Human on My Faithless Arm, Episode 8: “Midsummer: XXVIII”
Photograph by Stanislav Lvovsky
Welcome to Episode 8 of Human on My Faithless Arm, a series of podcasts in which I present performances of and brief commentaries upon the poems I recite each night to my infant daughter, Auden.
Episode 8 features a spectacular short poem by Derek Walcott, number XXVIII in the sequence which became the book Midsummer published in 1985. (For those of us who, as Philip Larkin put it, can only “look (as), // (but) not read” Latin (parentheses added), that’s number 28, just about the midpoint or heart of the LIV poems in Midsummer.) According to an interview, Derek had intended to spend the summer painting at the beach, but these poems interrupted his painting—thank goodness. (I like his paintings, and once I even asked him to pay me with a small watercolor for some work I’d done for him, but soon enough you’ll know what I mean.) You can hear a recording of my recitation and my commentary here:
If you want to follow along and you are not a subscriber to The New Yorker, where “Midsummer XXVIII” first appeared on July 4, 1983, and where it is archived, you need to grab your copy of Midsummer or Collected Poems 1948-1984. If, like me, you no longer subscribe to The New Yorker, you can still see (for almost no cost) a teentsie weentsie picture of the page on which it was published!
The U.S. Library of Congress has archived online a characteristic recording of Derek reading in the mid-1980s, when he was not at all chatty from the stage. You can listen to it here. “Midsummer XXVIII” begins at 39:46.
I say the Library of Congress reading is characteristic because (and the distinction is noted in their program note) Derek says so very little from the stage that is not a poem. In these years, and through much of the 90s, Derek was very much concerned to let the poem in performance do its work as a poem, not as a bit of biography and not as the less-interesting accompaniment to a charming anecdote, some medicine his audience must swallow after tasting the sugar of his witty company. The Derek I knew, the one I heard read many times from the late eighties until well into “the aughts,” was opposed to poets seeming more interesting as people than their work was interesting as poetry. Part of what gave dignity to the calling of the poet he invited his students to pursue was the time he took to stand in public giving voice to poems as created things, not emanations of an individual who wanted to be liked. You might recall, reading this, that Derek was a playwright and founder of two theatres, someone who knew the difference between performed effects which are not elicited by a play or poem and performed effects which are instead deeply rooted in a well-made text. Then add, of course, Derek’s consciousness that it might just be too easy—and too far beneath the art—for him to please a mainly white audience by playing yet another black entertainer. To my knowledge, though he grew more affable on stage in his later years, Derek never quite left this position behind. (See my “Genocide and the Failure to Teach: An Overstatement” for more on Derek and race and teaching.)
I’ll say a bit more in the podcast. Thank you for listening to Human on My Faithless Arm. I hope you will join me for episode nine, especially if you don’t know Vladimir Nabokov’s poetry, for I’ll be reciting the famous novelist’s wonderful poem, “The Room.”
Daniel Bosch is Lecturer in English at Emory University and Senior Editor of Berfrois.