Daljit Nagra

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© Martin Figura

the poet

Chair of the Royal Society of Literature, Daljit Nagra has pubished four collections of poetry with Faber & Faber. He has scooped the Forward Prizes for Best Individual Poem and Best First Collection, the South Bank Show Decibel Award, and the Cholmondeley Award. Daljit's writing has also been shortlisted for the Costa Prize, and twice for the T S Eliot Prize. A Poetry Book Society New Generation Poet, Daljit has had his poems published by The New Yorker, the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. He is the inaugural poet-in-residence for Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra, presenting the weekly Poetry Extra programme. Daljit serves on the Council of the Royal Society of Literature, and teaches at Brunel University London.

the poems

Letter to Professor Walcott

00:00 / 04:48

           Hardly worth calling them out, the old masters.
           Each time a cause gains ground, should their estate
           become glass house to alleged misdemeanours?
           Their body of rhyme can be felt, it propagates
           its own lineage. Should we read poems from a cave,
           half-witted by the missing forefather? I stand before
           the compressed volumes of verse across my shelves:
           who covered their tracks, who’ll outlive their flaws?

           Who’d topple the marble of some national bard,
           or gulag their name and the chela guarding them?
           How many writers, the world over, are behind bars
           for crossing a border of taste? It seems natural to harm
           art and the artist. Consider Larkin whose private views
           were amiss, who, if akin to his father’s brown shirt,
           who, if published by Old Possum's who laid rats on Jews …
           and I’ve lost myself, and the Work is no longer the work.

           If influence imparts bad genes, who to weigh in the scales
           of my nurture? Weigh Chaucer who forced a minor
           into raptus? Weigh Milton mastering tongues to bate
           his women like a whip? Weigh Coleridge pairing the horror
           of Othello’s wedded stares to those of a black mastiff?
           Weigh Whitman and Tennyson who’d cleanse by skin?
           If Kipling says we’re devils, may I weigh the man of If ?
           How do I edit the Frost-like swamp I’ve swilled –

           so many poets to recycle either side of this fireplace
           before sweetness and light. Before I’m woke, in tune
           with the differentiated rainbow and its crying flames.
           Should I calmly cease their leasehold if they’ve abused
           the canonical fortress? Or ride a kangaroo court
           on its flood of Likes? Take down each Renaissance Man
           to his manhood? But I hear the poems breathe: We can’t
           be judged by our birth, or judge our birth as Parnassian.

           And you, dear Derek. Your Adam-songs for an island
           sparked paradise from sanderling, breadfruit. Your spade
           dug the manor and bones fell up. The senate columns
           fanfared your arrival. They donned a black male
           and colour was virtue. You opened my mouth and verse
           came out. Your advocates cleaned your mess, their arms
           held down the age, as though gods roamed the earth
           to graduate girls. As though rape were the father of art.

           You were 'Dutch, n____', Brit, you were my Everyman!
           Why take on Caliban’s revenge? Your moustache
           a broom wedging its stanza of nightmare – in how many
           Helens? Did you lust after lines inspired by whiplash,
           taunted by sirens for your Homeric song? Intellectual
           finger-jabbing seems off the mark: in the papers
           Korean Ko Un’s erased, and who’d fly to a terminal
           if it was named for a serial pervert, Pablo Neruda?

           I bet they hunt the dark man, Derek, in pantheon death.
           Haunted or wreathed – how should you be honoured at
           Inniskilling? Well, it seems fitting you fall in the West
           where you carried 'our' burden. Beside the foul spot,
           I’d test my love again. You are in me: I’d never lose
           you, if I tried. I’d begin with these, your old books, anew.
           Now where on my shelves are you, travelling through
           the old world? Where’s your dog-eared Don Juan?

00:00 / 01:44
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00:00 / 01:44
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Publishing credits

A Letter to Professor Walcott: Times Literary Supplement (No. 6147)