© Martin Figura
Chair of the Royal Society of Literature, Daljit’s four poetry collections, all with Faber & Faber, have won the Forward Prize for Best Individual Poem and Best First Book, the South Bank Show Decibel Award and the Cholmondeley Award, and been shortlisted for the Costa Prize and twice for the TS Eliot Prize. Daljit is a PBS New Generation Poet whose poems have appeared in The New Yorker, the LRB and the TLS, and his journalism in the FT and The Guardian. The inaugural Poet-in-Residence for Radio 4 & 4 Extra, he presents the weekly Poetry Extra, and serves on the Council of the Royal Society of Literature, and teaches at Brunel University London.
Letter to Professor Walcott
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 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?