February 5, 2009

‘I shake hands with you in my heart’

Posted in Education, Philosophy, Poetry tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 1:36 am by randallbutisingh

‘I shake hands with you in my heart’

We reproduce below excerpts from the address given by Dr Ian McDonald at the Frank Collymore Literary Awards in Barbados, on January 10, 2009

We must never for a moment doubt that it is absolutely vital that a nation should foster and honour its writers. The good writer devotes his energy to searching for truth. And in the love of truth, straight and unvarnished, lies not only the hope but the safety of a nation. “The people need poetry,” the great Russian Poet, Osip Mandelstam, wrote, “to keep them awake forever.” The good writer, the true writer, as Cyril Connolly said in Enemies of Promise, “helps to unmask those pretenders which distract all human plans for improvement: the love of power and money, the short-sighted acquisitive passions, the legacies of injustice and ignorance, a tiger instinct for fighting, the ape-like desire to go with the crowd. A writer must be a lie-detector who exposes fallacies in words and ideals before half the world is killed for them.”

Dr. Ian McDonald

Dr. Ian McDonald

Tonight I think it is appropriate to speak to you simply about poetry, one of the other great loves of my life and one which has yielded me more joy and inspiration and comfort and soul-satisfaction than I can well describe.

There is a poetry gene in the human race, implanted there by God or Nature, which fosters a love of poetry in the gene-carrier and inscribes indelibly the need to read and write it. It is a strong gene and, despite distractions and intermittent silences, the poetry gene will never die and re-seeds itself and flames up through the generations forever.

In my own case I have been fascinated to follow the poetry gene manifesting itself, leaping over the generations. My five times great-grandfather, Edward Dacres Baynes, lived an extraordinary life, 1790 to 1863, as soldier, stipendiary magistrate in Jamaica just after emancipation and after that a colonial civil servant in the Leeward Islands including the post of President of the Council of Montserrat. It is said also in his headstrong youth he stole away my five times great grandmother, an Italian beauty Francesca Gaetana, from a nunnery and they ended up having fifteen children and settling in Antigua. Amidst all this activity the poetry gene asserted itself and Edward Dacres Baynes became the author of a volume of Poetical Odes and a magnum opus in Byronic style in two cantos and 120 stanzas entitled Child Harold in the Shades, an Infernal Romance. Not very good poetry I regret to report but in him the precious gene was alive and well.

Then there was my great-uncle Donald McDonald, an Antiguan trader, businessman and Assembly member of some note, who found the time and deep inclination to write verse. He published a volume in London in 1917, a copy of which I finally tracked down in the British Library.

And he was followed by my grandmother, Hilda McDonald, first woman member of the Antiguan House of Assembly, whose small booklet of verse Sunflakes and Stardust, contains some lovely pieces which I treasure to this day. I also have copies of her letters to the great Guyanese editor and man of letters, Arthur Seymour, and from her conversation I know she must have corresponded with Henry Swanzy of Caribbean Voices in London and also with Frank Collymore. She told me she greatly regretted not writing more but, she said, “Poetry takes infinite time and I never made enough time for it. We all have enough time but very few make enough time for important things.”

I am glad I inherited from them the poetry gene. And if I may I would like to say a few words tonight simply about the importance and the joy of poetry. To me personally ever since I was a boy, poetry has been a blessing. Not a day passes that I do not read poetry. I find that it so often goes to the heart of what is important in life and the world. But also like a glass of good wine it is a bringer of pleasure.

There can never be any doubt about the deep and abiding importance of poetry. Language is the most potent force in any society and poetry is the purest form of language. When language in the purest form is neglected, soon language itself will be corrupted and perverted. When societies descend into such a condition true poets find it hard to exist and, in despair, go into exile. Soon a vicious circle of corrupted society and poetry in exile begins to spin. Such a phenomenon is well known. What is less measurable is the incidence of internal exile arising from a cultural indifference to native creativity and contempt specifically for the art of writing poetry. Who can forget the devastating judgement of Derek Walcott that the contempt in which some people hold their own culture has done proportionally as much destruction to the individual artist as political imprisonment or purges. The countervailing influence of the endeavours of the Frank Collymore Endowment and events such as this evening’s awards are therefore of vital importance.

That is a serious matter. But there is the side of poetry which involves pure pleasure and I wish this pleasure could be more universally experienced. It was Wordsworth in his great Preface to the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads who vigorously stated that the poet need acknowledge only one overriding imperative – that he should give pleasure. But, Wordsworth went on to write:

“This necessity of producing immediate pleasure is not a degradation of the Poet’s art. It is far otherwise. It is an acknowledgment of the beauty of the universe, an acknowledgment the more sincere, because it is not formal, but indirect: it is a task light and easy to him who looks at the world in the spirit of love: further, it is a homage paid to the native and naked dignity of man, to the grand elementary principle of pleasure, by which he knows, and feels, and lives, and moves.”

