Life Lines, Ear worms and Derek Walcott’s White Egrets

‘Rowanberries’ by michalina 1I don’t know how widely this is known – The Academy of American Poets website has been collecting people’s favourite lines of poetry, along with a short explanation of why it is that those particular words matter to them. It’s called Life Lines, and is well worth a visit. (As is their Poetcast podcast. But that’s another post.)

I love the stories people tell about how a certain line of poetry has stayed with them, how it has helped them or given them something to hold on to. And it’s different to the way you carry a whole poem. Even people who profess to hate poetry will usually have a line or two tucked away somewhere. In song writing it’s the whole idea of having a ‘hook’ – something that stays with the listener, something that catches their attention, and holds them long enough to consider the song as a whole. (And then the album, the T-Shirt, the mega-stadium-concert …) German has a word for this sort of thing: ‘Ohrwurm’, which translates literally to ‘ear-worm’. Don’t you love that?

But back to the world of poetry. Is that a way to measure the success of a piece, whether it is memorable as a whole, or only with one (or two) singing lines? Or, to turn the question around, is a poem with a single wonderful line a success, or a failure? Both? Neither? It depends?

I’m currently having a second go at reading Derek Walcott’s White Egrets, which won the 2011 TS Eliot Prize. It may be that I’m preoccupied with other things, but so far I’m finding it very hard to settle into. It’s almost a book-poem, or maybe a better description is a series (rather than sequence) of poems that tussle with his typical set of concerns.

Not a Review warning label

Partly it’s because I keep remembering the whole Oxford Professorship scandal, and the various snippets of comments that he was alleged to have made. Given that background, it’s hard not to read lines like

‘Rowanberries’ by michalina 2

Some friends, the few I have left


Sometimes the hills themselves disappear
like friends, slowly

(both from part iv of “White Egrets”) as being self-referential.

Then there’s

The pain is over, feathers close your eyelids, Oliver.
What a happy friend and what a fine wife!
Your death is like our friendship beginning over.

‘Rowanberries’ by michalina 3(from “7” – emphasis mine) which makes for slightly uncomfortable (even creepy) reading. I know it’s a mistake to read too much autobiography into any poem, but still … There are a lot of references to women he has known (and lines like ‘grizzled satyr … they think: you’re too old to be / shaken by such a lissom young woman’ put the word squarely into the biblical sense). Walcott’s writing has always been quite luscious, and there are places where it frankly drips. And they do so very often involve women. I don’t really feel that the poems are misogynistic, so much as casually oblivious to everything outside the poem’s own frame of reference. A non-female example, from the end of the first part of “The Acacia Trees”:

… The new makers
of our history profit without guilt
and are, in fact prophets of a policy
that will make the island a mall, and he breakers
grin like waiters, like taxi drivers, these new plantations
by the sea; a slavery without chains, with no blood spilt—
just chain-link fences and signs, the new degradations.
I felt such freedom writing under the acacias.

‘Rowanberries’ by michalina 4I quite like the pun on profit / prophet, (although logically, can they be prophets of the thing they themselves are causing to happen?) and the section from ‘the breakers’ to ‘no blood spilt’ is amazing – insightful, deftly phrased, brilliant.But it loses power after that, when he wades in with the ‘by which I mean that these are’ penultimate line. But it’s the last line that had me put the book away for six months. Maybe it’s intended to be ironic – the concerns of the individual contrasting with the concerns of the wider community – but it’s hard not to also hear the thundering of a great ego, and the ringing it leaves in your ears drowns out the sad majesty of the previous lines. I think I almost preferred the exhibition of his libido.

Either way, I’ll persist with the book. Who knows, maybe it’ll grab me later. (Snigger on your own time, please.)

One thing that does stand out for me is how many poems have one really gorgeous line, but little else that holds my attention. (Yes, I know this may be a sign of my own deficiencies.) It makes them great for pillaging for my Reading for Writing exercises, but doesn’t really help me appreciate his work as a whole. Is it that these particular lines, being so good, throw the rest into somewhat unflattering relief? Or am I, in these cases,  salvaging the gold from the dross? (Exaggeration, but you get my drift.) To return to my original question: does the wonderful line help or hinder the poem as a whole? Or, rephrased in a way that will be familiar to the people who have been to one of my editing sessions – if you can’t bring the rest of the poem up to that level, are you better removing that line completely?

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