at last: news that stays news


Obama: a new age of poetry!

First: Derek Walcott – surely by now the Ur-Daddy of black poetry – has written a poem for Barack Obama, and it has been published in the Times. This is interesting for a couple of reasons. Lavinia Greenlaw made reference in the Harriet blog to a little spat someone had tried to start in the Times comments thread, saying Walcott “should try reading the papers” – but I’m reckoning he does, and that’s how he knew Obama had won (bless). It is a red herring, but it does raise one of the interesting things, which is that the poem is about a slave – well, here is the beginning of it:

Out of the turmoil emerges one emblem, an engraving —
a young Negro at dawn in straw hat and overalls,
an emblem of impossible prophecy, a crowd
dividing like the furrow which a mule has ploughed,
parting for their president: a field of snow-flecked cotton
forty acres wide…

Flash back to the other day, when I ran into a friend on the top of a 243 bus in Farringdon. “I’m so relieved,” she said, about the election. “But one thing that does annoy me is how people are making such a big deal about him being black. It’s not really the point, is it, these days.”

Maybe the person who said Walcott should read the papers more has the same idea. I’m willing to bet he’s English. Because – and I’m not exactly a career American, hardly – I pretty much came over here and never looked back, especially at the political scene over there which traditionally tends to give me tiny baroque hives – because, if you grew up over there with the shadow of slavery hanging over you, with the shadow of the civil war and the civil rights movement and the shadow of a nasty cawing crow called Jim – something astonishing happened when the Obama family walked onto that stage. Time buckled. It just seemed not to exist, it became all thinned out and flat and sheer, and in fact the whole world that day shimmered with an other-worldly light. I’m not being romantic. Far from it. Walcott has simply nodded to that tesseract, acknowledged (or shown us) that that time, along with the times in between, is standing still right now, watching our time.

Yesterday I quoted a poem by Tom Disch which says that the person who reads more poems can better understand the tree. Maybe the person who knows how to read the kind of news that stays news can also better understand – especially if he or she didn’t have that particular tortured American upbringing – Obama’s symbolic victory as well as his quotidian one.

Second: the New York Times is at it too. On election day they published five poems – five poems! – to commemorate that last day of nerves and uncertainty. They’re great – they’re already museum pieces. One of them, by my friend Joshua Mehigan, marks the end of that endless campaign with the line, “Democracy is slow. It can take many years.”

Tell us about it. Derek Walcott says so too.

Third: and in the picture at the top of this post? Look at the book the president-elect is holding, if you can see it. This was the Obamas coming out of the parents’ meeting at their daughter’s school, and the book is Walcott’s Collected Poems. Repeat this after me: the president is holding a book of poetry! George Bush!! Put that in your goddamn pipe and smoke it.

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