Apologies for the lateness of this letter.
You would have liked that joke. I can actually hear you laughing. Or rather, coughing your lungs out. Like most of the jokes you liked best in your last few years, it would have sent you into what sounded like mortal paroxyms of pulmonary distress, until you subsided into grim satisfaction, repeated the joke all wrong, then asked to hear it again. This is one less thing to worry about, as well as one less thing to love, for, as you wrote along ago: ‘I shall see love reclaim its things as I lie dying.’
It’s not that I never wrote you letters. I did a few times, but you tended not to answer. When you won the big prize in 1992, I wrote you a telegram, a line from Another Life – ‘Now an apprentice washes his eyes with salt water and sunlight’ – it was the first and last telegram I ever wrote. Which reminds me that there seemed to be a year or two when you and your friend Seamus were the last people left in the world still sending faxes. High-quality faxes but, you know, faxes.
I never got much down in writing. Over the phone, about eighteen months ago, you told me you’d finished reading the manuscript of my book Drinks With Dead Poets. You coughed and spluttered for an age and then, to be honest Derek, you said it was a – well it was one word and it means the world. You did. I’d remember. One of the reasons I remember this is that you were always such a sonofabitch about my poetry.
Of course when we began in Boston in 1987, I as your arrogant Oxford grad student, you the renowned world poet in his late fifties, I had to take it and could take it. On my 25th birthday I wrote a poem about myself, as one does, and because you’d made us memorize Dylan Thomas’s short lyric ‘Twenty-four years remind the tears of my eyes’ the week before, I thought I’d have a crack at the old anniversarial self-regard. My poem was a lot longer than Dylan’s, obviously, about thirty lines in all. You looked at it for thirty seconds, pushed it back to me and quoted a three-line phrase from the poem: ‘caving into sleep.’ Caving into sleep… Well, I thought, you seem to like the poem overall, I mean you read it straight through without obvious scorn or derision, but – with the exception of that particular phrase, caving into sleep. Readying myself for the onslaught of abuse that was about to fall on the narrow shoulders of this lame metaphor, I started spluttering my excuses – ‘well a cave is dark, like sleep, and also concave, er, like a cave I guess, as sleep is kind of concave I suppose, yeah? Or actually no it’s not really is it, no, I’ll take it out, it’s rubbish, okay that’s gone’ – to which you replied ‘No, it’s terrific, the rest is shit.’ And so it went with us, from there to here.
In later years I very rarely showed you poems, when I knew you were the only person left who could bring me down with criticism. So what you said about Drinks With Dead Poets was startling to me as well as delightful.
You weren’t very well by then, that phone call when you told me what you told me, so there were long gaps in your talk. There was certainly a lengthy silence then. I was struggling to find the form of words that would express the sentiment: ‘Derek can I, um, put what you just said on the back of the book-jacket?’ But you said you didn’t want to write prose anymore. The thought came gently to mind – ‘It’s only one sodding word, Derek’ – but the thought was lost in the crackling transatlantic white noise. I remember you also said I hadn’t quite got Byron right in my book, and I suppressed the strong desire to ask ‘how the fuck do you know?’ Dead poets, drinks with, young writers, questions.
Then again, I didn’t phone you very often either. I’ve never been quite sure why. I suppose if I thought about you too much I felt alone on the planet with you, like the Little Prince, which I think is what it is to feel profoundly mentored, guided, led by a fellow-creature, and I was afraid of how the world would go on turning if we both were occupied with a phone-call. Silly – but my reticence then feels as absurd as my inane chattering now. I had you on speed-dial and I didn’t know how to use it. I mean – I knew how to use speed-dial, just not – you know what I mean. No you don’t, and no you didn’t. Perhaps in your company I felt seen through – in a good way, but that good way is also a paralyzing, frightening way. It was like meeting the one person in the world who knows where you come from. You’re a poet, you said, but you’ve not yet written any poetry. So here’s twenty dollars, get some whisky, go and get wrecked on Harvard Square. And there was me trying not to be a cliché.
