The Cost of Poetry

Baudelaire urges his readers, ‘Always be a poet, even in prose’. I have known David Levy for almost two decades but I had no idea that he wrote poetry until his latest book arrived at my home by post a couple of months ago. I knew that he had once written a Cold War opus but it hadn’t occurred to me that his creative impulse would turn to poetry. Since I always like to read the poetry of writers whose prose I enjoy, such as Borges and Nabokov, the gift made me feel most expectant. 

It is hard enough to make a living by writing fiction or non-fiction, let alone poetry. However, Robert Graves has rightly said that there is no money in poetry but there is no poetry in money, either. And Ovid was scolded by his own father for his choice of profession, informing his son that even Homer died a poor man. 

Like many others who run to the personal expense of self-publication rather than make money from their métier of choice, David has published, independently, a book of poems, wryly titled Could This Be the Heaven of a More Terrible World? 

I met David and his wife Jeannie quite by chance outside the British Museum in 2005 when I was running an errand and he and his wife were touring London. It was our mutual interest in Caribbean literature that formed the basis of our near-instant friendship. 

David had met Derek Walcott in Trinidad and I had met V. S. Naipaul in Cheltenham, and we liked to exchange anecdotes of our encounters with those two renowned sons of the Caribbean. David once sent me a CD of a radio interview with Walcott, in which the poet implores his interviewer not to make him cry by mentioning his mother, who had footed the bill for the publication of the first volume of her son’s poems. He also sent me a photo of Hanuman House, the dwelling featured in Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, dating from the time David had spent in Chaguanas. David later told me how profoundly moved he was in reading the account of Camille Pissarro’s life in Paris in Walcott’s Tiepolo’s Hound.

One of the themes in David’s book deals with writers and their fathers, in which he explores the relationship of Naipaul (among others) with his father:

Vidia Naipaul’s father Seepersad

A self-educated man

who had made himself a journalist

the Cherished Biswas 

Incidentally, Monty Norman once composed a Raga-style piece for a musical version of A House for Mr Biswas, which never got made, but the piece was later used as one of the themes in the James Bond films. David ponders the question whether:


Cornwall-Le Carre

change their names to sever

themselves from their fathers

David knows only too well how much courage it takes to go against the grain:

Allen Ginsberg son of a poet father

as was insurance executive Wallace


Garrett Stevens’ lawyer father

author of ‘occasional poems’

in a letter urged Wallace to pursue

A money-earning future

Writing about Marx, David conjures up his life in London:

after his visits to the British Museum

Karl frequented the Museum Tavern

across the way on Great Russell Street 

In fact, it was in Great Russell Street that I first met David so serendipitously in 2005. I found the poems written by David on the theme of a care home where his mother had spent her last days, very poignant:

The concept of palliative care

originated in the hospice movement

places of repose for 4th-century travellers

The dead said St Augustine, are invisible not absent

Whenever Nabokov saw the dead in his dreams

they appeared silent

The poet contemplates what the French call ‘the presence of an absence’. While at the care home, David’s mother can’t help but think of the Wedgwood china in her former apartment. David’s book opens with a saying in French: ‘Ma maison c’est votre maison’. I was familiar with this saying only in Spanish: ‘Mi casa es su casa’. David likes to describe Montreal as his True North. He knows that Montrealers do not readily extend hospitality to visitors. Margaret Atwood blames this on the long cold winters. Although both David and his father were born in the city, he feels disturbed whenever a fellow-passenger on a train asks him where he is from originally. Could This Be the Heaven of a More Terrible World? is about belonging, politics and identity in our ever-changing world. The poet covers a wide range of topics in his collection, from geopolitics to the politics of language.

Language said the Bishop of Avila

to Queen Isabella of Spain

was the perfect instrument of Empire

Having taught courses in cinema at McGill University, David applies an acute cinematographer’s eye in capturing individuals and their milieus in his verse. His poems are populated by a vast number of interesting characters, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and such fashion icons as Iman and Valentino. I gather that Valentino was named by his mother after the silent cinema matinee idol Rudolf Valentino. Since I am myself originally from Kashmir, I was intrigued to discover that Rudolf Valentino’s singing voice can be heard on a 78 rpm gramophone record in which he trills a 1923 romantic ballad, the so-called Kashmiri Love Song, ‘Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar…’ Forgive me if I prefer the verses of David Levy. Although it can be costly to publish a collection of poems independently, one cannot put a price on true poetry. 

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