Friday, March 31, 2017

Dere Walcott / Prelude

Derek Walcott,1993


by Derek Walcott

I, with legs crossed along the daylight, watch
The variegated fists of clouds that gather over
The uncouth features of this, my prone island.
Meanwhile the steamers which divide horizons prove
Us lost;

Found only
In tourist booklets, behind ardent binoculars;
Found in the blue reflection of eyes
That have known cities and think us here happy.
Time creeps over the patient who are too long patient,
So I, who have made one choice,
Discover that my boyhood has gone over.
And my life, too early of course for the profound cigarette,
The turned doorhandle, the knife turning
In the bowels of the hours, must not be made public
Until I have learnt to suffer
In accurate iambics.
I go, of course, through all the isolated acts,
Make a holiday of situations,
Straighten my tie and fix important jaws,
And note the living images
Of flesh that saunter through the eye.
Until from all I turn to think how,
In the middle of the journey through my life,
O how I came upon you, my
Reluctant leopard of the slow eyes.
· From Selected Poems by Derek Walcott, published by Faber (£16.99). To order a copy for £15.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875 or go to

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Derek Walcott / 'The Oxford poetry job would have been too much work'

Derek Walcott
Photograph by Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Derek Walcott: 'The Oxford poetry job would have been too much work'

As his reworking of Robinson Crusoe goes on stage, Derek Walcott talks about Caribbean culture, his spat with VS Naipaul - and why he didn't want the poetry job anyway

Stephen Moss
Thursday 3 May 2012 10.10 BST

he battle to become Oxford professor of poetry in 2009 was worthy of a mock-heroic poem by Alexander Pope. First, the frontrunner Derek Walcott pulled out following a smear campaign that disinterred allegations of sexual harassment dating back to the 1980s and 90s. Then the eventual victor, Ruth Padel, had to resign after less than a fortnight, when she was implicated in the smear. It was an ugly business, but it did get poetry – that most marginalised of literary forms – on to the front pages for a while.

There was also a less well-publicised by-product. When Walcott withdrew, Essex University decided to reintroduce its own professorship of poetry, a post once grand enough for Robert Lowell, and offer it to Walcott. So instead of delivering dense lectures among dreaming spires, he spends a fortnight each year teaching and giving readings amid brutalist tower blocks – and excavating a less well-known part of his oeuvre, his plays.
This week, at the university's Lakeside theatre, he is directing Pantomime, his 1978 comic two-hander. This explores the tensions of post-colonial Tobago through the character of washed-up English actor Harry Trewe, who has bought a clapped-out guesthouse on the island, and galvanic local Jackson Phillip; having abandoned his career as a calypso singer, Jackson is now a waiter at the guesthouse. Harry wants to put on a pantomime, based on Robinson Crusoe, and is keen for Jackson to take part. The story of Crusoe – the archetypal imperialist, a plantation owner who is shipwrecked while bringing slaves from Africa – is fertile ground for an examination of race and identity in the Caribbean after the tide of empire had gone out. Who should play Crusoe and who Friday? Who is really in charge on the island now?
At the Lakeside, Walcott sits in the front row, wearing jeans, striped braces and a bright red baseball cap, watching rehearsals. It is unlikely attire for a Nobel laureate, but then he is not your average literary grandee. Revering English literature since his boyhood in Saint Lucia, he takes his work seriously, himself less so. "What the fuck is wrong with me?" he says, as he forgets the sequence of events in the play. As a director, he prefers to watch and listen, rather than lay down the law. "There's something terrific happening here," he says at one point, though it's for the actors to discover what.
We talk during a break. Walcott is accommodating, yet you are never quite at ease. At 82, a little deaf and forgetful, he has no time for foolishness. He thinks my first question – can a play written 30 years ago still say something about the coloniser and colonised? – foolish. "That's a hell of a thing to ask me," he says, his voice rising with a lovely, growly West Indian lilt. "I would imagine that a play might last. If it's any good, it lasts."
He wrote Pantomime in a matter of days, the words tumbling out so fast he dictated rather than wrote much of the dialogue. "I was playing the two roles myself," he says. His two grandfathers were white, his grandmothers black, so he can identify with both sides. But he warns against seeing Pantomime only in political terms. "The surface of the play looks like a cliche: a situation between a black guy and a white guy. But what I wanted to talk about more was the relationship between two artists from different cultures – basically the same kind of person, one working in music hall, the other in calypso. There's an affinity between them."
He doesn't, however, entirely disclaim the politics. "In terms of racial relationships in the Caribbean, you still have a tourist economy in which people are asked to behave in a certain way. It's become very emphatic now, the idea of service. But you have to be careful it doesn't turn into slavery: the insistence that you must smile and serve for the sake of the island. Advertisements that have everybody grinning and insisting you have to make people happy, that's our job in life. That's dangerous. It's even worse that it's black people – the tourist board, the government – doing it to themselves."
Walcott has written more than 20 plays. Why are they so little known? "I am not defined as a black writer in the Caribbean," he says, "but as soon as I go to America or the UK, my place becomes black theatre. It's a little ridiculous. The division of black theatre and white theatre still goes on, and I don't wish to be a part of any one of those definitions. I'm a Caribbean writer." The essence of the Caribbean, he says, is multiracialism. "On my street, it could be an Indian, a Chinese, a Lebanese, all living together. Whether happily or not doesn't matter."

