Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Poem of the Month

Everybody is buzzing about the news that Obama was caught with a book of poetry in his hands yesterday. Of course, the poets were thrilled about this, but were even more interested in what/whom the president-elect was reading. I think we were all happy to hear it was Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, brilliant ambassador of poetry from the Caribbean.

I always teach the same Walcott poem at the very end of every one of my creative writing/poetry classes and it is one of the most important mantras in my life:

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

--Derek Walcott

Even as I am typing this, I am in tears. Walcott is simply stunning here. And as you grow older (or as I do) the words have new meaning each time you reach and surpass a milestone in your life. The poem is about all the things we're ever told but find it difficult to remember: you are good enough; you are worthy; this too shall pass; this is a learning experience; no can love you until you learn to love yourself. This is the same thing we get from parents and self-help books, but Walcott uses a fraction of the space and time to say it so much better. You get the sense that he is convinced this is true and so you are convinced.

First, the opening declarative statement--"The time will come"--as opposed to a less forceful one such as 'The time may come', instantly creates a kind of omniscience on the part of the speaker. This authoritative voice is used throughout the poem to impart clear and essential advice to the reader. Walcott sets up a 'mirror image' in the first stanza. The poem is written using the second person point of view, so the reader immediately gets the sense that they are being given some personal life lesson. All of the action that takes place in the poem is that of the reader looking in on himself. He arrives 'at his own door', looks into 'his own mirror' and dines at his own table.

By the second stanza, the reader has the sense that they are meeting and old friend, but here the "me, myself and i" cliche is handled with more subtlety than it is in other art forms. There is much to be said about the infusion of the meal imagery here. The 'breaking of bread' is a sacred thing in most cultures. We have inferences of it some of our our pinnacle art, especially in the black community, not least of all Langston's reference to the table.

The original use of the term, and the imagery, is biblical. People literally broke bread together and shared not only food, but sustenance, literal and spiritual, around the table. Hence, Walcott's choice of cuisine--bread and wine--are deliberate and important. This particular food and drink has been a staple since ancient times. Everyone, from monarchs to paupers, partook in some form of the two. When Christ instituted the new passover memorial, he used bread and wine to symbolize his pure blood and body; he told his followers to do this 'in remembrance', to continue breaking bread together as a symbol of their devotion to righteousness and their commitment to continue to strive to be holy themselves.

All of this is evident in Walcott's poem. His overarching point is that, eventually, after superficial love, we will begin to recognize our own power and 'holiness'. In time, we will recognize 'the stranger who was your self' and love that person--whom we deny for an infinite number of reasons--as the great love/friend/confidant we've searched for.

By the time we reach the last stanza, Walcott's declarative statements become imperative ones. The speaker commands us to recognize our journey and power. In essence, he says you must "Sit. Feast on your life." The clarity of Walcott's language here is not to be confused with simplicity. His word choices are deliberate and sharp. Another principle example is the phrase "by heart" in the third stanza. Normally, knowing something by heart means merely that we've memorized it, but here it has a layered meaning. The 'stranger' here has not only memorized the mannerisms and choices of person the speaker is referring to but also literally knows this person's intimate thoughts, emotions and innerworkings, because they are one in the same. No one knows 'you' by heart more than you know yourself. And knowing one 'by heart' also means that there is an implicit love, one that is inextricably linked to a person's history--good or bad--that you always have, and eventually re-discover, for yourself.

It's difficult to elaborate critically on such a seamless poem. Walcott has done more in his fifteen lines than I could ever do here. I think it is one of the few perfect poems I have ever read and that may be the reason I've come to cherish it so. Glad to see that others, Obama included, have been mulling over this light. Maybe this will inspire new folks to turn to poetry in times fear or hope or celebration.