Three Poets

Selected Poems

by Derek Walcott
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 85 pp., $4.00


by Frank Lima
Tibor de Nagy, 27 pp., $2.00

Derek Walcott’s Selected Poems embraces both work done in the last three or four years, and most of the poems published in his earlier, and only other, collection, In a Green Night. He is in his mid-thirties and is a West Indian. Robert Graves notes that he “handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most (if not any) of his English-born contemporaries.” Graves’s favorites have always been odd; the oddest thing here is that of all the poets who have influenced Walcott (and there are many), Graves has made the slightest impact. Walcott lingers over his language like a lover; he employs orotund, mellifluously spun lines. He is, as they say, “on stage,” and certainly his poems read aloud are more rewarding. In any case, these characteristics alone set him apart from his English-born contemporaries, most of whom in the manner of the Movement write wry, inelegant miniatures, the new emblem of the Welfare State.

But Walcott is an exotic (his descriptions are drenched with the “sea-music and sea-light” of his islands), and he is also engagé (factors of race and repression are the backwash beneath every breaker). His world is almost a continual surge of scenic delights and/or degradations, all of which he uses for dramatic effect, sometimes in the symbolist mode, sometimes as a sort of pictorial choreography, and sometimes as a violently-charged reverie, or as a declamation:

The flowering breaker detonates its surf
White bees hiss in the coral skull.
Nameless I came among olives of algae,
Foetus of plankton, I remember nothing.

These lines open a long and ceremonious piece, set in isolated glory as the second section of the book. Called “Origins,” it moves on some fugitive, timeless plane “Between the Greek and African pantheon,” or between Guinea and Troy or Cytherea (Biblical references are also around), and in it the narrator searches for his self, for his “own name.” It ends with a quasi-apocalyptic glimpse of “Those who conceive the birth of white cities in a raindrop/And the annihilation of races in the prism of the dew.” Not many attempt things like this any more, not many Walcott’s age anyway. Here are other moments, equally representative: “Now, when the mind would pierce infinity,/A gap in history closes, like a cloud.” Or “The mind, among seawrack sees its mythopoeic coast,/Seeks, like the polyp, to take root in itself.” Reading such lines, indeed reading the whole of “Origins,” especially its italicized portions which sound like additions to Perse’s Sea-Marks, one thinks first of genuine inspiration, i.e., the poet as seer, and then of something more earthy, i.e., the poet as showman. Poetic ambition, it seems to me, is the true theme of his poem, as it is elsewhere. It inhabits Walcott’s work like the crab nebula. It is difficult to believe that the poet seeks, as he says, “As climate seeks its style, to write/ Verse crisp as sand…ordinary/As a tumbler of island water.” Yet if that’s the true theme, what serves as the official one is something else, and paradoxically, it’s quite honest. Here Walcott’s brooding, his insistent sense of exile, of loss, takes on an urgency extending beyond its modernist derivations. A Negro nurtured on the white man’s culture, a “servant” in the white man’s world, attached and yet alienated, surrounded by “filth and foam”; the ambivalence throws into doubt even his role as poet:

I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the Eng- lish tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

However, aside from some excursions into native speech (I’m thinking of “Parang” and “Pocomania,” the latter incongruously echoing Eliot’s early quatrains), there’s nothing revolutionary or proletarian as such in his work. His temper is much more aristocratic, visionary, religious. The religious element is subdued, but dominant enough; it has its hapless occasions, as in “The Wedding of an Actress,” where the irony of appearance and reality vis-à-vis faith is fashionably spelled-out; “We too are actors, who behold/This ceremony. We hold/Our breath, defying dissolution;/Faith, we are told, like art/Feeds on illusion.” I use aristocratic in the sense of a certain tone, the influence of Donne, Marvell, Tate, Yeats (or Yeats through Tate). The visionary atmosphere comes largely out of Crane, and here, I think, lies Walcott’s Achilles’ heel. Let us compare two stanzas of “Voyages,” with parts of “Conqueror,” one of Walcott’s finer efforts, so I do not think I’m choosing in niggardly fashion. First Crane:

Take this Sea, whose diapason knells
On scrolls of silver snowy sen- tences,
The sceptered terror of whose ses- sions rends
As her demeanors motion well or ill,
All but the pieties of lover’s hands.