Being physically around you was the easiest, albeit the most expensive, at least, in those eight last fabulous birthday Januaries in St Lucia, but it took me a few years to realize an old Caribbean man doesn’t need to hear the small talk of an Englishman, and he doesn’t mind the silence. I learned to look at the sea with you, emptily, letting it do all the thinking, like I was looking at your next poem. Which of course I was, as the sound of that was your silence, your white page, your reason to begin. And where you begin and end, as Omeros ends, ‘When he left the beach the sea was still going on.’
Mostly around you I had either too much to say or too little to say properly, so I told jokes that made you cough like a madman, or I pointed at beautiful flowers in your garden and asked what they were, and you purposely made up the wrong words – oh that’s a jacamundo tree, that’s a flowering macarena – so that I couldn’t put them in any poems without looking like a jerk. Or I told you how I was doing with love and you told me to watch the drinking. Or what else did I do… I wrote you a long letter once you’d died.
I’m making a speech on the other side of the planet, in Canberra, Australia. It is six months ago, to the week, that you departed this same planet, at least in creaturely form. It is one year to the week that my father did the same, he at last year’s autumnal equinox, you at this year’s vernal one. These three facts combine to make the planet seem very small, level, balancing, and life both grand and simple, and for some ineffable reason makes me want to speak very plainly, as if the planet I just – with the help of Singapore Airlines – put half a girdle round, and from which my literary and my literal fathers, who gave me, respectively, so very much and all, have recently bade farewell – that old blue-green planet somehow resembles now a clear head, a head of glass, with its little thoughts all visible streams. A level head staring out into space, with nothing to lose or hide, no horizons it didn’t see now. For a certain period of time, perhaps a period of mourning, my clear planetary head no longer feels the need to understand or question.
The theme of this excellent and highly enjoyable conference is Boundary Crossings, crossings over language, crossing of national heritage, crossings between art-forms – your life as a poet ended in ekphrasis, of course, with Morning, Paramin, your last brief and rinsed-out exhalations alongside the splendid canvases of your friend Peter Doig – but I have little to bring to those tables. I’m a know-nothing in visual art. I’m a monolingual middle-class white Oxbridge-educated Briton, from an island nation in the stupefying last death-throes of its dignity. For a fortunate traveller, grown from loving parents, with personal happiness, health and a sunny disposition, has little of substance to offer on the subject of the world’s fraught, trembling boundaries, but he crosses this great border to address you, or pretends to, like poetry pretends so indefatigably to be elsewhere and elsewhen, and he dwells on the one boundary he feels deeply: that one that we, as poets, cross when our first drop of ink, the first inkling, tranfigures the backward and abyss of time into a white page with something on it. The act of writing. The act of doing this with your time standing up on the little planet.
About Canberra, though. I’ve been joking to people at home that I’ve travelled halfway across the earth to a larger and sunnier version of my birthplace, Welwyn Garden City, a planned town like this planned city, because I feel very much at home with the ovals and the straight lines and the green spaces, and everyone knowing why streets have the names they do, but here there’s a National Parliament thrown in where at home we’ve got, what, an ice rink.
Sounds like I’m joking, but when I went up to Oxford at nineteen my home town was a joke to me, with its long clumsy name and reputation as a sweet utopian gesture of more innocent times. I felt life would begin when I was clear of the place. But all young bourgeois artists in Britain are the same, trying to fake a narrative of bohemian suffering in England’s wealthy, complacent, soulless decline. Ay nineteen I thought I was free at last from the tyranny of my parents, two of the kindliest and most indulgent forebears one could possibly have. Life would begin when I got the hell out of home. It was you, Derek, who made me rethink all this.
It matters where you’re from, you said. In class one day you got us to draw a map of the USA and write down the names of the poets where they belonged – James Wright in Ohio, Emily Dickinson in Massachusetts, Robinson Jeffers in California – as the only non-American there I was of course the only one who could accurately draw a map of the USA, but that’s by and by. It matters where you’re from. Your poetry sounds the place. And I wanted to say it’s all right for you, you come from freakin St Lucia, the Helen of the Caribbean – I come from a suburban town that was laid out by town-planning Quakers in some Hertfordshire fields in 1920. Nothing will come of nothing.
No, you said. It matters where you’re from. When I came back to England after the year with you in Boston, I started acting upon this. I got all my friends together and for three summers we turned my parental home into a theatre, putting on my first wild sprawling plays in the garden of a suburb. We used virtually every room, every square foot of the place. It was glorious. It wouldn’t have happened without you, Derek, saying over and over It matters where you’re from.
