I’m reading V.S Naipaul’s A Turn in the South (1989). He’s someone I like when I read him, but whenever I finish reading a book by him, I’m quite happy to wait three or four years before the next one. But this is good (or good so far, I’m only about eighty pages into it): a travel book about the American South. I came across this passage which I liked a lot.
The party was ‘Southern’ in its motifs. A Confederate flag fluttered in the sunlight on the rough field between the woods. a skinned pig, fixed in the posture of a hurdler, had been roasting all day, held on poles a little to one side of slow-burning hardwood logs. (On a table were more contemporary fast foods and dips and things in waxed paper.) And a band played bluegrass music from the wooden hut. Flag, pig, music: things from the past. The musical instruments were big, the music simple and repetitive. I was told it was the words of the songs that mattered. The accents were not easy for me to follow; but the effect, especially from a little distance, of the unamplified music and singing in that enclosed green space was pleasant.
Our hostess said, ‘Indians might have lived here.’
With that idea of being in the American wilderness, I felt a chill, thinking of them in this green land with its protective slopes, its shade, and rivers. Later I learned the ground was full of flint arrowheads.
It was in this setting, with the bluegrass music coming from the wooden hut, that I heard about the religious faith and identity of the people who had come after the Indians. And I had a sense of the history here resting layer upon layer. The Indians, disappearing after centuries; the poor whites; the blacks; the war and all that had come after; and now the need everyone felt, black and white, poor and not so poor, everyone in his own way, to save his soul.
The musicians were young and friendly; there was a girl among them. When they finished they put their big instruments in their truck and went away. When the sun went down there was no wind; the flag drooped. It became cold very quickly; it was still only spring.
I read these five paragraphs once and again (it was late, and I was a little sleepy, and was regularly distracted by Oli and his dinosaurs), and started to turn them into a poem in my mind. They work very well as a poem: they set up a scene and bring us into it and take us out of it without staying long enough to make us bored; they gesture at a history and a world beyond the immediate confines of the text; they create ambiguities out of significant yet simple details. I kept on thinking of it as one of those foursquare poems that Randall Jarrell might have written: a woozy garden scene with death nipping at the edges.
And then I thought, and am still thinking, that poetry needs to be more than this. This passage works as a poem, but it is quite clearly not a poem. If nothing else, I have taken it out of its surrounding context in order to put it into its own internal web of connections and references. It’s a cheat to give it to you like this and say ‘This is Naipaul’s poem’. Death nipping at the edges: Naipaul’s original has different edges, or no edges at all. I once heard a professional critic say that he had spent a lifetime trying to define poetry and had come to the conclusion that it was unjustified margins that made a poem a poem. He had tenure, so could afford to be radical, but this passage is a good example. Poetry is about positioning. Sleepy thought for the morning.