Walcott says he should not be seen as a pioneer of Caribbean art: he built on the achievements of writers who preceded him. Many left to make their careers elsewhere, but Walcott chose to stay. "I made a vow that I wouldn't be tempted by what could happen to me if I went to Europe. I thought, 'You could be absorbed in it – it's so seductive, you might lose your own search for identity.' Then, when I did finally go to Europe, I was able to resist it because I had established my own identity." Did that commitment to the Caribbean delay acceptance of him? "English reviewing was very patronising," he says. "There were categories for Commonwealth writing. What is a Commonwealth writer? Is he less than somebody who's in the capital? I was infuriated by the semi-contempt in which Commonwealth writing was held."
Despite being patronised, Walcott showed remarkable confidence, self-publishing his first book of poems at 19. "I knew exactly where I was and what I was doing," he says. "My father [who died when Walcott was one] used to write. My mother taught Shakespeare and used to act. So I had that atmosphere at home. I knew very early what I wanted to do and I considered myself lucky to know that's what I wanted, even in a place like Saint Lucia where there was no publishing house and no theatre." That throwaway line emphasises the extent of his achievement, won by talent and a ferocious work ethic.
In the 1960s and 70s, Walcott was not just patronised by much of the white establishment, but attacked by some black critics for having sold out because he used traditional literary forms. "I went through a lot of crap. People criticising you for being Afro-Saxon, but the point was that they were criticising me in English. Why were they doing it in English? Why weren't they doing it in whatever language they wanted to invent?"
He says his relationship with English literature and culture is that of a detached admirer. "When I come to England, I don't claim England, I don't own it. I feel a great kinship because of the literature and the landscape. I have great affection for Edward Thomas and Philip Larkin, but there's still this distance: looking on at what I'm admiring, separate from what I am. And that's OK. That makes for drama of a kind, and a more careful introspection about what you're liking and why."

