Daily Archives: 3 September 2009

#58 “A Far Cry from Africa” (Derek Walcott)

Derek Walcott’s great poem “A Far Cry from Africa” needs a little background, but not a great deal. Walcott sets his poem in the midst of the Kenyan rebellion against the British Empire. (President Obama’s grandfather was active in the Kenyan resistance against the British.) The Kikuyu, mentioned once by Walcott in the poem, are one of the largest native Kenyan ethnic groups. The only other allusion in the poem is to Spain, a shorthand for a lost-cause resistance to a superpower. In Spain in the 1930s, an elected left-wing government fought in vain against fascists who were supported by Hitler. “Our compassion” was with the left-wing Spanish Republicans, but was wasted (I suppose Walcott means) because the result was a foregone conclusion: the superpower was going to win.

But meanwhile, the “white child hacked in bed” dies a horrible death, too. To fight the oppressor, the oppressed must become just as brutal. Walcott’s speaker (let’s detach him from the real Walcott for the moment) is “poisoned with the blood of both”: he must have both white and black ancestors, and he isn’t happy with either identity. He calls Africans “savages” in the poem, but white people are “brutish,” “delirious as . . . beasts.”

In just a few lines, the poem considers war and violence, human nature, the ironies and rationalizations of language. It is a poem in the grandest traditions of humanism, ones that we will see repeated elsewhere in the Countdown. It poses a problem that is both ethical and aesthetic. Another way of phrasing its concerns is that between morality and art, perhaps. Can the speaker choose “Africa” (the morally right choice, in his reckoning; I think the poem tilts that way) or “the English tongue,” which gives him his artistic voice?

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#59 “After Apple-Picking” (Robert Frost)

More Frost! I swear that this course and Countdown are not going to turn into “Robert Frost and Friends.” But we have miles to go before we sleep, and somewhere in the very top echelon of modern poems we have to find room for “After Apple-Picking”. Like many of Frost’s poems, it’s a simple story about working in the country. The work itself is simple, and repetitive to the point of monotony. The work is valuable: if you want apples (for your own use or for profit), you have to pick them. But like any work, however valuable, the work becomes so all-consuming that all the worker can see is the reiteration, the arbitrary rules, and the oppressive scale of his achievement.

When I read a poem like this, I’m tempted to find a “extended metaphor” in it: do the apples, and all the operations that the speaker performs on them, somehow stand for something else? Yet I don’t think that’s the case here, or at least, as often with Frost, the “tenor” of the metaphor (what its surface or “vehicle” stands for) is vague. There’s no hidden meaning. Work is work, and all work is somewhat alike, especially when it overwhelms the worker. Yet we keep doing it, and not just for the tangible compensations.

Most beautiful to me in “After Apple-Picking” is the music of the poem. The form is one that I have called “free-rhyming” verse. The lines are of all different lengths. There’s no rhyme scheme in the sense of a predictable pattern. But the poem uses a lot of rhyme, both at the ends of the lines and internally within the lines. It’s a spoken-word concoction that makes use of the natural phrase lengths of English speech.

#60 Theme for English B (Langston Hughes)

When a colleague asked me a few years ago for an example of a poem that works as an implicit argument, my mind went directly to Langston Hughes‘s “Theme for English B”. It’s not that Hughes‘s poem makes a case for a position, exactly, as that it replicates what writers go through when they are doing “invention” for an argument: trying to think through their ideas in response to a “rhetorical situation”: here, the very familiar rhetorical situation of being given an assignment by an English teacher.

Does “Theme for English B” do too much “meaning” and not enough “being”? I don’t think so. Note the instructions for this writing assignment: “let that page come out of you – / Then, it will be true.” The speaker’s writing teacher is an “expressivist.” He (probably literally “he,” in the 1920s) wants the students just to write. But the student, “the only colored student in my class,” doesn’t find it that easy. The speaker has to consider every aspect of his social situation – age, race, region, nation – before he can start to write his “page.” At the end of the page, he has done almost nothing but account for his “diverse” identities.

“Theme for English B” addresses the question I raised near the start of this semester, one of universals. Can the same supposedly universal writing assignment really be the same for everyone who hears it? Or does the question of difference in identity enter everything we do? “That’s American,” the poem’s speaker asserts. Is it?

Don’t, by the way, equate the speaker of the poem with Langston Hughes. Hughes indeed attended Columbia University, which is the setting of the poem, and was one of the few black students there. But he was born in Missouri, far from Winston-Salem, and grew up in the Midwest, not in the South. The speaker shares some of Hughes’s experiences, but he’s forged also from Hughes’s imagination.

This poem is freer in form than any we’ve looked at so far. It doesn’t rhyme, and the lines are of different lengths and rhythms. The speaker seems to write it as simply and directly as possible, as if replicating what a 22-year-old college student might actually write. But as with Frost’s poetry, there is a great deal of craft in seeming as simple and direct as possible. A real student might try to sound more academic or intellectual, or perhaps more vernacular. Not many college students can look so directly at themselves and be so open! I sense in this poem a sort of looking back and doing what one might have done, in one’s youth: a saying what one should have said at the time.