetry possibly ‘signposts a weakening of that scepticism’. Presumably, Valéry was sceptical about the capacity of prose to say directly what verse is so good at saying, albeit indirectly. MacCaig’s work illustrates the point from both sides.
As Brad Leithauser’s poems reveal, skilled and strictly regular verse is sometimes much closer to prose than it may appear. Leithauser’s second collection (to be published in Britain), The Mail from Anywhere, opens with one of his characteristically ornate stanza forms – shaped here, appropriately enough, like a slightly asymmetrical parachute:
an empty sea, and seemingly at home
up there, and floating, too, down here, inside the twin
circles of my binoculars, he ventures quite
without support, since the lifelines
that bond him to that bright
above his head
remain, no matter how I squint and strain,
The form of ‘A Worded Welcome’ is reminiscent of 17th-century emblem poems rather than of the more recent and self-consciously clever pattern poems by Cummings and others. Even so, one can’t help agreeing with Addison that the visual presentation of a poem’s substance is a species of ‘false wit’. Stanzas play an important part in poem’s effect when they’re audible (Hardy’s are the supreme example), and the audible unit of ‘A Worded Welcome’ is the sentence, not the stanza. This, and the way the poem carefully scans the visible world for moral lessons, place it beside much of Leithauser’s earlier book, Between Leaps (1987). It ends, however, with the parachutist meeting, ‘as pledged, / the rich, soiled earnest of / a peopled world’: the book’s first section is called ‘A Peopled World’, its second ‘You and Them’; both signal this book’s main departure from the earlier one. Leithauser’s painstaking and impressive precisions are here enriched by a closer engagement with people’s lives. ‘Uncle Grant’ and ‘The Caller’, sympathetic portraits of a great-uncle and aunt and the longest poems in the collection, exploit his considerable talent to greater emotional effect than any of his earlier poems.
Sketches of relatives and friends, present and remembered, are the staple forms of Matt Simpson’s An Elegy for the Galosherman: New and Selected Poems. Starting in the ‘bombed back-streets of Bootle’ (as the ‘biographical note’ calls them) where Simpson grew up, and moving briefly to Cambridge before returning to Liverpool, the book is arranged to suggest an autobiographical narrative – and succeeds remarkably well. The poems are admirable both for their economy and for their tact. Autobiography can all too easily become either an excessively nostalgic record of loss or a detached and glib conquest of a helpless past. Simpson’s poems consistently steer clear of both – with no loss of intelligence or feeling. They have a quiet humour too. On his Confirmation Day, Simpson found helping the priest assemble his crozier in the vestry ‘more confirming’ than the service:
his hands laid on
my brylcreemed and immaculate quiff
in front of mother and tense aunts.
I looked to wink at him but he
was mitred and professional.
Oddly, the better autobiographical poetry is, the less its motives show. Simpson’s work doesn’t appear to be gesturing at us; the reader’s presence is incidental. Yet nor, apparently, does it want to analyse what it’s remembering. It’s scenes are simply there, like ‘Blossom Street’, the ‘place a memory, the memory a place’.