Old Campaigners

Sea Grapes

by Derek Walcott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 84 pp., $8.95

Leaping Clear and Other Poems

by Irving Feldman
Viking, 72 pp., $5.95

The poet in “dry sufficient middle age,” not exactly “ankle deep in money, thick as leaves,” yet rather more comfortable than as a youth he may really have expected to be, “need not, does not, strive to compose. He writes.” He now requires “nothing from poetry but true feeling, no pity, no fame, no healing.” Every day he sees something, it reminds him of something else, and he writes.

He is not first among poets but neither is he last, founder of no school, strict follower in none. He has his awards, has earned the praise of great men. He has seen his share of the world, and likes to remember Spain, Paris, London, New York, California, and he writes about that. He goes back to the scene of his childhood, and writes about it, fondly putting in the slang and the song of his neighborhood dialect; he remembers old girl friends, writes about them, about his children, his wife, his friends, about poets he admires, about great writing of the past, and on this as on most things (not all things) he is wry.

There were giants in those days.
In those days they made good cigars.
I must read more carefully.

He writes scornfully of the masters of this world, “Pasha, President,” “Brothers in Babylon, Doc! Uncle! Papa!” He writes scornfully about those he meets at parties, “the sweet affluence of conceit,” “lunch-drunk, scotch-drunk….” Sometimes he cannot resist writing little allegories or fables about the evolution of man. Being a poet, he loves the oddities of language and the fact that one word often suggests another that sounds much like the first but means something different. Most of his poems are about one page long.

His own particular people have suffered mightily on the earth. He is not obsessed with this but neither does he try to forget it. If he is Irving Feldman, a remark by a survivor rouses a reflection,

   And has he,
he wonders, been accused, imperti- nent Jew
who did not die?

If he is Derek Walcott, in the bright loved ease of midsummer England he senses “the fear of darkness entering England’s vein…lynched crows.”

I cannot say with what clairvoyance my editors, regarding the jackets of these two volumes, divined inside them all these similitudes, even unto such unlikely details as twin busts of Beethoven and twin invocations of Osip Mandelstam. But pack them off together they did. The reviewer is spared his customary task of yoking his books by violence together. Perhaps he can even excuse himself a little for the inevitable perfidies of invidious comparison. Two gents much of an age, much of their own era, much the same sort of training, same tongue, two old campaigners knowing now just about what to expect, “so it has always been,” “we suffer, the years pass,” seeing and hearing simultaneously the same news; poets now by custom, by free choice—and writing to whom? To themselves, to the magazines, to friends …

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Letters

Mended November 25, 1976