These were the rites of morning by a low concrete
parapet under the copper spears of the palms,
since men sought fame as centaurs, or with their own feet,
or wrestlers circling with pincer-extended arms,
or oblong silhouettes racing round a white vase
of scalloped sand, when a boy on a pounding horse
divided the wrestlers with their lowering claws
like crabs. As in your day, so with ours, Omeros,
as it is with islands and men, so with our games.
A horse is skittering spray with rope for its rein.
Only silhouettes last. No one remembers the names
of foam-sprinters. Time halts the arc of a javelin.
—Derek Walcott, Omeros
Another brief, sublime sojourn in my chaotic odyssey through modern epic poetry in English. Derek Walcott is a Caribbean author born in St. Lucia, who now apparently teaches writing at Boston University. Omeros is a novel-length epic about two fishermen, Hector and Achille, whose friendship is broken over a woman, Helen. It has inspired me to no end. Not only does its verse follow a fairly strict meter, it adheres to this three-line structure throughout, and even actually rhymes not infrequently, yet without coming across as singsongy or stilted. It’s certainly the most unpretentious and accessible epic poem I’ve ever encountered. And it was published, I was surprised to discover, in 1990—long after the advent of the contemporary poetic taboo on metrical rigidity and rhyme, at least as I understood it. I am constantly amazed at the mileage he gets, in terms of variety and stylistic weight, out of little innovations in rhythm. The shortening of “Achilles” to “Achille”, for example. Or the way he interchanges the words “canoe” and “pirogue” to put the accent where it needs to be in a sentence. Often he will seamlessly digress into French or Caribbean patois for a line or a word, conveying both a rich sense of this cobbled-together post-colonial culture and a lesson in the versatility of verse. There’s still a certain amount of overhead, which I encounter whenever I read poetry, where I have to re-learn how to read both for meaning and sound—but in most cases, I end up having to reread at least once in order to get both senses. Here, I can actually do both at once. Which isn’t to say I haven’t been going back to reread—but I’m doing it out of desire rather than necessity.
The other astonishing thing is the way the influences of these disparate cultures combine to make the epic form feel new—and to make it applicable and relevant to events in the lives of a couple of poor, modern-day fishermen. At one point (which I’m not going to be able to find now) he compares a tropical storm to a fete thrown by the gods, invoking Zeus and Ogun in the same sentence. He equates the waning influence of the British empire with that of Rome, the exoticism of tourists with history’s reification of flawed human beings to the status of heroes. Hector ferries tourists around the island in a beat-up nine-passenger van with leopard-print seat covers, and somehow it feels completely natural for us to be reading about it in free verse.
I got onto this epic poetry kick because I was trying to write some of my own, and looking only at translations of Ovid and Sophocles and Homer wasn’t helping. In the end I think it was Omeros that really convinced me I could do it.
Then, one by one, he lifted the beautiful conchs,
weighed each in his palm, considering the deep pain
of their silence, their palates arched like the sunrise,
delicate as vulvas when their petals open,
and as the fisherman drowned them he closed his eyes,
because they sank to the sand without any cries
from their parted, bubbling mouths. They were not his
property any more than Helen’s, but the sea’s.
The thought was noble. It did not bring him any peace.