Derek Walcott

By Taylor, Robert | The New Crisis, May/June 1999 | Go to article overview

Derek Walcott


Taylor, Robert, The New Crisis


The wreath of the poet laureate of England may seem a withered garland. Is the post obsolete? When Charles I appointed Ben Johnson the first laureate, he received letters patent, and in deference to the poet's tastes, a butt of wine. Throughout the years, however, giants and patchwork poets have sought the distinction. The lure of the laureateship does not lie in composing for state occasions; the mere existence of the office proclaims poetry an essential element of community both nationally and across what Wordsworth called the "vast

empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time." So it is not an impossible distance from Ben Johnson to Derek Walcott, from the Windward Island of Saint Lucia, where Walcott was born, to Boston University, where he teaches, and to Number 10 Downing Street, where he is currently being considered for poet laureate, to succeed the late Ted Hughes.

The decision is being made by Prime Minister Tony Blair, subject to approval by the queen, and is based on recommendations from the Society of Authors, the Royal Literary Society, the Poetry Society, the Royal Literary Fund, and the Arts Council. Walcott, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992, currently tops the list from two of these and appears on a third. Like anything voted by committee, the post is affected by the political; miscellaneous factors could easily invalidate Walcott's selection. Further, till now, eligibility has been limited to British-born poets. Clearly, however, Walcott arouses enthusiasm on purely poetic grounds. A source at the Society of Authors points out that Walcott's choice reaffirms the links of Crown and Commonwealth and combines politics and art: "This allows people of all cultures in Britain to think of the laureateship as relevant. He is by far the best poet in the English language in terms of technique and range."

Walcott would represent a multicultural Britain. But whoever wins, the laureateship will probably never be the same. Reform is in the air. Like the American model, which since its inception in 1986 has seen a procession of poets from Robert Penn Warren to Robert Pinsky, the term of office probably will be limited rather than for life. To find the poet laureate of England and the poet laureate of America on the same faculty and in the same writing program is surely unique: it affirms the worldclass relevance of their Boston University classes.

Walcott and Pinsky are teaching poets, charismatic professors. A glimpse of Walcott's teaching style appears in a 1982 New York Times piece by James Atlas. There is a vitality about him, states Atlas, a love of banter - only the subject is always poetry. Casually neat in a wardrobe typified by chino trousers, turtleneck sweaters, and open-neck flannel shirts, he is an intense and commanding presence: "He radiates a certain energetic poise, a relaxed vigilance. Striding back and forth before a blackboard, he moves with an actor's grace. His discourse has a tense edge to it, a sense of pressure; what he is looking for, he reminds the class, is `vehemence,'- that quality so visible in his own work . .. One could hear the syncopated rhythms of calypso and the sonorous cadences of Walcott's English masters in every line."

Carl Phillips (GRS92), the writer and poet, who directs the M.EA. program at Washington University in St. Louis, studied with Pinsky and Walcott, and he recalls: "Derek is very good at directing people to the various traditions of writing. He'd say, `Go read as many of Ezra Pound's Cantos as you can in the next week,' which to me was a strange assignment. It's a difficult text, and you come away with a number of questions, none of which Derek is particularly interested in answering. When you go back to class, he might decide not even to discuss what you've worked all week at reading. That baffled me initially, but I think part of the point for him is that we should come to these things in the way the original readers would have: without a concordance or a class discussion. …

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