A LOVE OF POETRY BY IAN McDONALD

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The book contains a selection of essays chosen from hundreds written by Ian McDonald over the past 25 years, mostly in his ‘Ian on Sunday’ column in Stabroek News. They signify a little of the enduring love of poetry which he feels fortunate to have inherited and which has lit up all of what is now a long life.

Introduction by Ian McDonald

There is a poetry gene which skips generations but endures. My many times great-grandfather, Edward Dacres Baynes born in 1790, among other things was a poet. Among the other things he was a soldier, a stipendiary magistrate in Jamaica and a Colonial Civil Servant in the Lesser Antilles whose appointments included the Presidency of Montserrat. In his ardent youth he met a young Italian girl who was a novice in a convent, courted and married her and with her had eight children who survived infancy. He retired in Antigua with his wife and family and dies there in 1863. Long before he had translated the Epistles of Ovid in two volumes and in 1819 he published a long and ambitious poem in two cantos and seventy-four stanzas entitles ‘Childe Harold in the Shades’. An Infernal Romaunt.
My great-uncle, Donald McDonald, Antiguan businessman and legislator and father of World War 1 air ace Ian McDonald after whom I was named, in 1917 published a booklet of poems entitled Songs of an Islander. And my Grandmother, Hilda McDonald, first woman member of the Antiguan legislative Assembly, corresponded with famous West Indian editors Frank Collymore (BIM) and Arthur Seymour (KYK_OVER_AL) and published a booklet of poems entitled Sunflakes and Stardust which contains a poem I especially loved when I was a young boy and still do:

‘EVENSONG’
Sunset had called in her colours,
But not yet was it dark,
The pool lay a mirror of silver.
Without spot or mark.

When out from the green mirrored mangroves
Came a wonder of white,
A great heron wandering homewards,
Before it was night

The moon and the reeds and the heron,
And the first white star,
Shone clear in the pool’s bright mirror,
As I watched from afar
The spell of that moment still holds me,
The mirror, the star, and the bird,
The beauty beyond all imagining,
The silence where no whisper stirred

And my heart sings aloud to its Maker,
In thanks and delight,
Who gave me the moment of beauty,
Before it was night.

I inherited the gene. And when I was very small poems in the form of nursery rhymes were read to me nightly. The first lines I got by heart – nearly eighty years later I find myself holding the palms of my hands together as we say the prayer to keep and save me:

“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild
Look upon this little child
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee”

My parents’ bookshelves held English classics and I was reading Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Tennyson and Browning in my boyhood at home in Trinidad. At school, Queens Royal College in Port-of-Spain, we blessed with teachers who loved the written word and valued poetic genius far beyond gold. There was Achilles Daunt who taught Latin. “He loved to roll around his tongue the sonorous metre/Of Virgil’s mighty tale of adventure and survival.” And above all for me there was John Hodge who stands before me vividly now. I wrote about him in my poem “College’.

‘HODGE’
Imagine! Such an ordinary Englishman,
John Hodge, thousand year oldish name:
Good earth tilled for Saxon centuries
Under open skies and slow rain.
Plaster patches on his ill-shaved throat,
He taught Literature for the Scholarship.
One day without any reason: Hopkins!
Hopkins wasn’t on the syllabus.
‘I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom
Of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-dawn falcon…’
The words flashed and sung and silvered
The grey sky of school-imprisoned boys
Waiting for picnic and the weekend girls

****
That Sunday on the beach at Blanchisseuse,
Watching the high waves leap and shine,
The gleaming, marvelous words came back
And back and back again and back
Suddenly took flame and flight.
The double-dawning of the Jesuit priest
Could not get out of my head at all
Words sang as birds sing striding in the air
And the high waves arched and shone.
My eyes dazzled in the white noon blaze
Off the sea of heaven and the heavenly sea

****
Monday the dusty room was new
The old Englishman with the spectacles,
The stolid agricultural name we knew,
Had changed the angle of how the world is seen.
Talk once was meant for only living,
To get through ordinary days,
Perform the basic chores of time:
Plain statements telling truth and lies –

Not conversations with the Gods
Explaining how one views Their work.
Ill-shaven, homley Englishman,
John Hodge, I praise you down the years.
The complex value of the word was born,
Roots began to branch and sing:
At Balanchisseue waves curled and shone
And language took ecstatic wing.

Thus were my sails set for voyaging in life. And for all these years Derek Walcott’s great lines accompany me – from his poem written for Joseph Brodsky, “Forest of Europe’:

“what’s poetry; if it is worth its salt,
But a phrase man can pass from hand to mouth.

From hand to mouth, across the centries,
The bread that lasts when systems have decayed”

As for writing poems, I have been doing so for more than sixty years. They have been appearing in literary magazines in the Caribbean and elsewhere since the 1950s. In 1975 Faber and Faber published 11 poems along with the poems of eight other poets in Poetry Introduction 3. In 1983 a little booklet of twenty-five poems was published in Guyana by the Labour Advocate. Since then I have published five collections of poems: Mercy Ward (Peterloo Poets, 1988). Essequibo (Peterloo Poets, 1992), Jaffo the Calypsonian (Peepal Tree, 1994), between Silence and Silence (Peepal Tree, 2003) and The Comfort of All Things (Moray House Trust, 2012). Selected Poems was published by Macmillans in 2008.
Over the decades the muse had visited intermittently. A few times, for instance when Mercy Ward poems were being written virtually at her dictation, she settled on my shoulder and insisted that I listen. For long periods, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, she may have ventured near but was pushed aside by rougher gods and goddesses. Lately, growing old, I despite what must increasingly seem weary and unlikely looking habitation. Blessed be such kindness.
All in all, I have been writing, trying to write, poems since I was a teenager. I have found the process mysterious. Occasionally a poem emerges in the consciousness fully formed and can be dislodged from there onto paper with a shake of the pen. Mostly what occurs is a sense of something needing to be said, a couple of lines in the head, perhaps just a phase, and the accumulation of a poem begins and goes on with many fits and starts and adjustments, abandonments and reformulations. Lines collect in my mind and gradually the poem as it is written emerges. Any poem emerging from a process like this has generally been through many drafts. Very often such beginnings never become whole poems and rest forever on discarded work sheets. Long effort yields nothing worthy of being said.
Since my experience is that poems which emerge full blown are suspect because they come too easily and since my experience also is that accumulation poems must inevitably be improvable with a little more work, it follows that no poem is ever completed. Martin Carter said that he never finished a poem, only released it for other to have a look. I understand that. Unfinished versions. Flickerings in Plato’s cave.
I do not think in my life many days pass without me reading poetry – in some magazine, in a book I have been gifted or bought, in one of the nearly 800 books of poetry I have in my library and take down from the shelves to savour, old favourites or new astonishing delights. Perhaps this is why by routine disposition poetry finds a place in my writing to illustrate and explain in the way only the best poetry can. These essays have been chosen from a mixed bag of hundreds I have written over 25 years, mostly in my ‘Ian on Sunday’ column in Stabroek News. They signify a little of the enduring love of poetry which he feels fortunate to have inherited and which has lit up all of what is now a long life.