I can’t locate exactly when I became aware of Derek Walcott’s poetry. I don’t have a touching anecdote about the first poem I read in a used bookstore responsible for catapulting my deep interest in both the man and his work. That was a slow, inevitable process. Initially, I was intrigued by his seemingly unique position in English poetry. English was violently forced upon Walcott in the colonial schools of Saint Lucia, as it had been for so many. And yet, up until the time of his death only a few weeks ago, he was a candidate for one of the finest users of the English language in the world.
I used to be a news junkie. Lately, I’ve been restraining myself. Every news update further compounds the terrifying nature of our current political leadership and I only have so much energy for rage. So, I was surprised, when idly scrolling through The New Yorker a few days ago, to see a plethora of pieces dedicated to the life of Walcott. I clicked on one piece by Rachel DeWoskin, a poet and student of Walcott, titled “The Problem with Poetry Students, and Other Lessons from Derek Walcott.” I was surprised by the death of this man, the writing that had been produced in the wake of his departure, but I don’t know why. I knew he was elderly, but I still assumed I’d be able to attend a reading of his someday. I thought that I would have my collected poems signed by a hand that had earned a Nobel Laureate.
DeWoskin’s piece is an interesting snapshot into the personality of the poet, depicting him as brilliantly eloquent, charming, and a bit harsh. She recalls an anecdote in which Walcott had confidently stated that poetry, as an art form, had reached its end. He made this statement with certainty, relates DeWoskin, when a student approached him to say that John Ashberry’s zany, experimental verse was easier to read than Dante’s highly formal, rhythmic writing. You can sense Walcott’s shock and disgust creeping off the page. Truthfully, I can see where the kid was coming from.
Is poetry, a form of speech which some linguistic anthropologists hypothesize might predate the conversational, in its twilight years? Or was Walcott correct and the art form has reached its end? I don’t think I’m capable of answering that question. Surely, much of the poetry that I and many of my peers enjoy would be considered trash by a classically educated, highly formalistic and stylized writer like Walcott. I can’t imagine him snapping his fingers at a slam event, and though he was capable of writing beautiful and heartbreaking pieces about the wounds of colonialism and post-colonialism, his verse was rarely, if ever, overtly polemical. His newest collection was released in 2010. The collection, White Egrets, is about Homer and the love of poetry. The New York Times labeled the book an “old man’s book” upon its release. I think I was 18 when it became one of my favorites, which is either a comment on myself or the reviewer.
I don’t know if, according to Walcott, poetry had already died when he wrote those poems. Speaking to a graveyard seems useless, but maybe it’s also a bit liberating too. In DeWoskin’s piece, she relays another funny but grave anecdote in which a student criticized Thomas Hardy’s word choice in a particular poem. Walcott, who deeply admired Hardy, expatiated for 45 minutes on the necessity of that particular word choice and the arrogance of the student. That’s a show of true passion. He was obsessed with his favorite poets, their work, and maybe even their personages. It can be difficult to separate the poet from their art, and no matter how persuasively academics and friends tell me they’re able to, I never fully believe them. I love Walcott’s poetry, but I don’t know if I love the man. DeWoskin’s piece, filled with goodwill, did not mention some of the more disturbing episodes of Walcott’s life. Two students from two separate universities accused him of sexual harassment, claims which he did not feel he had to refute or apologize. This kind of information, though difficult to swallow for the kind of naïve reader of poetry who admires rather than studies, is important to recall when trying to remember the totality of someone’s life and their effect on others.
And yet, I was still moved by DeWoskin’s piece when she relayed a later conversation with Walcott. He said his primary goal or lesson he wanted to impart to his students was love. DeWoskin questioned “In life, you mean?” and he answered “in poetry.” I apologize for being unable to provide an answer as to whether or not poetry is dying or has died, but I think I will challenge or differentiate myself from Walcott in this sense: I’m not sure the love of poetry and love in life or mutually exclusive emotions. In fact, I’d like to think they are the same, or that they have the same origin. I probably will never learn Greek in order to read Homer, or Italian for Dante, and I regularly mispronounce Shakespeare when trying to read it aloud. But I will continue to read Walcott. His love of language inspires me to love something with that kind of intensity and generosity even after I’ve close the book. That may have never been his intention, but it’s my own small way, more than writing poems myself, that keeps the flame alive.