Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Walcott: the last word (from me, anyway)

Walcott has folded his tent, and this Saturday either Ruth Padel or Arvind Mehrotra will be elected the Oxford professor of poetry. I am grateful that this fuss pointed me toward Hilton Als's 2004 profile of the poet in the New Yorker--a vivid, non-hagiographic piece of work. Als admires Walcott and has some smart things to say about his poetry, especially its protracted lover's quarrel with his birthplace: St. Lucia in the Lesser Antilles. He quotes an early piece from Sea Grapes, in which Walcott's pictorial sense and peculiar music (I love "the house-shadow / where the children played house") are already on display:
Laborie, Choiseul, Vieuxfort, Dennery,
from these sun-bleached villages
where the church bell caves in the sides
of one grey-scurfed shack that is shuttered
with warped boards, with rust,
with crabs crawling under the house-shadow
where the children played house;
a net rotting among cans, the sea-net
of sunlight trolling the shallows
catching nothing all afternoon.
But Als also notes the push-and-pull aspect of Walcott's personality, which made me glad I wasn't on the long drive to Soufrière:
After what seemed like many hours, we passed the tiny town of Anse la Raye and reached the shack where Walcott wanted to stop. The ride had been awkward, full of long silences. When Walcott spoke, he was brusque but never exactly rude: he has a British penchant for distancing through politeness, and for teasing as a means of expressing hurt, anger, and resentment. There is something unforgiving in his person that is reflected in the poems. [Seamus] Heaney writes that what he loves about Walcott's poems is "the writerly fearlessness... the readiness to lift the baton and tune the big orchestra--and there's always just that hint of a possibility that if things get out of hand the baton could turn into a nightstick."
This took me straight back to my personal exposure to the poet. As I already noted on this blog, I signed up for one of his seminars at Columbia in 1983. Back then he talked a great deal about diction, especially in verse drama: he would hand out an example and we would take its rhetorical pulse as it downshifted from top-hatted formality to curt colloquialism and back again. Fascinating stuff (and very germane to Walcott's own work). He jetted down from Boston once a week, a glamorous figure, and since I usually kept my mouth shut in class, I had little direction interaction with him. But one day, he was trying to recall the opening lines of Auden's "In Praise of Limestone." By coincidence I had just been reading that very poem, and was quick to pipe up with the missing words: "If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones, / Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly / Because it dissolves in water." Perhaps I looked pleased at this minor feat of memory. In any case, Walcott glanced at me for a moment and said, "Oh, you're one of those guys who studies the index of first lines at the back of the book." Generous, no? Not to worry, I survived and thrived. And I could have done far worse, to judge from this vignette in the Hilton Als piece, in which Walcott, accompanied by Als and his companion Sigrid, maintains quality control at a St. Lucia restaurant:
We sat down. On the menu there was a dish called "Derek Walcott Acra"--a salt fish cake with Creole sauce served with sweet-potato fries.

"Hello, Mr. Walcott," the waitress said, approaching. She was young and pretty and thin, and was dressed in a skimpy piece of madras cloth. She reminded me of Walcott’s Helen. Walcott turned away from her, mock dismissive.

"I'm not speaking to you, you know," he said.

"Oh! Mr. Walcott! Why?" She seemed legitimately concerned.

"Dodo!" Sigrid said, chuckling, toying with her camera.

"You're rude to me, you know," Walcott said to the young girl, who did not laugh. "You deserve lash! You want lash!"

Walcott pulled the girl over his knee and began to spank her. The girl squealed. Now she was laughing. Her fear had turned to relief.

Walcott let the girl up. "Now you're rude no more, huh?"

"Oh, Dodo!" Sigrid said, laughing, before turning her attention to what she and Walcott could and should not eat, given their diet.
I'll have one Derek Walcott special, please. With shafafa on the side.

ADDENDUM: After posting the above, I was alerted to a 2004 Poetry Daily essay by David Orr, which addresses the broader question of why we forgive some poets their day-to-day sins and apply the bastinado to others who are surely no better. Here's the pungent opening salvo:
In response to the question, "Can a bad man be a good poet?" there are only two things to be said: "Yes" and "obviously." In part, that's because the poetry world sets the bar fairly low for "badness"--when we say a poet was a "bad man," we don't mean that he was a shotgun-toting, baby-kicking monster; we mean that he was unpleasant, disturbed, or a jerk. And considering that poetry's history is thick with unpleasant, disturbed jerks, the question would seem to answer itself.

Still, smart readers continue to bemoan the disgraceful behavior of poets, and to ask how it possibly can be reconciled with their art. In a recent New York Times review of Philip Larkin's Collected Poems, for example, Stephen Metcalf tells us that "poets are expected to be more than first-rate talents" and then asks, "How do we square this with Larkin, with his bitterness, his commitment to masturbatory solitude and his slide into gross political reaction?" In raising this question, Metcalf, a Larkin fan, is simply acceding to critical reality--if you're going to review a Larkin book, you're going to do a lot of sighing over the poet's racial slurs, spiteful quips, and dirty magazines. But why is that? Why do we feel the need to judge a Larkin or a Lowell or a Pound--or at least to judge them morally? What do we mean by "bad," anyway? And why continue to ask a question about poetic morality whose answer--"Yes, obviously"--has been proven over and over and over again, century after century, from Blake to Shelley to Rimbaud to Frost?
I should note that Derek Walcott is not on trial in Orr's article. Look for the usual suspects, cited in the excerpt above: Larkin, Lowell, Pound. Still, Orr's arguments are completely relevant, and he makes an often overlooked point--we're more shocked by the bad behavior of poets whose work has cast over the reader at least an elementary spell of self-identification.

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