As I’m reading Omeros, I’ve also been reading a bit about Derek Walcott, curious about his life an influences and such. This piece from Caribbean Beat has some interesting details. It seems he lived in Boston for some years, teaching at Harvard and later at Boston University. I like the image here of him causing a stir with Seamus Heaney and Joseph Brodsky.
Walcott, Brodksy and Heaney, a formidable literary trio, have been known to cause quite a stir when in merry mood at Chef Chang’s Chinese restaurant in Boston; a hopeless cook, Walcott eats out a lot at nearby restaurants (he doesn’t drive), sharing lunch with his students over shish kebab at the Kangaroo Café, breakfasting at Dunkin Donuts, insisting on lentil soup at the Busy Bee or sandwiches at the Greek-owned snack bar he calls “The Greeks”. The one consolation of winter in Boston seems to be that Walcott gets to wear the Russian fur hat that Brodsky gave him.
But it was this that really caught my eye:
One graduate of Walcott’s sessions told the British press that Walcott began his first class by attacking the would-be poets in front of him, demanding to know why they thought anyone would ever want to read their work. Then he asked each student to write down from memory a poem, any poem, that he knew: not one could. Walcott’s scorn hurt, but was unanswerable.
It certainly doesn’t sound very nice to be attacked, although sometimes the best teachers aren’t very nice. My favorite English teacher in high school took as her motto, “No fun.” And yet her class was one of the best and was often rather fun, though it was also hard work. Without further evidence I’d like to assume Walcott’s “attack” was of the constructive sort. Putting myself into his students’ shoes, I would, in any case, have been able to write down a poem had I been in that class. Or several. I definitely know at least a handful of poems well enough to write down the words, though I wouldn’t be sure about punctuation and line breaks and the like.
I started reciting a handful of the shorter ones to myself, the ones I was pretty sure I could write down. Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar is one I memorized who knows when, elementary school, junior high, high school? Anyway, I recite it to myself from time to time and to the children too.
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
And then another one of ancient memory is Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Requiem. I’ve been remembering because Bella has been reading a Rumer Godden novel called Home Is the Sailor; but it also is a short one and easy to write down.
UNDER the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you ‘grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
And then there’s Emily Dickinson:
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory
As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!
It seems I am attracted to poems about death. I have others tucked away in my memory no doubt. Some of more recent memory, some older. Tonnes of nursery rhymes, of course, the ordinary canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours. And many snippets, lines, verses of longer poems, of half-remembered poems, or Shakespeare.
What poems do you have by heart?