As the concept of World Poetry Day is so epic, I thought I’d look at a poem from this genre to start. This style of poetry seems to have fallen out of favour since it’s heyday in ancient Greece, but a notable exception is Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990). Loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey & Iliad, Omeros is set in Walcott’s home of St Lucia, telling the story of various inhabitants, including the fishermen Achille and Hector.
“Wind lift the fern. They sound like the sea that feed us
fisherman all our life, and the ferns nodded ‘Yes,
the trees have to die.’ So fists jam in our jacket,
cause the heights was cold and our breath making feathers
like the mist, we pass the rum. When it came back, it
gave us the spirit to turn into murders.”
Written in terza rima (used in another epic, Dante’s Divine Comedy) Walcott manages an extraordinary feat in Omeros: a sustained long poem of stunning imagery and elegant writing which also tells a story.
“as I brushed imaginary sand from off my feet,
turned off the light, and pillowed her waist with my arms,
then tossed on my back. The fan turned, rustling the sheet.
I reached for my raft and reconnected the phone.
In its clicking oarlocks, it idled, my one oar.
But castaways make friends with the sea; living alone
they learn to survive on fistful of rainwater
and windfall sardines. But a house which is unblest
by familiar voices, startled by the clatter
of cutlery in a sink with absence for its guest,
as it drifts, its rooms intact, in a doldrum summer,
is less a mystery than the Marie Celeste.
Walcott is also a deeply political writer, engaging with the history of the Caribbean and all that entails.
“Once, after the war, he’d made plans to embark on
a masochistic odyssey through the Empire,
to watch it go in the dusk […]
but that was his daydream, his pious pilgrimage.
And he would have done it, if he had had a son,
but he was an armchair admiral in old age,
with cold tea and biscuits, his skin wrinkled like milk”
Omeros is absolutely astonishing in its ambition, breadth, artistry and intellect. Derek Walcott was a worthy winner of the Nobel Prize in 1992.
Secondly, from breadth to brevity, Ezra Pound’s Alba. If poetry is language stripped down to the essentials, Pound strips poetry back to the bare bones. I think In a Station of the Metro is one of the most perfect pieces of writing I’ve ever read, but I chose Alba as it’s less well-known. OK, so he was a massive fascist, but I try and forget this as he distils language to such sparse beauty. An alba is part of the aubade tradition of poems, concerned with lovers parting at dawn.
“As cool as the pale wet leaves
She lay beside me in the dawn.”
That’s it. The whole poem in its entirety. I really hope you like it.
I realise I’ve chosen two poems written by men , so to redress the balance I’ll end with a retelling of part of another epic (Ovid’s Metamorphoses): the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy reading ‘Mrs Midas’ from her collection The World’s Wife.