Now Walcott:

Take these small sparrows, witless if you will
That in the frightful glory of this hour
Flirt with that armed mass quiet on the hill,
Who dip, twitter, alight
On windless pennons, on these iron sheaves…

The question of indebtedness aside, it is not only that Crane’s diction is surer, or that the poem is more suggestive whereas Walcott only sounds good; more important, Crane’s voice is there, viable, authentic. Walcott comes to us as through a sieve, with a damp, muffled sonority. And since “Conqueror” is almost as conceptually crowded, and difficult as “Voyages” (I think the theme concerns power, corruption, false heroics), one has a right to quibble, if that is what is being done, and to expect a revelation. The revelation, the fresh, resolving change of key is in Crane:

Bind us in time, O Seasons clear, and awe.
O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,
Bequeath us to no earthly shore until
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal’s wide spindrift gaze to- ward paradise.

I do not find it so in the conclusion of “Conqueror”:

If one cried out pity might shake the mind
Like a limp pennon in a sudden wind.
And at that cry, the god must raise his hand
However, wearily, and all respite end
In noise and neighing thunder, in a wealth
Of sounding brass and the con- queror, sighing descend
Down to the desolation of the self.

This preoccupation with the Self, with the solitary figure against the horizon, with something vague and minatory, rings down the curtain too often, and Walcott’s lush melancholy, that itch to be impressive, strikes me, after a while, as a bore. But Walcott has special gifts, which as has already been observed are not much evident in younger poets, whether English or American: his textures are musical, he has a painter’s eye, his craftsmanship is adventurous, and his moral or imaginative responses aren’t shabby. When these qualities triumph as they do in about a half-dozen poems, primarily “In a Green Night,” “D’Ennery,” and “Crusoe’s Island,” then the full force of his personality, the personality of place, the troubled beauty of his Antillean land, comes strikingly to the surface.

At one moment Denise Levertov can be direct and honest and at the next seem struggling as if blind-folded. Looking for meaning in her poems is like looking for a four-leaf clover. She is both sure-handed and sloppy, angular, and sensuous. In general her style is the broken-up mode of Williams—short, straggly lines, with occasionally longer spilling-over ones—but lacking his hard-edged control, the vigor of his observation. Miss Levertov is both more delicate and murkier, aspects at times sadly evident in O Taste and See, where more than once I’ve had the impression of reading notations, messages, or cryptograms to the Inner Self. Her best poems, none of which are in this volume, appear to be existing purely by chance, quirky miracles as it were (e.g., “Goddess,” “Pleasures,” “Third Dimension,” “Hands”). Her sensibility is towards the lyrical, with an undercurrent of the gnomic (there are also relations re Zen, Jewish mysticism, and indeterminacy, all too spidery to go into here). She writes about nature or the everyday occurrence, the hot and cold flashes of experience, which are, to use Klee’s phrase, “secretly perceived”—“the known,” as Miss Levertov says, suddenly “appearing fully itself and/more itself than one knew.” Her effects depend largely on the naturalness of delivery, the unpremeditated way an insight may be formed, as if the reader and the poet were discovering it at the same time. The dangers are obvious: when spontaneity gets cramped, one’s left with a little tangle of associations, weeds choking flowers. She is, I believe, a difficult poet to judge. “The Crack” is typical of the shorter pieces in her book:

While snow fell carelessly
floating indifferent in eddies of
rooftop air, circling the black
chimney cowls,

a spring night entered
my mind through the tight-closed window, wearing

a loose Russian shirt of
light silk.
For this, then,
that slanting
line was left, that crack, the pane
never replaced.

Unless one wishes to be indulgent, I think it can be agreed that nothing symbolic is involved, merely a stray feeling, an apprehension. The snow motif is neatly done, but it’s essentially commonplace, an introductory setting. The spring night wearing a Russian shirt is a startling phrase (or idea) but only so because of its oddity. What it evidently refers to is the silken air of spring, certainly a cliché. Or is the “Russian” somehow connected to the snow and thus supposed to make it more original? Or is the “Russian” autobiographical? In “Love Song” we have this: “A long beauty, what is that?/A song/that can be sung over and over,/long notes or long bones,” followed by “Love is a landscape the long mountains/define but don’t/shut off from the/unseeable distance.” If the distance can’t be seen, what does it matter what the mountains do? Or is “unseeable” meant to suggest that the essence of love is mystery? Another cliché. These passages could just as well be prose; actually they are prose. Nor do I understand what is gained by the stretched-out strategy of “The Ground Mist,” here in part:

But is illusion
so repeated, known
each dawn,
silence suspended in the
mind’s shadow

always, not substance
of a sort?

