Folks, This week CultureCrash guest columnist Lawrence Christon looks at the legacy of the Saint Lucia-born, US-residing poet Derek Walcott, who died March 17. I share Christon’s fondness for DW’s verse, and was pleased enough to meet the poet once or twice at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Inst in CT, which I covered in the mid-’90s.
It’s been nearly a month since Derek Walcott died and I’m still
waiting for a major publication, or even a minor one at this point, to
come out with an authoritative summary of his life and work, the kind
of commentary on his esthetic that puts him to rest with the
illuminating glow reserved for the truly extraordinary.
It looks like it’s going to be a long wait. Except for The New York
Times’ extensive obit and an appreciation by fellow West Indian Hilton
Als in The New Yorker, there’s been virtually nothing, not in places
where you would expect it, like Harper’s, The Atlantic or The Paris
review. Not in the once-literary Esquire, nor the culturally emaciated
Los Angeles Times, which ran an amateur freelancer’s marginally
embarrassing essay and shunted Walcott’s actual obit over to the
Associated Press, which could not resist mentioning sexual harassment
charges. (The half-mad titular poet in Saul Bellow’s 1975 “Humboldt’s
Gift” protested, “I have a thick dick!” as a matter of pride; and as
adventurers of the flesh, e.e. cummings and Dylan Thomas would not
have made the cut in today’s flinty literary scene. How times have
Need we be reminded that Walcott, a 1992 Nobel Prize-winner, was one
of the greatest English-speaking poets of the past 70 years, with a
brilliant gift for putting us in an exact setting and extending that
moment, that immediate blend of sight and smell and sound, into
deepening metaphors that reached into history, place, art, political
conditions, memory, emotion, and the ongoing dialogue between the
recurrent and the fleeting, all with a language that, as with the
greats, offered a sensual satisfaction of its own?
Robert Graves, no slouch himself, observed: “Walcott handles English
with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most—if not any—of
his English-born contemporaries.” Not even one of Walcott’s peers, of
whom there are precious few, have stepped up to pay homage as Auden
mourned Yeats: “He disappeared in the dead of winter:/The brooks were
frozen, the airports almost deserted,/And snow disfigured the public
statues;/ The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day….”
The New York Review of Books ran an excellent piece on April 6, but it
seemed more a happy accident inasmuch as it dealt with Walcott’s
collaboration with painter Peter Doig on a book called “Morning,
Paramin,” and otherwise made no mention of Walcott’s passing. (Though,
to be fair, both the NYRB and Paris Review went to press before they
could mention his death.) Walcott was an expert watercolorist, incidentally,
which helped vivify his poetry’s address to the mind’s eye.
So what gives? Why the shameful, or shameless, neglect? The truth is
that this ignorant indifference extends to the genre itself.
I spent a couple of days reading through numerous poetry websites,
many of them connected with prestigious foundations and publications,
and was dismayed to see that, with a few crossover exceptions, their
listings of our top 20 or more contemporary poets contained completely
different names, as if no one knew or even heard of anyone else. I’m
not speaking of familiars like W.S Merwin, Billy Collins or Kay
Ryan — they’re not even mentioned. If poetry editors can’t agree on a
list, how are us civilians expected to keep up? And what does this say
about consensus figures in the English-speaking landscape?
Poetry, in America at least, has been taking a beating for more than a
half-century, for reasons that overlap. The ’50s was the last decade in
which youthful rebellion expressed itself in literature, as in the
work of the Beats and the epic cry of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which
came out in 1955, (when T.S. Eliot was still a literary demi-god). In
the Dionysian ‘60s, the shift in cultural energy turned to rock music.
In the Reagan ‘80s, the warring politicization of the arts, both on
the right and left, exacted its price on the hands-off autonomy of
art. By the aught years, movies, TV, cable and the proliferation of
cell phones and “visuals” had all but crowded out the power of the
word as a mediator of experience, leaving us in an aural landscape of
newspeak, psychobabble, academic jargon and a thin slop of everyday
As much as anything, the abandonment of the western canon has
encouraged a majority of artists, including poets, to make art as if
the shock of the new were the only hit worth taking. Walcott, in
searching for his own identity as a poet, contradicted this willful
amnesia early on. In “Origins,” he writes:
The flowering breaker detonates its surf.
White bees hiss in the coral skull.
Nameless I came among olives and algae,
Foetus of plankton, I remember nothing.
Clouds, log of Colon,
I learnt your annals of ocean,
Of Hector, bridler of horses,
Achilles, Aeneas, Ulysses,
But ‘Of that fine race of people which came off the mainland
To greet Christobal as he rounded Icacos,’
Blank pages turn in the wind.
Walcott spent a lifetime traveling and educating himself in history
and art, writing through the split vision of race, the self and the
world, the colonial place in civilization and vice-versa, shadow and
light (as in the shade that rested between Christ and the cross). He
worked hard at cultivating an erudition that informed his work without
burdening it. The classics enriched his poems and painting (he was
less successful as a playwright). He had a sharp eye for exploitation
and ruin, but he gave no sense of the tradition of Homer, Shakespeare,
Cezanne, Durer, and Pietro della Francesca, etc., as a progression of
Western imperial decadence. He appreciated the best among his
contemporaries, like Hart Crane, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop,
in friendship and critical appraisal.
The best summary of Walcott came from his late friend, the poet Joseph
Brodsky (also a Nobel prize-winner) who, in a lengthy 2010 piece in
TNYRB, wondered about
…the unwillingness of the critical profession
to admit that the great poet of the English language is a black man.”
Brodsky writes, “For thirty years his throbbing and relentless lines
have kept arriving on the English language like tidal waves,
coagulating into an archipelago of poems without which the map of
contemporary literature would be like wallpaper. He gives us more than
himself or a ‘world’; he gives us a sense of infinity embodied in the
language as well as in the ocean, which is always present in his
poems: as their background and foreground, as their subject, or as
Walcott’s last lines, echoing “Origins,” observe the mountains and sea
of his native St. Lucia, and the cloud that “…slowly covers the page
and it goes/white again and the book comes to a close.”
He’s describing his own end, of course, but you can’t help but feel a
great beautiful book has closed on us as well.