Writing, according to Aristotle, has three purposes: to inform, to persuade, and to delight (entertain). I imagine these purposes on a line. To the far left is writing to inform. Just to the right of that is writing to persuade. And at the extreme right is writing to delight and entertain.
While I’ve dedicated much of my working life to the first two purposes, I’m not unacquainted with the far extreme of writing to delight. This blog post celebrates that far extreme where words transform into art. But specifically, this post is in honor of the Nobel Prize-wining poet Derek Walcott, my teacher, who died on Friday (March 17, 2017) at 87….
This morning, his picture was on the front page of the New York Times, an article continued on the whole back page (Section A) (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/17/books/derek-walcott-dead-nobel-prize-literature.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0), where they excerpted some of his poems and published a picture of him with three friends: Mark Strand (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and Poet Laureate of the United States); Joseph Brodsky (Nobel Prize in Poetry); and Adam Zagajewski (a prize-winning Polish poet). This picture was interesting to me because Mr. Walcott, Mr. Brodsky, and Mr. Strand had been my teachers at Columbia University.
While those of us whose job it is to research, evaluate, and comment on the workings of the world around us in our written reports are required to be analytical and adept critical thinkers and concise, clear writers, we should take time to acknowledge what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “God’s grandeur” and our humble attempts to capture the spirit of living in various forms of art.
Walcott talked about his own poetry. “I come from a place (the island of St. Lucia) that likes grandeur; it likes large gestures; it is not inhibited by flourish; it is a rhetorical society; it is a society of physical performance; it is a society of style,” he told The Paris Review in 1985. “I grew up in a place in which if you learned poetry, you shouted it out. Boys would scream it out and perform it and do it and flourish it. If you wanted to approximate that thunder or that power of speech, it couldn’t be done by a little modest voice in which you muttered something to someone else.”
For Walcott, poetry was a religion, a way of life, a way of being. And he was a most modest and generous man when it came to poetry. He believed that poetry was a force that some were lucky enough to voice. It was not THEIR poetry. It was just POETRY.
I urge you to find some poetry and to read it out loud…alone and with those you love. Look up Walcott’s The Star-Apple Kingdom (https://www.amazon.com/Star-Apple-Kingdom-Derek-Walcott/dp/0374515328).
The “lig” in re-lig-ion means to bind/tie/fasten. So “religion” means to re-connect what has become unconnected. That is the purpose of art, of poetry. It reconnects us with all that is good and bad in life, all that is wonderful and horrible, the entire experience of life as it is in our dreams and in our nightmares and in every waking moment. So take some time to read aloud some poems.
In memory of Mr.Walcott, I offer here five poems of mine to honor the voice of poetry.
A little more than halfway home myself,
Though I wouldn't really know it if I saw it,
And it's true the body does start breaking down some,
And it is strange how the slower you go the faster time flies;
Late, but still in daylight, early February,
An almost full moon through the branches of an old birch,
The fenced-in pond beside me is glass. And actually
Just having thought to myself last night as I slid the garbage to the curb
That all the geese have finally gone, today
One Canadian goose is standing by itself in the middle of the thin ice
Honking. I can't explain why he's there
Or how he came to be alone.
Miles away and a couple of years back now
My mother was walking across an old bridge
Over a tumbling little river on her way to a famous garden
Of orchids, swarms of butterflies.
Children from a village not far from Machu Picchu
Held her hand and coaxed her to where she was headed.
And then a plank, so covered in moss that it had become the moss,
Collapsed. And she fell. And though the water was only ten or fifteen feet below,
I imagine her falling a long ways and for a long time.
Falling through her life and falling out of mine,
Falling past the little hospital in Cuzco
With the medicos who thought they brought her remedies,
And pretty soon falling to her death.
I wasn't there, where it was the middle of the summer.
I can only imagine the incessant flutes just beyond her sickbed
And the bright, hot colors the old women wore
As they led their llamas up the red dirt road in that country
With no air. I was simply here looking at the moon again.
And really what can the moon do for anyone.
I listened to the goose, lost and indignant.
* * *
Maya, sleeping there so quietly
In your newborn dream, innocent
As your great-grandmothers
And cousins whose hands
No doubt you were holding,
The way everyone in Eternity
Must be holding hands—for us—
In the dark before the big bang.
I am merely one of the passing
Voices you were bequeathed
Those delicate ears to hear—
Let me tell you, we have come to earth
To do very simple things: to love
And fight. And while the first
Is more sweet, it is often the harder,
But always more important.
As you wake into our world
And yours, make your prayers
Ever more fine until they become
The laws you live by—our world
As it should be, the ineluctable fighting
Sutured with love, the love you embody,
Love that holds our only truth.
* * *
Remember the road we drove, through that night,
Waiting for our son to be born, your labor pains
Coming more often and each time lasting
A bit longer—how you were the shell
The little bird was pecking out of,
The surging child at the gates of our holy earth.
Hot early-August fields in the humid darkness
Bulged with corn; a dense fog’s trillion droplets
Crowded together filled the space around us;
And we saw there on the white scrim
That our headlights projected like a film
A red fox out of nowhere cross the road in front of us
Just as we’d seen ten years before, the night
Your grandmother died—we took this as a sign
And named our child Fox, (my father saying
How lucky we didn’t see a skunk). Now
So many years later, in the kitchen
The words we give each other are a cargo of disappointment
And fear. We’re having to face that imminent other beginning.
We compare, like architects, the shape of what we’ve built
Against the blueprints we had imagined. How is it then
Our words must club and stab when nothing at all
Has really changed? The kitchen clock’s
Inexhaustible tick circles back on itself. The birds chant
The trees back into blossom. And again spring itself has fractured
Our earth with shoots and sprouts, with bursting buds, and
A whole new lexicon of unmarked shiny green leaves
As though all must be forgiven and things must
Go on as they always do, the compost
Of scraps and grudges nurturing every new bloom.
* * *
After a Leisurely Lunch at the Jumbo Floating Restaurant
Randall and I Engage a Sampan for a Half Hour Cruise
Around the Harbor
The day I became a multi-billionaire I will never forget.
I was a little sad onion standing there alone and full of tears.
Without bubbles, circumspect, neither watching TV
Nor being watched—just one more victim of global warming
And total warmongering. No diamonds in my pocket, broken down
Into syllables, stranded like a diagrammed sentence,
In every way controlled by the bullies in control.
Sure, I dreamed of seeing Hong Kong Harbor—
Ancient junks and sampans lolling on the tide
Beside the phallic glass skyscrapers penetrating an exotic purple cloud.
What is a life without prospects? A child running with her string of balloons?
A few dozen pigeons lifting into the light?
“O,” I cried, “Give me a language of silk and gold,
A sweet future of lace and sunshine, prosperity,
The ability to fly, a skiff with a soft pink canopy, and no regrets."
* * *
A Morning Prayer
It’s time we accepted
What’s ugly because
So much is ugly, truly
Ugly. We must be
Born again in the spirit
Of ugly, and graciously
Admit it’s hard to tell
Where ugly stops
And I begin.