Wednesday, March 16, 2011

White Egrets

Derek Walcott can spin out a long phrase as well as anyone, as in this poem, number V of part 10 of White Egrets, "In Italy":

Those hillsides ridged with ramparts and bell towers,
the crests of olives, those wheat-harvested slopes
through glittering aspens, those meadows of sunflowers,
with luncheon napkins like the mitres of popes,
lanes with long shadows, wide open retreats
guarded by leaping cypresses, shade-splashed ochre
walls, then the towns themselves with streets
as close as chain-mail, named after some mediocre
saint, coiling as one road down to the hazed sea.
All of those little ports, all named for saints,
redeem the sadness that was Sicily
and the stupidity of innocence.
It is like Sicilian light but not the same
sun or my shadow, a bitterness like a loss.
Drink of its bitterness to forget her name,
that is the mercy oblivion allows.

Look how the first nine lines play out phrases of varying length against the relatively even lengths of the lines. Look how the nouns that are the heads of those phrases run through those lines: hillsides, crests, slopes, lanes, retreats, walls, towns. Look how the feel created by the incomplete sentence of the first nine lines contrasts with the much shorter, complete sentences of the last seven. It's a poem that always knows where it is—in Italy—and yet it begins with a breathlessness that leaves you hanging somewhere before it sets you down there. White Egrets is full of writing like this.

But it is also full of poems that stumble rather than take off. Contrast the above with this poem, part III of section 13 of the book, "The Spectre of Empire":

The docks are dark and hooded, the warehouses
locked, and his insomnia rages like the moon
above the zinc roofs and spindly palms; he rouses
himself and dresses slowly in his small room:
he walks to the beach, the hills are brooding whales
against them drift the flambeaux and the lanterns
of the crab fishermen, the yachts have furled their sails,
he goes for this long walk when guilt returns;
indifferent to a constellation's Morse,
his resignation no longer sends
out fleets of power, an echo of that force
like dissipating spume on the night sand.
To the revolving beam of the Cyclopic lighthouse
he hears the suction of his soul's death-rattle,
but his is a history without remorse.
He hears the mocking cannonade of battle
from the charging breakers and sees the pluming hordes
of tribesmen galloping down the hills of sand
and hears the old phrase "Peccavi. I have Sind."
Think of the treaties signed by the same one-ringed hand,
think of the width its power could encompass
"one-seventh of the globe," we learnt in class.
Its promontories, docks, its towers and minarets
with the power that vanished as dew does from the grass
in the rising dawn of a sun that never sets.

Many of the things I am going to say in what follows could be dismissed as quibbles, except for the fact that there are so many of them.

The poem begins with a simple sentence, and then a simple elliptical phrase that implies the use of the same verb: "The docks are dark and hooded, the warehouses / [are] locked." This is perfectly fine, of course, but I find it quite clumsy to continue with an "and" after that ellipsis, followed by a clause with a new verb.

Eith that elliptical construction and then a longer, complete main clause, the semi-colon in line three (instead of a new sentence) makes things even more imbalanced. All the phrases in the long sentence fragment that begins the first poem I quoted balance beautifully; here, in contrast, the four clauses of the first lines do not build up toward something but instead head off in a variety of directions, semantically and syntactically.

That fourth line ends with a colon. What should follow a colon? Some sort of explanation or clarification of what came before. But what follows this colon is simply the next step in a narrative of what "he" is doing. And after a short clause about him comes a short clause that shifts the focus to the hills, so that the first five lines have six different clauses. Not only are the relationships between those clauses unclear, the sentence is not even finished yet.

Now take a look back at the punctuation at line breaks in the first poem I quoted: every line that could end in a comma does end in a comma. (The next-to-last line could have a semi-colon instead, but it works fine with a comma.) But here, as line five moves to line six, there is no comma. If we take the absence of a comma here seriously, then the enjambment across the line makes no sense: "the hills are brooding whales against them drift the flambeaux" is grammatical nonsense. "Against which" would work, but it doesn't say that.

