I studied poetry with Derek Walcott at Boston University during the 2004-5 academic year. It was a one-year M.A. program in Creative Writing; I was there to study with Robert Pinsky, whose poetry had captivated me a few years before. Upon arrival, I discovered that our first writing course would be taught by Walcott, whose name and I work I didn’t know.
This ignorance was, perhaps, partially excusable. My eyes & ears were open to all kinds of poetry in those days–full of an intellectual hunger, since waned–but no one had introduced me to Caribbean poetry. There was, of course, no Google search (I wrote my B.U. thesis on a typewriter; this was also the year I met “web mail” and “the internet,” both of which, to my misfortune, I found uninteresting), so my first impressions of Walcott were, shall we say, untainted by prior information. (I’m trying not to be nostalgic, but O, how sweet was the world when a greater part was encountered in the flesh!)
Walcott was (in rough order of first impressions) intimidating, hilarious, sobering, enlivening. I was more intimidated by his mustache, tweed jacket and manner than by the Nobel Prize he’d won only a few years earlier (and which he was quick to discount, with sincere humility, the few times it was brought up). I’d become used to casual, friendly Professors (Pinsky was such); now we sat in a room with a man who demanded (rather than invited us to discuss) that we tell him what we knew about poetry, and who scoffed (rather than ate a sigh) at our ignorance.
There were twelve in the class; we sat at school desks in a circle around the edge of a small, tastefully decorated room on the second or third floor of a B.U. building overlooking the Charles. There was no syllabus, no books assigned. On the first day, Walcott assessed our ignorance, which was vast. He told us to show up for the next class having memorized W. H. Auden’s “The Fall of Rome.” I rushed to the Grolier Poetry Book Shop to buy a copy of the Selected Poems. Amy helped me learn the lines in the basement flat where I’d rented a room (close to campus, but otherwise a dismal affair owned by a depressed gay republican astrologer who kept four cats, a hundred fish, and a life-sized porcelain bust of Reagan above the toilet). I can still recite the poem at a moment’s notice. It begins:
The piers are pummeled by the waves;
In a lonely field, the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.
Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.
As promised, the second class began with Walcott telling us to recite the poem, together. We tried and failed. Tried again, flailed our voices to bring them into sync while remembering our lines. “Pathetic,” was his comment. He told us to be prepared to try again, individually and together, the next time we met. He then explained the dense beauty of the poem, syllable by syllable. He liked how in the first line the l and d of “pummeled” visually mimic the slap of waves against the m’s of the pier; how the word “waves” withdrew, as though sucked out into the storm. “Lash” was the perfect word to describe what rain does to the surface of a wrecked train. “At what point in a nation’s history do outlaws fill the caves?” he asked. A dictator in power, the conditions for revolt at hand, but no organized rebellion. He taught us to marvel at the class antagonism that gaped in the space between the first and second stanzas. “Imagine what sewers at like in the provinces,” he insisted. “Now imagine the tax-man chasing you through them.” He asked us to imagine an equally difficult feat: writing a poem, in plain English, with rhymes that were half as sure-footed and profound. “I can’t do it,” he told us, “you sure as hell can’t do it. But it’s pleasant to imagine.” In my recollection, he asked us to think about the poem for more than two hours; at the end of which time, no one thought the poem to have been fully dissected.
Our next assignment was Auden’s “September 1, 1939”. It took perhaps three or four weeks for us to recite and understand the poem to a satisfactory degree. We next turned to Hardy; spent hours on “During Wind and Rain”: a novel condensed into four intricately crafted stanzas. Twenty-two difficult years later, I teach these poems and turn to them frequently, companions now, grooves worn deeply into the synapses.
Walcott taught play-writing to another group of students in the afternoon. A few weeks into the term, he invited us to participate in a semi-regular ritual. After class, six or seven of us would walk with him three or four blocks up Commonwealth Ave to a Vietnamese restaurant near the theater. “Lunch is on me,” he’d proclaim. He led the way, closely trailed by whomever was brave enough to make small-talk with ,him; he was irreverent and caustic, without forsaking his dignity. Once, he karate-kicked open the restaurant door, briefly showing us a sand-brown old man’s skinny shin. He scared us with a simple rule, introduced at the first such lunch: “You can order whatever you want. But you must give our waitress your order in complete sentences, without any ‘ah’s,’ ‘um’s’ or ‘err’s.’” He deployed the way U.S. schoolchildren were allowed to fill their speech with meaningless conjunctions. It was a symptom of white supremacy, the casual refusal of proper grammar when speaking aloud. The penalty for fucking up was you had to pay for your own lunch. This was a serious. Most of us had few bucks in our pockets and no credit cards; the nearest ATM was maybe three blocks away. The waitresses, I recall, were used to his antics.