Because I’d started to think about my birthplace – its blank canvas, its evidently dreamed-up quality, its visible graces, its air of hopefulness. Historical fact. The first citizens of the place, Hampstead idealists of the 1920s, were putting Shakespeare on in the woods before they’d established a bank. Maybe there was a history after all… And was there something in the architecture that insisted on the stanzaic? Was the lack of a long history somehow fluttering at each line-end, hinting at strange freedoms? Was it so quiet where I’m from that I heard nothing but a heart-beat? I grew up too happy to hear anything but the clock tick.
Before I met you, Derek, I’d been thinking about Yeats and his crazy obsessive systems, history, legend, astrology, cosmology, and somehow over time I’d stumbled on my own humble little New Town version, and how, in the absence of pressures like poverty, grief, oppression, depression, disappointment, I tried to make art of my life in the middle of nowhere. Of the dawning fact that I came into life in a place that was some bald moustachioed fellow’s little dream of the good life. His name was Ebenezer Howard, and he died on May Day 1928, the day my father was born. Fate bowls you stuff like that. Here’s how I saw it in Drinks With Dead Poets, trying to explain the idea to my class, before taking tea on a small island with W B Yeats.
If like me you come from nowhere you kind of need a system. My home-town was a rail-track through a meadow in 1920, the place is light on history. I fell back on geography. We lived in the west of town and the sun went down in our garden, so the west had to be home. There were woods to the north – darkness, mystery, isolation – and London to the south – people, parties, noise, work. The east was on the far side of the railway where all the factory chimneys were so it was daunting and alien and I didn’t have friends there. To a child that’s adulthood. I had – have, actually – a magical spot in the north (a glade in the wood) and a magical spot in the south (a small hill beside the A1-M). Dead-centre of our town there is an ornamental fountain in a foamy pond. Every time I pass it, on the way to or back from shopping, I look north to the wood, south towards the capital, east to the factories, west towards home, I think here I am on earth again and then I’m gone. Why am I telling you this…
I was struck by how naturally the circle of the hours, the months, the four seasons and Seven Ages of Man interlocked and echoed each another. How this might play out in a space, a room, a town, a nation. I wondered at the patterns, the temperate climate, the four walls and ways there are, the grand calibrated stillness of writing in England. A day as a year, a year as a lifetime. Writing a poem was not so much a solitary walk beside a rail-track through a meadow as a voice that, even as it speaks, ignites its 180-degree opposite – the young man v the old, memory v daydream, bliss v bereavement – or, 90 degrees to one side or the other – its origin and consequence. That the language having been there recalls there, remembers past, imagines future. That walking this circle was loyal submission to Lord Time, but running it – or whacking it and watching it spin – was like Marvell’s virtuoso lust –
…Though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run…
And what if these compass-points were also temperaments… Years later when I came to write a version of old Wind in the Willows there they were: Badger wise, grave, dwelling deep in a wood, Moley innocent and hopeful, peeking out into sunlight, Toad dizzy in his mansion, sated with his goods, Ratty wry and nostalgic, watching the river flow. A north, an east, a south, a west. What if character was nothing but relationship to time?
The idea that spring and autumn sigh for opposite things isn’t news to any poet in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, but at least I arrived there blank as paper, found the place myself, or found it with a little hint from William Butler Yeats, and a forceful nudge from you.
Four boulevards to look down, four lanes leading everywhere. In verse it made me make this sound.
Come to where I’m from, like the bloke I once
got talking to in The Sun, on the only night
he spent in my birthplace,
a desolate Sunday evening wiping tables
and he said I hate this town and he was gone,
said he’d never come again, come again like him,
when you never will, come to where I’m from
like the glossy editor
at Condé Nast who murmured to me Glyn,
it does you no favours, saying where you’re from:
say you’re ‘from Hertfordshire’, come again like him,
where you wouldn’t be seen dead. Come again like one
who’s lost, come again like one
for seconds on First Capital Connect,
who meant to lift his eyelids from his iPhone
as the little place shot by but when he looks
we’re on the Digswell Viaduct, gone, bygone,
high over the green fields
and lanes of where I’m from. The north is a new
flowerbed a stranger tends, the south
four 4x4s on a driveway, from the east
a fellow stops to stare at where we lived
as if he remembered us
when he lived, I remember him well enough, and the west
is me at work on this by the garden gate.
