The great poet of the Caribbean, Derek Walcott, passed away at home on his native island of St. Lucia on March 17. It is hard to summarize his achievement. He wrote more than twenty books of poetry, most notably Omeros (1990), which transplants the Trojan War to the Caribbean fishing world and helped deliver him the Nobel Prize in 1992. He wrote dozens of plays, too, often directing them himself, and he composed important essays about colonialism and identity before these became trendy subjects. He founded theater companies and taught poetry at Columbia, Yale, Rutgers, and, for many years, Boston University.
I attended his classes at BU for a semester in 2001. A few months before, he had given a poetry reading at a college in Monterey, California, and I dared to introduce myself afterward. We talked for a few minutes and discovered we shared some contrarian views on the state of American poetry. He suggested I sit in on his classes back east, and I immediately took up the invitation. And so I found myself commuting from California to the Charles River that year, excited to savor the wisdom of a distinguished master.
The first day of class was a surprise. I found my way across campus to the room listed in the schedule, expecting a studious lecture hall with fifty students who shared my eagerness. But the room turned out to be a tiny, nondescript space with only nine students waiting inside. Professor Walcott ambled in without ceremony, set down his papers, smiled, and began reading a poem by Edward Thomas. In a lilting St. Lucian accent, Walcott spoke:
The glory of the beauty of the morning, -
The cuckoo crying over the untouched dew;
The blackbird that has found it, and the dove
That tempts me on to something sweeter than love . . .
He read the entire poem (“The Glory”). I enjoyed every syllable (you can hear his mesmerizing cadences as he reads the opening lines of Omeros in a recording posted on YouTube). When he finished, he paused, but didn’t commence a discussion. Instead, he reread the first line, and then again several times more with rising exaltation: “The glory of the beauty of the morning!” He scanned the students’ faces for agreement. They must have looked quizzical (I might have, too), because he pressed, “Well, isn’t it an extraordinary line? Isn’t it a line that any poet would be proud to write?” He waited for us to concur. Several cleared their throats and looked embarrassed. More silence, until one of us finally replied: “No, I wouldn’t be proud to write such a line—it’s old-fashioned somehow.” Walcott stared, and a look of dismay passed over his face. He did not argue with the student, but waited patiently for others to disagree with this view. More moments passed in awkward quiet.
That was my first class experience. It was clear that Walcott was astonished. “No one here would be proud to write such a line?” he continued. “No one here would like to write like Edward Thomas?” His broad bronze face and sea-green eyes registered a mix of disbelief and weariness. I could imagine his inner thoughts. Here he was in one of the most prestigious writing programs in America, teaching students who had been rigorously selected for their talents, and yet there was a chasm of taste between them that was impossible to overcome.
The episode made me seek him out after class. We agreed that American poetry was in a state of near-collapse. He said to me, more than once, that his students “were suspicious of beauty.” They rejected any forms and verbal traits that smacked of poetic convention. How could anyone aim to become a poet and not be moved by the music of verse? How could they not appreciate a well-formed heroic couplet and a clever rhyme? As he wrote in a poem addressed to his friend Joseph Brodsky:
remain with the repeated lines of waves and their crests, oars
and scansion, flocks and one horizon, boats with keels
wedged into sand, your own island or Quasimodo’s
or Montale’s lines wriggling like a basket of eels.
I am going down to the shallow edge to begin again,
Joseph, with a first line, with an old net, the same expedition.
I will study the opening horizon, the scansion’s strokes of the
to dissolve in a fiction greater than our lives, the sea, the sun.
He thought it an absurdity—these many young students who wished not to write anything lush or metrical. He thought the same thing of most published American poets, too, especially when they resorted to abstractions (so often expressed with a tin ear). He couldn’t understand it. In fact, he was a living refutation of that attitude. As he told The Guardian in 2008, he regretted “the terrible devastation to young minds caused by people who are poets themselves, who believe all sorts of horrible things about technique.”
It struck me then, as it does now, that it must have been hard to be so revered and well treated by America, only to have the young reject his deepest faith in beauty. Did he have any followers, any poetic progeny here? Not in the courses I attended. At BU and from what I could divine in the literary world after I left, Walcott didn’t count much as an artisan of words. It was his political identity that counted. In many interviews, you can’t miss his impatience with the literary world’s haste to pigeonhole him. “Was he a black writer?” “A post-colonialist?” “Why did he use traditional forms?” Coming from mixed-race ancestry, and as a passionate admirer of Robert Frost (as he once said, “I was taught English literature as my natural inheritance”), Walcott found this sort of thing laughable. According to his biographer, Bruce King, he considered black studies in academia an attempt at “continuing segregation.”
Students treated him with deference. He was, after all, the bearer of the laurels of the Swedish Academy. But I could tell that he wasn’t a living authority. He was an antique. The students I met while auditing Walcott’s classes in 2001 were flattered to be in his company, but not particularly interested in his advice. He belonged to an almost extinct generation that could be safely disregarded. He sensed this benign neglect and was puzzled by it. What were these prestigious American universities paying him to do, if not to educate their poets?
During the semester I audited his poetry classes, Walcott never tired in his attempts to wake us up from foolish indifference. His methods were gentle and gentlemanly. At one class meeting, he brought copies of a poem by Federico García Lorca, translated by Stephen Spender. Each of us, in turn, was directed to read aloud until asked to halt. Two surprising results followed. First, most of the students who read had a remarkably uniform delivery, mumbling out the lines as rapidly as they could read them, oblivious to line breaks, rhyme, and rhythm. García Lorca was given the same monotone accorded an office memo. The second result was that Walcott, by invariably interrupting each student after a few lines to correct the speed and intonation of our recital, found he had to teach us a rudimentary lesson: that we had still to learn how to read and recite poetry.
Few poets were his equal in the domain of the recitation of poetry. With a magnificent baritone weathered by cigarette smoke, Walcott could make the homeliest sentence sound like a sea wave. The richness of his voice, combined with a West Indies accent, was like a medicine for boredom. To hear him talk was to hear Shakespearean cadences. It wasn’t just performance. There was learning behind it, many centuries of English prosody filtered through the tropical sensuality of a remote paradise. Many people over many years traveled great distances to attend his readings, and none went away disappointed.
Theater to him was a natural extension of poetry—a living, breathing art. He brought his poetry class to the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre (which he founded in 1981 and funded afterward) and encouraged us to work on plays in verse. This struck most of his students as an anachronistic request bordering on the ridiculous. He ignored the resistance and repeated his assignment with a wry smile. Even with no career or reputation to protect, my fellow students had already narrowed their ambitions and considered the stage no place for their craft.
An islander from a remote British colony, Walcott did not grow up in American schools. He had not experienced the decline in U.S. schools of literary education in the last half of the twentieth century. This gave him a significant advantage over his peers. Multiculturalism didn’t mean to him the denigration of dead white males. As Marxism, feminism, deconstruction, and new historicism plowed through our English departments and eroded aesthetic standards, he continued his work above it all. Close friendships with Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky, and Robert Lowell enriched his life. His simplicity seems to me now the height of sophistication.
Nearly twenty years have passed. I recall his instant friendship and encouragement as a great gift. He maintained an admirable disregard for literary fads and political correctness while always teaching the delights of rhyme and meter, of technique and tradition. Derek Walcott was given a state funeral in St. Lucia. It took place in a church next to the public square named in his honor, and his body was buried on a hill called Morne Fortune, overlooking his beloved Castries.
Garrick Davis is a poet and founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review.