I leap a couple of centuries and find that not very pleasant man but very good poet, Philip Larkin, writing the following in one of his essays:
“But at bottom poetry, like all art, is inextricably bound up with giving pleasure and if a poet loses his pleasure-seeking audience he has lost the only audience worth having. And the effect will be felt throughout his work. He will forget that even if he finds what he has to say interesting, others may not. He will concentrate on moral worth or semantic intricacy…  And once the other end of the rope is dropped what results will not be so much obscure as an   unrealized slackness, because he will have lost the habit of testing what he writes by this particular standard. Hence, no pleasure. Hence, no poetry.”
I very much believe this to be true. Good poetry should be accessible to all. It should provoke the response of the old domestic servant who found some of William Barnes’s poems in a pile of books that she was dusting and read them and wrote to him in 1869: “Sir, I shook hands with you in my heart, and I laughed and cried by turns.”
Poetry should indeed shake hands with you in your heart.

It is sad, therefore, that any view of poetry as giving joy and pleasure to the mass of people seems in this day and age out-of-date and even bizarre. But that is to forget, at the very least, the growing power and popularity of performance poetry which I would now like to say something about.

“Performance poets” have been, and will continue more than ever to be, important in rescuing poetry from neglect in our Caribbean societies. In these societies “formal” or “literary” poetry is not just a minority taste – it may even be a mini-minority indulgence. There is little conception of what Pushkin, the great Russian, was talking about when he wrote: “That hour is blessed when we meet a poet… he stands on a basis of equality with the powerful of the earth and the people bow down before him.”

In this context of poetry almost completely marginalized, one way to get through to the ordinary person has been found in “nation language,” folk ballads, calypsos, and performance poems. Thank God for them and their growing influence. The performance poet knows in his gut that he or she must give pleasure and for that alone his work is vital.

The performance poet explores a world remote from those of us who live largely insulated from the daily reality which he or she portrays so vividly, humourously, and with such humanity. It is an after hours world, a world of side-streets and minibus stops, of noon-day bars and late-night discos, of dicing at the chic-chic boards and dominoes and liming in the havens of the poor but resilient. It is a world of the unsheltered and the hand-to-mouth, of desperate expediencies and smart contrivances, of women and men struggling to survive and get a little pleasure in the bargain, of chicken foot and curry squash and black pudding and souse in the little shops and a few shots of rum or beers on the side, of early morning market banter and dark night encounters with the comic and the tragic, of nights spent in the lock-up and of days spent in the eternal business of getting by. It is a world of “real girls” and “roots men,” of men clanking with gold chains or going naked in their madness. It is a world the cocktail circuit does not know. The performance poet writes out of the brave, humourous, bitter lives of ordinary people in hard times. As I listen to such poetry some lines from a Russian poet come into my mind:

“I am the name of all those without names.

I am a writer for all those who do not write.”

We need such people and such writers – expressing the pleasure and pain that is the unsung poetry of the people.

And how can I not end these remarks on poetry, at an event devoted to Literature, without quoting the most glorious affirmation ever made on the subject. It is Wordsworth again at the end of his great Preface as he seeks to define his idea of the poet not only as a begetter of joy and pleasure, but as the creator of the “breath and finer spirit of all knowledge”:

“The rock of defence of human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs, in spite of things silently gone out of mind and things violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time. The objects of the Poet’s thoughts are everywhere; though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favourite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge – it is as immortal as the heart of man.”

I thank you for listening to this expression of a personal passion.

Thanks to your kind invitation I have been able to indulge myself about my love of poetry. And I have tried to say something about the deep value of keeping alive a love of poetry and literature in our lives and in a nation’s life. I repeat my heart-felt thanks for the honour of the invitation. I commend most warmly the sponsors of the Frank Collymore Endowment and the organizers of this excellent celebratory event.

And, most importantly, I congratulate the winners of tonight’s awards. May they all have successful careers in literature. In them the poetic gene pool of the nation is again renewed. In a very valuable way our future lies in the promise of their work and the work of others like them throughout the Region.

Finally I salute the shade of Frank Collymore which hovers here tonight. And I hope you will forgive me if I read a poem I wrote in his honour which was published in the recent issue of BIM devoted to celebrating his memory.
I Learned It All In One Kind Meeting

(for Frank Collymore)
I learned it all in one kind meeting

he praised a small thing I had sent

young and eager to make an instant mark.

He showed me how it could be better done

important to get it absolutely right,

he smiled, so much at stake, so much at stake.

He walked quietly in the history of his people

pointing out, not screaming, this matters, this is good.

Write words carefully, they will last

longer then empire, they will shake our world.

Ancient and useful as the farmer’s trade

cultivation of language is an equal craft.

Constructions of the mind bequeath the most

tales told well are told for evermore.

What he meant and wanted us to do:

hourly practise the measurement of truth

sort out the saying of good stories

set forth as daily food the privileges of art.

Build him a monument of a green tree growing

With fruit to pick for generations to come.

– BY:  Stabroek News – Published: February 1, 2009.

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