Preposterous, what was. I watch that gate
for you and all the gone. The odds against
are stars to sail between.
Come to where I’m from. Now there’s nothing here,
hard to remember once there was nothing here.
Hard to remember we paused in a field in sunshine
with a plot for a field and a feel of a place in mind
and a little knot of horses
faraway in a corner stood right there
near where those horses stand, by the quiet trees,
beyond which all the yellow rising hills
you think are there are the yellow rising hills
you thought were there.
To raise my game to a pun - as the books grow in volume, the whiteness grows in volume. And Derek I think you started that journey too, when you looked at my first poems and said they were all played with the right hand, like a pianist who can play only melodies, while his left hand lies dead on the keys. What are the other notes? What are the low notes? You said listen to Thelonius Monk. I will some day, professor, I will. I wonder if the low notes are the silence; I wonder if one’s left hand – or whatever term a poet uses for the counterpointing pressure in the work, the current against the poem – is playing what the silence is composed of. If that left hand music has the texture of the empty page you contemplate before you begin, whether that’s ocean, or traffic, or birdsong, or rustling leaves. The silence for the believer is not that of the agnostic, the silence of the inland-dweller not that of the figure who rhymes beside the sea. I think mastery in verse might be the act of conceding mastery to this opposing, erasing force.
This was all sounding a little speculative and cloudy, but here in Canberra, last Sunday at the portrait gallery, when my fellow-poets were talking about ekphrastic poetry, I caught a glimpse of something. I’ve always been struck by how different ‘Musée Des Beaux-Arts’ is from Auden’s other poems. Not in content but in form. Though ostensibly a sonnet, it feels like a more relaxed and meditative measure than most of the work. What if the reason for that is – that it’s not written on silence, it’s written on the indisputable truth and actuality of the Brueghel painting, so that the nature of Auden’s white space is entirely different? In fact he has no white space, he has painted space. Perhaps he doesn’t write a stanzaic poem as he often would, because it’s not his place to make stanzas and breaks out of a painting. There’s some kind of obedience in play, some kind of reverent inclining of the head: About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters – the voice is lowered, awestruck but matter-of-fact, as if murmured in a gallery.
It got me thinking about your work, Derek. I sometimes wondered to myself why your poems stayed so formally conservative as the years went by, your last books were all full of elongated sonnets, vaguely hexametrical, relaxed rhymes, few short lines, virtually no stanzas – when you did stanzas, in Arkansas Testament, you made a very conscious effort to, and related it to buildings and windows – and of course you did terza rima for Omeros because it’s epic, and Dante’s measure was good enough for you.
But the measure of your latter years is simple and unforced as breath, this line this long, this line slightly longer, this slightly shorter, woven with rhyme, like thought weaves around memories or light. That last book is explicitly ekphrastic, but isn’t all your poetry of the sea somehow ekphrastic, in blissful thrall to sound and light you could literally see and hear through the window of your own studio? There’s a portrait of me in that studio. It’s terrible. There, got you back for caving into sleep.
In the level glass head of my world I know less and less, and see more and more, and am at peace with it all. I see how beautifully time rides the points of the compass. In the middle of one of my garden plays, in the summer of 1991, I got my father to open an upstairs window and recite a nonsensical speech in terza rima in the role of a mad Viscount. His last line was: Thank you. Finally. But before I go – Then he shut the window and didn’t appear in the play again.
My mother was a professional actress, who appeared in the first versions of Under Milk Wood in the West End and on Broadway. A couple of years ago she woke up in the night, in her home in Welwyn Garden, very confused, opening doors, searching for something. I asked what she was looking for and she said the actors from Under Milk Wood, they’re here somewhere – so that a memory of 1950s New York had merged with a memory of the 1990s, when I turned their house and garden into a theatre and filled the rooms with actors, and grown its strange fruit in 2016… Dylan and Derek walk the corridors too now, with my departed father and abiding mother I’ll be playing draughts with in a few days time. Black and white, dead poets, drinks with, dreams of…
Here’s some Walcott, Derek, to remind me you’re not here, the last lines of your great poem The Schooner ‘Flight’, which I recite because some people will hear it for the first time, and my business is only with the sailed away and the newly come ashore. To my contemporaries on this beach I want only to crack some beers and play volleyball.