Things settle down a bit for the next few lines, but it's worth noting that the first eight lines here contain nine main clauses. It's possible to write a compound sentence with nine main clauses over eight lines without getting clumsy, but these eight lines begin with clumsy syntax and are marred by sloppy punctuation—and the sentence is still not finished!

The next four lines are one main clause, but there are several problems here, beginning with my on-going question as to why this is all one sentence. In passing, I would also note that the semi-colons are used inconsistently here. (Note that I am not trying to tell Walcott how to use punctuation marks; I am just expecting from him what I would expect from any writer: that the y be used consistently in a way that serves the poems well.)

Then there's the question of the reference of "indifferent": it's easy enough to attach it to "his" so that we read "he is indifferent," but there is a moment of hesitation when it is the resignation that seems indifferent, which doesn't quite make sense. (I am not one to make too big a deal about "misplaced modifiers" that modify a possessive like this, but it's another infelicity to add to the list.)

Then there's the question of just what it is that "an echo of that force" is supposed to be doing syntactically: I guess it is supposed to be either a clarification of "fleets of power" (an appositive) or a second complement to "sends out" (with no coordination between the two complements). But neither of those options makes much sense to me.

The next sentence is mercifully brief, but even here a syntactic problem arises: in effect, the sentence says that "he hears the suction ... to the revolving beam." The introductory prepositional phrase with "to," that is, simply has no place in the main clause that follows.

The following sentence picks up on "he hears" and adds a "sees" and another "hears." It's actually fine in terms of the flow of points and the overall grammar, syntax, and punctuation, but even here, the verb phrases are connected clumsily: "he hears ... and sees ... and hears ..." ("Everything only connected by and and and," as Elizabeth Bishop would put it.)

The two lines that begin with "think" are lines 20 and 21 of the poem; as with the end of the section of "In Italy," it would be possible to use a semi-colon at the end of line 20, but it is unnecessary.

But some punctuation mark is necessary at the end of line 21—a colon, perhaps? That would introduce an explanation or clarification of "the width its power could encompass." Or perhaps a dash? That would be more emphatic; it would make the movement to line 22 less a matter of logic than a leap of memory, in a sense. — Even a comma would be better than the nothing that is here! (Here, though, a semi-colon would be nonsense, completely inconsistent even with Walcott's own somewhat haphazard use of semi-colons in the rest of the poem.)

The last three lines are not a complete sentence, which is not a problem (see the beautiful incomplete sentence I first talked about above). But there are still problems here: the promontories, docks, towers, and minarets in line 23 are not presented as a simple list along the lines of the one I just presented them in—a straight list of four items with a final "and" before the last item and no repetition of the initial "its." I could also imagine doing this: "Its promontories and docks, its towers and minarets." That's a relatively conventional rhythm for a list of four items. (I think there's even a term for that in classical rhetoric, but I can't remember what it is.) Yet once the list is established as not using "and" and not repeating "its," the introduction of "its" before "towers" makes me stumble.

And finally, there's the question of what the prepositional phrase "with the power" is supposed to be connected to. Should this be read as "its minarets with the power that vanished as dew does from the grass ..."? What does that mean?

Why go into this poem's infelicities at such great length? Two reasons: first, there is a great deal of beautiful writing in White Egrets, as beautiful as the first poem I quoted. But there is also a great deal of clumsy writing, where I find myself having to ask basic questions about the intended grammar and syntax. If these poems had no punctuation, I would expect to be doing that work, but they are punctuated, and the poems that work wonderfully succeed in part because they carry me along in a poetic trance in which I do not have to worry about syntax and grammar. So it is extremely surprising to find the trance repeatedly broken by such questions.

Secondly, Walcott's book won the T. S. Eliot Prize in January. I was happy to hear that, as I had read all but one of the shortlisted books and I had not thought that any of the others contained any poems as downright beautiful as some of the poems in this book (like the one I began with). But Anne Stevenson, the chair of the judges, was quoted (here) as saying that the book was "moving and technically flawless." Many of the poems in White Egrets are indeed both moving and technically flawless, but as I could show with a significant number of other poems in the book besides the one I dissected here, the book is full of technical flaws—and those flaws make it harder for the poems to be consistently moving.

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