Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Derek Walcott's 'Sea Grapes': Homeward Bound through Classical Surf


SEA GRAPES (Derek Walcott)

I have written a little about Derek Walcott before, and my feeling that among living poets he has perhaps the greatest ability to unite the personal and the epic. 'Sea Grapes' is an outstanding example. Its theme reminded me irresistibly of the lyrics of Sting's song 'History Will Teach Us Nothing':

Our written history is a catalogue of crime
The sordid and the powerful, the architects of time
The mother of invention, the oppression of the mild
The constant fear of scarcity, aggression as its child

Hardly an exact parallel - maybe it's just the vibe that is similar. Still, 'Sea Grapes' could be saying that while "the classics can console", in historical and even personal terms we don't necessarily learn anything from them except for the fact that patterns repeat themselves again and again.

This brings nobody peace. The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility will
never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore now
wriggling on his sandals to walk home...

The strange thing about this poem for me, though, is the fact that it seems to have a double meaning. One meaning is about the lessons of Homer's Odyssey and other such tales, and the necessary limitations of those lessons. This is the intellectual meaning, I think. (It also reminds me that I know very little about the classics such as Homer.) But the other meaning is emotional and I am not sure if it is implicit in the poem or if I have projected it onto the words. For me, it is a poem about homesickness.

That sail which leans on light,
tired of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home...

I have never been to the Caribbean - my closest encounter yet is from a couple of visits to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, when I swam in the Caribbean Sea. But when reading it, I see that almost blinding light striking off waves in constant refracted motion, and the "exhausted surf" beating up onto the shore, creating a dragging, percussive yet soothing rush of pebbles. While I have seen and heard these in different parts of the world, I associate these images most with the sea off Victoria on Vancouver Island, where I grew up. (I took this photo in June, on the ferry between the mainland and Vancouver Island.)

Thus, this becomes for me a poem with an almost educational dimension, alongside the equally or more important emotional dimension. It's a poem which is both intellectual and state-of-mind, and that may be the best of all.

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