This book carries an experiment with a particular kind of poetry to its limits and perhaps beyond. All my adult life – my life as a poet in Trinidad, Malawi, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Zambia, and now Portugal – I have been oppressed with a sense of rich experience, a wealth of poetic material, unused and unusable. For an audience in Britain, anticipating reports on “the other”, there was always so much to explain before the poem could begin. Yet for me, poetry began when I lost my sense of the exotic, when – as number 46 puts it, describing my family surrounded by Kalashnikovs – “at the time, this all seemed normal”. Added to this, dated as it may now appear, was a Puritan sense of a need to correct colonial misrepresentations by a scrupulous regard for the truth of what I lived and witnessed. No need for clever hyperbole, making the familiar seem strange, when the material itself was so strong. So, taking Luís de Camões – that most literal-minded of poets – as model, I have attempted what I called in The View from the Stockade “a poetry of fact”. The “pure”, the “plain”, the “limpid”, bordering the “prosaic”: it is the tightrope Wordsworth trod. At whatever different level, I am writing in an honourable tradition, driven by something both Camões and Wordsworth implicitly recognised, that there is no such person as “the other”.Read More
A recording from The Poetry Library’s Special Edition series. Featuring Jack Mapanje and Landeg White in conversation, chaired by David Constantine. Recorded in The Poetry Library on Wednesday 4th May 2016.Read More
When Paul Celan met Heidegger
in that Black Forest hut
where the philosopher and nature met
in the manner of soiled centuries,
his question hung in the damp air:
what of Jews and the Gypsies?
The heights of Parnassus can readily
accommodate a large crowd of people
Glorious at 75, on a summer’s evening
on my veranda, to be reading Herodotus.
Why didn’t I do this 60 years back?
To have formed my mind after his fashion,
endlessly enquiring, closed to no novelty,
embracing digression as narrative norm
as fresh facts crowded his pen, meticulously
distinguishing what he saw with his own eyes
from what was credibly witnessed, what
entertainingly rumoured, and what evident
nonsense but too hilarious to leave out.
He was wrong, of course, to claim Ethiopians
eject black sperm, or that Indians copulate
like beasts (Aristotle corrected these both),
but I applaud his Persians who debate laws
twice, once when drunk, and again sober,
adopting whichever’s doubly approved
(better that, than a second chamber).
His belief, that events are pre-determined
by oracles speaking in ambiguous verse,
seems as sound a historical method as any
whether your sages are Gibbon or Althusser.
His approach to poetry is matter-of-fact
(witness those crowds haunting Parnassus),
and his ruling myth, that free men of Athens
will always defeat the slaves of autocracy
is one I buy into, though his tribes at war
seem simultaneously just down the road
and all-too-menacingly-up-to date.
(with gratitude to Tom Holland’s translation)Read More
a wet tarpaulin weighing
down the mangrove, moulders
to a yellow fog, threadbare at dawn.
The fishermen stir from the fire,
their cigarettes trailing candleflies,
then slither narrow dugouts under
roots pale with oysters into the warm
crocodile waters of the creek.
After all these years of words it is still
discovery, the canopy whitening
over the surf, the silver glimmering beach,
and a medieval sea where pelicans
loom on a sandbank and these fishermen
like the centuries rock patiently
I was 17 when, blessed suddenly with gold,
I happened in the sixth form library
on Blunden’s Poems of Wilfred Owen.
He had sat in this self-same dormitory,
engulfed in the same masturbatory rebellions,
the same teen-age passion
for Keats, the same hatred of Birkenhead
Institute for the Sons of Artisans.
What did I learn? That one of the names
on the school’s War Memorial, poppied annually
to reproach us, had a voice.
That technique is subliminal, a device
of rhetoric, his half rhymes echoing
shell shock. That poetry doesn’t flinch.
That it matters by calling poetry
into question. That he made pity heroic.