What to read in a Shared Reading group: two poems by Derek Walcott

UK - Liverpool - The Reader Organisation
Me, doing Shared Reading with a colleague on the phone. It’s not  form that matters, it’s content. Be close to the text but be moved, be personal: ‘Feast on your life’.


I wanted to write about Derek Walcott today, as he has just died, ‘called home’, to take a phrase from one of his great poems.

When I heard the news, two poems came immediately to mind. ‘A Letter from Brooklyn’ (which you can read in today’s Sunday Times)  and ‘Love After Love’,  a poem that has been read in many Shared Reading groups over the years.

‘A Letter from Brooklyn’ was the first of Derek Walcott’s poems I read, when I was still teaching at the University. I found it – in an anthology of some sort, name now lost to me – and  took it to my Friday Afternoon Poetry class.  That class was one of the strands of DNA that went into the mix to bring The Reader and Shared Reading into being.

I started it – hhhm, don’t remember, so far back it goes, but it may have been in the 1980s. It was still quite near to the time when I had  finished my Ph.D and was finding my feet as a teacher of literature. I knew I was afraid of poetry, and thought that if I was so afraid, other people would be suffering the same anxiety. So I advertised the class as ‘Afraid of poetry? come along to share your fears and read together in a relaxed group.’  Ten, fifteen, maybe eighteen of us would meet from 1.00-5.00 on the last Friday of the month for four hours of (what I’d now call) Shared Reading.  I think that class is where I first met my long-time colleague, Kate McDonnell.

The morning of the class, I would choose a poem –  or possibly two – in the same way I do for this blog –  am I interested in this? Does it touch something? Is there  a match for something live in me? Can I enter it?

And then for  a whole afternoon, the group would  sit and read together, teasing out meanings, a concentrated, collaborative experience.

‘A Letter from Brooklyn’ seems to come at a time when the poet is uncertain about his work, and the letter is an unlikely blessing, a benediction, call to arms.Like the religious poetry of the seventeenth century, this poem helps create a space in me, where something religious might happen.  I have read the poem many times since that first time, and remain moved by the word ‘home’, as Walcott himself is:

The strength of one frail hand in a dim room
Somewhere in Brooklyn, patient and assured,
Restores my sacred duty to the Word.
‘Home, home,’ she can write, with such short time to live,
Alone as she spins the blessings of her years;

It’s a poem about what survives death and what survives life, too. How thin and frail the threads that sometimes hold us in place, yet how, despite their frailty,  they sometimes are ‘steel.’

The other poem, ‘Love after Love’,  I think I first had from Kate McDonnell, once we had got  The Reader going  ( in the days when we still called it ‘Get Into Reading’).

No, no – now I remember also reading this in those Continuing Education classes at the University. Perhaps having found ‘A Letter from Brooklyn’ I went and sought more of  Derek Walcott’s work.  I recall the room I read it in. Perhaps Kate was present.  It’s a well-known, much-anthologised poem, but that doesn’t take away from its strength or reality at all. Many times I have seen new readers profoundly moved  to recognition by the poem.

Recently someone told me  they had had an occasion in their Share Reading group when the conversation had become very personal, group members sharing profoundly personal information. This  didn’t usually happen, they told me. We’re very good about sticking closely to the text, not going off.  I was surprised by this.  Yes, of course, – we need to stick closely to the text, but what does the text stick to,  if not to us?

It may be that in a group where little personal thought is shared it is still happening – inside the individual readers – but I’d hope all group members would speak from the personal: because, really, what else is there?

When I read a poem , I’m trying to match it against what I know, so as I start this one, I see my own front door – both literally and metaphorically – I see my life’s time and my sense of self:

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

I  can hardly imagine what  anyone could do with such a poem if not read it personally, connecting it to your own experience. ‘You will love again the stranger who was yourself.’ Surely , readers are required by the very language – ‘you’, ‘yourself’ –  in this line to think of themselves? To remember times when we didn’t love ourselves,  when we were self-estranged?

This leads me to ask myself, are only some  pieces of literature suitable for Shared Reading? A colleagues recently told me how much better a book was  working out in his group than a previous novel. Why?  Because it allows more of the personal?

So though anyone might enjoy a thriller, a thriller wont yield much to a Shared Reading group because it is not about real things. This isn’t about form – look again, Lincoln in The Bardo, not at all ‘realism’ – it’s about content, meaning, belief and thought. Lincoln in the Bardo  is made in fancy  dress, but it is absolutely about types of deepest reality. This is what we  look for in good reading for Shared Reading groups. You’ve got to want to look in the mirror.

It may not be necessary to confess everything you see there: some or all of that recognition might remain private. But the most powerful groups I’ve been in have shared not only the literature through slow reading aloud, but also direct, real personal response and recognition, the most serious of which have always, like the poem ‘Love After Love’, involved some pain;

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit.Feast on your life.

The peeling of that image from the mirror always hurts. But those moments of true intimacy, of revelation, are always the best moments of the best groups: they create the steel threads which help hold us in place.

Shared Reading is about sharing not only the reading, but also ourselves.