When you were about to recite your favourite lines you always said ‘I warn you, I’m a crier’ and of course you duly were. I’m not really much of a crier, except when I read things like this, but if I do come slightly apart, I warn you, it’s not grief that you’ve sailed away – you were 87 and ill and I get it – it’s joy that you left this behind on the seashore.
There are so many islands!
As many islands as the stars at night
on that branched tree from which meteors are shaken
like falling fruit around the schooner Flight.
But things must fall, and so it always was,
on one hand Venus, on the other Mars;
fall, and are one, just as this earth is one
island in archipelagoes of stars.
My first friend was the sea. Now, is my last.
I stop talking now. I work, then I read,
cotching under a lantern hooked to the mast.
I try to forget what happiness was,
and when that don't work, I study the stars.
Sometimes is just me, and the soft-scissored foam
as the deck turn white and the moon open
a cloud like a door, and the light over me
is a road in white moonlight taking me home.
Shabine sang to you from the depths of the sea.
Dead poets, drinks with, teachers and students… My speech is a keynote speech because I have lifted my left hand and am playing
what’s gone while I play what’s here. Look, Derek, two old hands. Now an apprentice washes his eyes with salt water and sunlight. All writers are pulled by the dead towards the horizon, until they cross it, and leave their lights still shining for the next folks to follow. So here’s how I said goodbye to my own imaginary class in that book you said you liked. You were still around when I wrote this, that’s why I quoted your lines in it, from Season of Phantasmal Peace.
Adieu, mon professeur.
Now let’s do this…
The white space. The nothing, the element you work in. It’s been good to us, it’s canvas, it’s sheet, it’s bed, it’s soil, it’s,
It’s brought sorrow too. Our friend went somewhere and we don’t know where. I – too lost someone to it. It may be a busier place than this, more fun, less fun I’ve no idea, it won’t say, but – let’s – face it one last time, shall we?
Let’s face it, mis amigos, let’s face it down. Let’s hear it out and take it out – waste it, right? Off it, yes? One last minute and then let’s fill it with the lines we learned this term, or the lines we wrote this term, or the lines each other wrote, or Niall Prester wrote, we’ll blacken it, pepper it, riddle it with lines! Find poems in your minds, your hearts, your notebooks, push them into the middle of our table for the last time, your minute’s starting NOW!
And so they do. Iona plucks something from the pile and begins reading softly, Ollie blurts out random lines from his brimming notebook, Barry shuts his eyes and summons up some nursery rhyme from his planet where the cats have spats and the dogs have clogs and Caroline sighs some Yeats aloud to the ceiling and I shall have some peace there for peace comes dropping slow and Heath growls the lines of Niall I’d save a good one for the end as if I knew how anything ended and Peter and Samira lean together politely to read from each other’s poems, Lily grabs and rips at sheets in a random fractured medley, then as I rise I hear she’s tearfully speaking John Clare in the plaintive voice of Baggs, the toy monkey – my friendsh forshake me like a mem’ry losht, I am the shelf-conshumer of my woes, and as I contemplate them all in their beautiful tumult, and seek some lines of mine to free into the sound, I hear the voice of my once and future teacher, without whom which, without whom this, and without remembering I am simply reciting Then all the nations of birds lifted together the huge net of the shadows of this earth, in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues, stitching and crossing it and in came sunlight, in and throughout, along and across like the day I came, and it lit their hair and lit the arms of their coats as they read and read, and it didn’t stay long, it sunk behind the church now, because a winter’s day was ending, and by the time their unfathomable roar petered out, their teacher was gone too and walking down the lane with an ordinary white sheet of paper in his hand –
READING LIST for Elective Poetry Module
3pm, Thurs, V.H.B. Prof: Maxwell.
– Reading List, not Reading Series, because his term was over, like last autumn is over, and the poets he’d taught are dead and gone, the poets he taught he’d never met, the poets he’d met he never will, and it was time to go now.
Canberra, 19-20 September, 2017