Monday, January 23, 2017

Birthday: "If you know what you are going to write when you're writing a poem, it's going to be average."


Derek Alton Walcott, OBE, OCC (1930-  )
Poet; Nobel Laureate, 1992

Born a twin, to an artistic family on the island of St Lucia, Walcott trained as a painter, but fell under the spell of words. Eliot, Pound, Lowell and Bishop became his guides. He published his first poem in a local newspaper in 1944. It earned a condemnation for blasphemy from the local Catholic hierarch. Raised protestant on the strongly Catholic island, his Methodist-inflected verse was not to the taste of the orthodox. Walcott was undeterred, telling The Paris Review, decades later, that

I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation. What I described in Another Life—about being on the hill and feeling the sort of dissolution that happened—is a frequent experience in a younger writer. I felt this sweetness of melancholy, of a sense of mortality, or rather of immortality, a sense of gratitude both for what you feel is a gift and for the beauty of the earth, the beauty of life around us. When that’s forceful in a young writer, it can make you cry. It’s just clear tears; it’s not grimacing or being contorted, it’s just a flow that happens. The body feels it is melting into what it has seen. This continues in the poet. It may be repressed in some way, but I think we continue in all our lives to have that sense of melting, of the “I” not being important. That is the ecstasy. It doesn’t happen as much when you get older. There’s that wonderful passage in Traherne where he talks about seeing the children as moving jewels until they learn the dirty devices of the world. It’s not that mystic. Ultimately, it’s what Yeats says: “Such a sweetness flows into the breast that we laugh at everything and everything we look upon is blessed.” That’s always there. It’s a benediction, a transference. It’s gratitude, really. The more of that a poet keeps, the more genuine his nature. I’ve always felt that sense of gratitude. I’ve never felt equal to it in terms of my writing, but I’ve never felt that I was ever less than that. And so in that particular passage in Another Life I was recording a particular moment.

He added,

In a private way, I think I still have a very simple, straightforward foursquare Methodism in me. I admire the quiet, pragmatic reason that is there in a faith like Methodism, which is a very practical thing of conduct. I’m not talking about a fanatical fundamentalism. I suppose the best word for it is decency. Decency and understanding are what I’ve learned from being a Methodist. Always, one was responsible to God for one’s inner conduct and not to any immense hierarchy of angels and saints. In a way I think I tried to say that in some earlier poems. There’s also a very strong sense of carpentry in Protestantism, in making things simply and in a utilitarian way. At this period of my life and work, I think of myself in a way as a carpenter, as one making frames, simply and well. I’m working a lot in quatrains, or I have been, and I feel that there is something in that that is very ordinary, you know, without any mystique. I’m trying to get rid of the mystique as much as possible. And so I find myself wanting to write very simply cut, very contracted, very speakable, and very challenging quatrains in rhymes. Any other shape seems ornate, an elaboration on that essential cube that really is the poem. So we can then say the craft is as ritualistic as that of a carpenter putting down his plane and measuring his stanzas and setting them squarely. And the frame becomes more important than the carpenter.

By 1949 Walcott published two collections of verse, borrowing the money from his mother and repaying her from the proceeds. He studied at the university in Jamaica, and settled in Trinidad in 1953.
There he started a theater company with his twin brother, and with which he remained involved for decades; taught, and wrote book and theater reviews for island papers. His 1962 collection, Green Night, won him significant praise for a new, postcolonial voice out of the Caribbean. His work was praised by the like of Joseph Brodsky and Robert Graves for his ability to craft and sustain a narrative over long works; indeed, he has been one of the few poets of his time who can justly be said to write epic poetry.

In 1980 Walcott came to America, where he joined the Boston University faculty and taught for 27 years. He continued publishing at a steady pace; his output stands at 43 collections of poetry, twenty plays, and nine other books. He started another theater troupe in Boston and was an early winner of a MacArthur Foundation Award for support of his work.

In 1990 Walcott published Omeros, a West Indian retelling of the Iliad that recast the Trojan War as a dispute between Caribbean fishermen. A long, complex, and vivid work, it stands as his most popular effort and tipped the balance in his favor when the Nobel Prize in Literature was announced in 1992.

Wolcott retired in 2007. In 2009 he was nominated to the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford, only to be nobbled from a seemingly-certain win by a whispering campaign.

Sections of a book by an American author were copied, anonymously, and circulated to university faculty members; the book alleged Wolcott- who was married three times- had been accused of sexual harassment at Boston U. He withdrew his name, and another poet, Ruth Padel, was elected. Padel was then revealed to be the one who scuppered Walcott’s bid and resigned amid recriminations over racism and sexism all around.

Walcott survived the fuss, and won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2010. He is also recipient of The Queen’s Medal for Poetry, and Obie for one of his plays. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and currently serves as Professor of Poetry in the University of Essex. He continues to paint, and has produced a number of films and documentaries, including a notable appreciation of Hart Crane.

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #DerekWalcott #Poetry #Charlotte

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