One of the main characteristics of our genius poets is that they each have a long poem that defies explanation and categorization to descend right into the sublime. Whether it’s Ashbery’s Flow Chart, Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, or Ginsberg’s Howl, you gotta write the long one. For the St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott, that book was Omeros, a retelling of the Odyssey set on his home island of St. Lucia.
After reading Omeros, I had a pretty good sense Walcott was “the dude,” but I had the opportunity to see him speak as part of the extraordinary Cave Canem series. He talked mostly about what a geniuses August Wilson and Romare Bearden were, jumping into my little heart. He also was like, Seinfeld may be one of the greatest works of art ever. I was all, “Heard that, DWal!” He had various somewhat controversial things to say, but all I remember is his Seinfeld love.
His essays are divine and they’re mad cheap.
Anyway, this is the tremendous ending to Omeros. It made me cry when I finished the book for the first time, now I’m basically like, “Damn.” Read on…
from Chapter LXIV
Out of their element, the thrashing mackerel
thudded, silver, then leaden. The vermilion scales
of snappers faded like sunset. The wet, mossed coral
sea-fans that winnowed weeds in the wiry water
stiffened to bony lace, and the dripping tendrils
of an octopus wrung its hands at the slaughter
from the gutting knives. Achille unstitched the entrails
and hurled them on the sand for the palm-ribbed mongrels
and the sawing flies. As skittish as hyenas
the dogs trotted, then paused, angling their muzzles
sideways to gnaw on trembling legs, then lift a nose
at more scavengers. A triumphant Achilles,
his hands gloved in blood, moved to the other canoes
whose hulls were thumping with fishes. In the spread seine
the silvery mackerel multiplied the noise
of coins in a basin. The copper scales, swaying,
were balanced by one iron tear; then there was peace.
They washed their short knives, they wrapped the flour-bag sails,
then they helped him haul In God We Troust back in place,
jamming logs under its keel. He felt his mucles
unknotting like rope. The nets were closing their eyes,
sagging on bamboo poles near the concret depot.
In the standpipe’s sandy trough aching Achilles
washed sand from his heelds, then tightened the brass spigot
to its last drop. An immense lilac emptiness
settled the sea. He sniffed his name in one armpit.
He scraped dry scales off his hands. He liked the odours
of the sea in him. Night was danning its coalpot
from one catching star. The No Pain lit its doors
in the village. Achille put the wedge of dolphin
that he’d saved for Helen in Hector’s rusty tin.
A full moon shone like a slice of raw onion.
When he left the beach the sea was still going on.
Walcott went and snapped up his Nobel in 1992.
Since then those Swedish bastards have gone in the following direction.
1993 Toni Morrison United States English “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
Toni was going to win hers eventually. She’s a great writer don’t get me wrong, but she doesn’t work too hard these days. She’s written some reeeeeally great novels, although she was always way too heavy on the symbolism, thus making her the de facto favorite of every English department everywhere.
1994 Kenzaburo Oe Japan Japanese”who with poetic force creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.”
No clue who this person is, so I guess that was a quiet year. Give me a break, I was 11.
1995 Seamus Heaney Ireland English/Irish “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”
Heaney is in no way a bad poet, and when he translated Beowulf, he kissed the ass of all the Beowulf scholars which was very nice of him to say the least. Not a bad choice.
1996 Wisława Szymborska Poland Polish “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.”
I will not pretend to be an expert on this woman, but seriously? Who was smoking the crack on the Nobel committee during the late 90s?
1997 Dario Fo Italy Italian”who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.”
If that description is accurate…
1998 José Saramago Portugal Portuguese “who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality.”
The world’s biggest Saramago fan I am not. Then again, being a combination of a communist, a Chomskyite and a totally boring writer is not exactly the straight-on path to my heart. Of course this was not near the misstep of
1999 Günter Grass Germany German”whose frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history.”
I’m actually not a huge Gunter Grass hater. The Tin Drum is genius, and much of his other work is great. Unfortunately, he was also in the SS.
Plus, he kinda looks like it. I mean, I would have called it if I had been around in those days. Also, the coward had back-up.
One of his major German critics, Joachim Fest, had an interesting take on it. From his wiki:
Fest was born in Berlin, the son of Johannes Fest, a conservative Roman Catholic and strongly anti-Nazi schoolteacher who was dismissed from his position when the Nazis came to power in 1933. In 1936, when Fest turned ten, his family refused to make him join the Hitler Youth, a step which could have had serious consequences, although membership did not become compulsory until 1939. As it was Fest was expelled from his school, and then went to a Catholic boarding school in Freiburg im Breisgau in Baden: here he was able to avoid Hitler Youth service until he was 18.
The fact that his father, an “ordinary German,” had understood the nature of the Nazi regime, and had resisted it, colored Fest’s view of his fellow Germans for the rest of his life. He never accepted that Germans had not known what Hitler was doing or that they could not have resisted the Nazi regime.
The part that usually angers me the most, and was a particularly thing of Vonnegut too, was this:
More recently he has argued that Germany’s own war victims — those killed by Allied firebombing, for instance — should not be forgotten.
Look, I’m not saying they should be forgotten, but to honor the civilians who permitted this monstrosity to emerge and genocide everybody. I mean, Jesus. If there was a black and white war, this was it!
Gunter’s memoir about this also apparently sucked.
I’ll finish up my Nobel list later. See you tomorrow for some links.