He was one of few people I’ve met who possessed an actual eye-twinkle. He could bark scornful laughter, wrinkle his nose and brows in amusement, and scare up a devastating glare. But he could also generate a spark, slightly lascivious (as glee always is), that danced only in the eyes: a knowledgeable quickness, as though the Wordsworthian child in him had never been snuffed out. It said, “Wow! Can’t believe this shit! The world continues to surprise.”
After lunch, we were allowed to sit quietly in the audience to observe the play-writing workshop. This was his passion at B.U. He’d founded perhaps the most important counter-institution of the Caribbean renaissance, the Trinidad Theater Workshop in 1950. In 1971, Dream on Monkey Mountain had won an Obie. Ten years later, he’d organized the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, which allowed novice playwrights to work with actors and stage sets. Walcott would often sit in the audience, letting the students learn how to rewrite their scenes by watching them. Once I saw him intervene. With a few simple commands to the actors, he turned a scene that wasn’t coming together into a story narrated by one character to others from another scene. He placed the narrator and his audience downstage and cut the narrated scene into segments, performed between and often at odds with the narrator’s story. The original script’s incoherence was turned into itself, producing two or three new layers of meaning. A banal, middle-class drama became a stunning examination of class habitus. I learned two-thirds of what I know about modernism, deconstruction, and postcolonialism in that moment. I was becoming habituated to the logics behind these theories in other courses, but it was here that I encountered, for the first time and all at once, the practical aesthetics.
Wolcott once told us that, determined to “master the sonnet,” he got up each morning at five and wrote a sonnet before coffee, breakfast, and teaching. He did this for several years. I tried it, but after a week I gave up. I lacked stamina, or was it motivation? Wishing to understand formal verse–I’d been brought up on haiku, confessional poetry and the avant-garde–I brought a sonnet to our first one-on-one critique. It was a serious and humble poem, about the day I chopped a garden toad in half with a carelessly placed shovel, rhyming this event with my father’s death earlier that year. All the rhymes were in place. Walcott was unimpressed. “Do you compose on a typewriter?” he asked, giving me the glare. “Yes,” I confessed. “You can hear it’s clatter in the lines. The sound of the machine mars this verse. It’s rough and ugly.” “But the event was ugly,” I stammered. “Oh, poor you, killed a toad. Father dead. Who cares?” He dismissed me. “Next time,” he said, “bring me something you’ve written with a pen. The music has to come from the silence. Give up the typewriter; it’s distracting.”
As the term came to an end, and we’d recited our Yeats, Walcott consented to discussing one of his own books. We read (his choice) The Arkansas Testament, published in 1987 and dedicated to Seamus Heaney, whose reading we’d all just attended. (What a thrill to sit in the audience with these other poets–readings by the Boston Circle of the time (Bidart, Pinsky, Glück, Warren, Hill and Heaney) were often attended by peers as well as students; Walcott was the only one we didn’t see read). I rushed to Grolier’s to get a copy before the rest of the class.
We tried to prove how much we appreciated him (not everyone did, of course) by reading his own poetry with the intensity that he’d taught us to apply to Auden and Hardy. He mostly sat back with a slightly embarrassed smirk. One hand on chin, listening, which is why I chose the above photo. Sometimes he leaned forward to intervene. He helped us to understand the politics of Caribbean nationalism behind “A Latin Primer,” which begins:
I had nothing against which
to notch the growth of my work
but the horizon, no language
but the shallows in my long walk
home, so I shook all the help
my young right hand could use
from the sand-crusted kelp
of distant literatures.
One sentence across two Audenesque stanzas; formal perfection justifies the explanation and boast. Each word a resonant knot: “the language” of “the shallows” is both waves plashing across the poet’s feet and the shallow culture of St. Lucia’s limited horizon; the “sand-crusted kelp” is not kelp at all, but the British tradition. The explanation is slightly defensive: what was a boy to do, but learn the tradition that provided immediate assistance? It’s counteracted by the mastery of said tradition. The poem continues for several pages, describing with Joycean precision the episodes of humiliation and pride that accompanied his quest for a culture he would have to make if it was to have true purchase. The epiphany comes when, one evening, depressed from teaching Latin lessons to students who “would die in dialect,” he sees a frigate bird and recognizes it in english, Latin and patois simultaneously:
[…] named with the common sense
of fishermen: sea scissors,
Ciseau-la-mer, the patois
for its cloud-cutting course;
and that native metaphor
made by the strokes of oars,
with one wing beat for scansion,
that slowly levelling V
made one with my horizon
as it sailed steadily
beyond the sheep-nibbled columns
of fallen marble trees,
or the roofless pillars once
sacred to Hercules.