The question proper is in the first and last phrases; the rest is just filler, with all its s’s and portentous blanks. It is I suppose related to Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay, where he says “that verse will only do in which a poet manages to register both the acquisitions of his ear and the pressures of his breath.” Well, it is certainly long-winded and the sound is comparable. Now for the title-poem, which usually in any collection signifies something important:

The world is
not with us enough.
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,

grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

What of importance is going on? I confess I cannot find it. The first statement turns Wordsworth on his head. The reminder, aside from “the imagination’s tongue,” is alternately jerky, quaint, or banal, quasi-parabolic sentimentalism. And “transform into our flesh our deaths”—such an abstraction for a poem apparently celebrating immediacy!

Fortunately, Miss Levertov has solid stuff as well. “Losing Track” is a taut, sparkling construction; “Grey Sparrow” and “Overheard” have a quiet loveliness. Then there are her darker poems, more disciplined and dramatic, and more moving by far. They are full of domestic chills and fevers, the face in the mirror “shot with the foreknowledge of/dread and sweat,” contemporaneity “choking under a/mushroom cloud in the year of the roach,” or outright contempt: “Hypocrite women, how seldom we speak/of our own doubts, while dubiously/we mother man in his doubt!” All these poems are interconnected through the incidental use of narrative mosaics, stripped-down confessionals—a tendency perhaps to be further explored, and not only in verse, for included here is Miss Levertov’s first published short story. Concerning a woman, her son and husband, the felling of a popular, and “the precariousness of happiness,” it is a warm, ruminative epiphany.

I do not believe,” Miss Levertov once stated, “that a violent imitation of the horrors of our time is the concern of poetry.” Frank Lima would disagree. His turf is East Harlem, or Spanish Harlem, around which, in the thirteen poems of this first collection, he sniffs, sweats, scuffs, or about which, like a tough troubadour, he sings. He composes in telegraphic patterns, idiosyncratically modeled after Marianne Moore, or Williams, or Lowell’s Life Studies, or, for that matter, the Lorca of Poet in New York (e.g. Lima’s memorial to Benny Paret, with its “Twelve Bells” refrain, its “his face is a torn flower,” “his hands fall off the clock,” “Little Benny’s tear/wounded pebbles on the/coffin lids” and so forth). The poems are more or less autobiographical, all more or less monologues, some harsh, some maggoty, the language a kind of shabby fireworks, embedded in poverty’s inner rim, like that on the unwashed sink. Lima’s world is a world without a safety zone, an expanse of tenements and fire-escapes, the hotel with the frizzy neon, the corner lot and fruit truck, back alley smells, funky bedrooms, yacketayacking kids, awful hitand-run family squabbles, the fuzz, the fix. “A mummy/crumbling/in the bar/my eyes/empty mirrors/my kidneys/ drunken flowers” “…the laughter of/ Hustlers, junkies, and steady, stinkfinger tricks/Where the string-scream of the juke box/Swells the air and makes my brain thick…” “I’d stink of/catting on roofs & greasy underwear/on my back two weeks” “…window-people/ sweating/hanging out of gooey-stick slips/strange/below-the-button drawers…” Poems like these really should be printed in the pages of Life, side by side with the color-ads, to which they would give a bitter, metallic retort.

If, as I believe, Lima’s themes, rhythms and phrases are frequently interchangeable, that many of the poems overreek of the human, and that excesses are all over the place—e.g., the runaway images: he “drop[s] in bed like an empty pebble,” (why a pebble? what’s an empty one? and what about those “wounded pebbles” quoted above?), or the rat-a-tat surrealism: “Mom screamed barbed wire/in my shoe-high ears/my stickball smile fell off my face”—there are mitigating factors. For one thing, his galvanized memory-traces are of youth, of an adolescent home-life and love-life, so that, as Kenneth Koch’s Introduction states, we are given what it felt “like to an adolescent entirely caught up in them.” For another, at his best, Lima presents a sort of populist narcissism, a voracious, springy sensibility. It’s certainly candid, without any protective coloring. It is alive in a way much academic verse is not; it is, no doubt, a reaction against such verse. True, it’s often crude, even rather tinny. But as Beckett said: “No language is so sophisticated as English. It is abstracted to death.” Lima, I think, has taken these words or others like them as a challenge, as a point of departure. When he becomes surer of his ground, his journey should be something to watch