A sentence that stretches over four stanzas; “patois” rhymed with “metaphor,” “scansion” with the “horizon” that in the first stanza failed to “notch” his success. The “native metaphor” allows another flight–across modern English literature. It is a modernist move, the sudden shift in perspective as the bird sails into the classical tradition, crossing time and space to become a bird Homer might have seen, wading in the surf.
In the 1970s and 80s, at the height of Caribbean cultural nationalism, critics and poets sometimes compared Walcott to Kamau Brathwaite in order to distinguish between an “old-guard” anticolonialism and a more radical, more Black, poetics. Neither poet made much of this distinction; they were obviously pursuing different literary projects for similar reasons. Brathwaite brought the patois into Caribbean literature; Walcott sought to challenge the colonial tradition from within. At it’s best, his poetry deconstructed the British tradition from within; lesser poems fail to pull of the mimicry. They become brittle when too self-consciously elegant, but glimmer with a joyful intensity when formal mastery allows him to reimagine the British tradition with loving irony, such as one finds in some of Kerry James Marshall’s landscapes, such as Gulf Stream (2003):
Walcott’s Omeros, his version of the Odyssey, is rightly regarded as his masterpiece; for me, it was “The Arkansas Testament,” a narrative poem that recounts a visit to the home of the Confederacy. Riffing on Lowell, Walcott begins by touring a Confederate cemetery:
The young stones, flat on their backs,
their beards curling like mosses,
have no names; an occasional surge
in the pines mutters their roster
while their centennial siege,
their entrenched metamorphosis
into cones and needles, goes on.
This formal elegance honors the dead, but somewhat foolishly. Already by the second stanza, Wolcott brings us into his black body; exhausted from travel, he falls asleep on the cheap motel bed, awakening to feel, “through the chained door, / darkness entering Arkansas.” Brilliantly, the threat is palpable because it’s not there.
The next morning, before the sun has risen, with “Pajams crammed into my jacket, / the bottoms stuffed into trousers,” the poet hurries through the empty streets, searching caffeine. He waits
for a while by the grass
of a urinous wall to let
the revolving red eye on top
of a cruising police car pass
Finding an open cafeteria, with whites glaring and blacks behind the counter, he orders his coffee to go. “I looked for my own area,” he writes, For several intensely written stanzas, his scrupulous attention to the formalities of English-language verse coincides with scrupulous attention to the culture of the post-Jim Crow color line:
The self-contempt that it takes
to find my place card among any
of the faces reflected in lakes
of lacquered mahogany
comes easily now. I have laughed
loudest until silence kills
the shoptalk. A fork clicks
on its plate; a cough’s rifle shot
shivers the chandeliered room.
A bright arm shakes its manacles.
Every candle-struck face stares into
the ethnic abyss. In the oval
of a silver spoon, the window
bent in a wineglass, the offal
of flattery fed to my craft,
I watch the bright clatter resume.
Coffee in hand, the sun rises as the poet walks back to his hotel. As “day broadened” the neighborhood into the “prose of an average American town,” he muses on on-going “racial rage,” the Confederate cemetery and the underground railroad. As the sunlight diminishes the sense of threat, internal, personal doubts emerge:
My shadow’s scribbled question
on the margin of the street
asks, Will I be a citizen
or an afterthought of the state?
His doubts extend to the “place” he was assigned in the critical controversy over Caribbean postcolonial culture:
Can I swear to uphold my art
that I share with them too, or worse,
pretend all is past and curse
from the picket lines of my verse
the concept of Apartheid?
The shadow bends to the will
as our oaths of allegiance bend
to the state. What we know of evil
is that it will never end.
The strong allusion to “September 1, 1939” in the last line above helps to convey Walcott’s stance. Like Auden, he insists upon uncomfortable compromise. We know what evil is; we see it all around us. We have to live with it. We have, somehow, to make the most of it. We are always “thrown” in the philosophical sense of always being in the middle of something we did and didn’t choose. We make our history, but never with the terms of our choosing.
So buoyed, I left B.U. determined to be the poet of my tribe–whatever that was. Walcott caused me to believe that by becoming masterful at a craft, one might also find a way to sing the truth. In the several decades since, I largely failed to become the poet and person I wanted to become. Editors don’t like my verse, and various attempts at counter-institutions floundered between the Scylla of No Money and the Charybdis of No Time. Derek Walcott had something to help with failure, too. Once he showed several of us three file drawers crammed with manuscripts. “These are the rejections,” he explained. I gaped. I had never thought there could be so many. I keep similar file drawers today.