Walcott has had a long-running feud with his fellow Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, who left his native Trinidad and has been critical of the poverty of indigenous culture. Walcott made a fierce public attack on Naipaul in 2008, in a poem called The Mongoose: "I have been bitten, I must avoid infection/ Or else I will be as dead as Naipaul's fiction." Walcott claims Naipaul has misrepresented Trinidadian culture. "It's very upsetting," he says, "because people were defenceless. He could call them whatever he wanted, in very elegant English. He should not have used his talent to abuse his own people. I wanted to help him recognise that."
Walcott's breakthrough book was Omeros, his 1990 reworking of The Odyssey set in Saint Lucia. "The girl who typed it was saying, 'This is going to win the Nobel prize.'" She was right, but he insists he never thought in such terms. "It's startling to me when somebody says, 'Your form is classical.' I know what's inside me. I know what I enjoy. It's nothing to do with what I'm described as being – it's a contradiction of that almost. My delight in things is definitely Caribbean. It has to do with landscape and food. The fact that my language may have a metrical direction is because that's the shape of the language. I didn't make that shape."
And the Oxford professorship? How badly burned did he feel? "I don't think ultimately I wanted the job," he says. "It would have been too much work. I'm not a good scholar. Like [Walt] Whitman, I contradict myself very quickly, and you can't have an academic who does that." Why did he withdraw from the election? "I felt if I was disgracing people, I'd better get out of there." In any case, he says, "being in the Caribbean and being professor of poetry at Oxford was a contradiction." Which is why, in the end, the only way was Essex.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Nobel laureate, poet and playwright Derek Walcott dead, aged 87

 Derek Walcott receiving the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature from King Carl Gustav of Sweden.
Photograph: taken from picture library
Nobel laureate, poet and playwright Derek Walcott dead, aged 87
Walcott, who died in Saint Lucia, was famous for his monumental body of work that wove in Caribbean history, particularly his epic Omeros

Richard Lea
Friday 17 March 2017 14.14 GMT

The poet and playwright Derek Walcott, who moulded the language and forms of the western canon to his own purposes for more than half a century, has died aged 87.
His monumental poetry, such as his 1990 epic Omeros, a Caribbean reimagining of The Odyssey, secured him an international reputation which gained him the Nobel prize in 1992. Walcott also had an accomplished theatrical career, being the writer and director of more than 80 plays that often explored the problems of Caribbean identity against the backdrop of racial and political strife.
The former poet laureate Andrew Motion paid tribute to “a wise and generous and brilliant man”.
“As a member of the great Nobel-winning poetic generation that included Brodsky and Heaney, he did as much or more than anyone to win the global respect for Caribbean writing that it deserves and now enjoys,” Motion said. “The rich sensualities of his writing are deeply evocative and also definitive, and its extraordinary historical and literary reach – in his long Homeric poem Omeros especially – gives everything in the present of his work the largest possible resonance. He will be remembered as a laureate of his particular world, who was also a laureate of the world in general.”
For the Jamaican poet Kei Miller, Walcott’s most important contribution was perhaps his assertion of his Caribbean identity and his confidence that this identity was enough to encompass all of human experience.
“Walcott always insisted that he was a Caribbean writer,” Miller said, “and that this wasn’t a limit, that it didn’t make his work parochial. I always say I want to write a large literature from a small place, and it is Walcott who embodies that attitude more than anyone else.” While the colonial experience was terrible, he continued, Walcott argued that it gave him “the language that was his kingdom. His poetry was supremely ambitious. He was taking on Shakespeare, he was taking on Chaucer, he was taking on Dante – all of these were his forefathers and he thought of himself as equal to them. This is what great writing was and this is what he wanted to produce … he wanted to stand alongside them.”

Critic and biographer Hermione Lee said Walcott will be remembered as “a great epic writer of the world, who turned his local place into the scene of classical epic rewritten, most memorably of all in Omeros, as a craftsman and painter in words of the utmost colour, tenderness, vividness and energy, and as a writer of the most urgent beat and rhythm”.
“Like his friends, Brodsky and Heaney, his voice will resound through history,” Lee said. “It’s a great loss to language.”
According to Matthew Hollis, poetry editor at Faber, Walcott has been “both a lighthouse and an anchor” over the four decades the imprint has published his work: “A light to illuminate the terrain by which we have marked our lives – love, truth, loss, happiness, moral engagement; an anchor, to measure and affirm our convictions and our commitments.”
“Like the classics to which he was constantly drawn,” Hollis said, “he could bring forth truth from such minute detail, and remind us, vividly and unforgettably, why the examined life truly mattered.”
Born on Saint Lucia in 1930, Walcott’s ancestry wove together the major strands of Caribbean history, an inheritance he described famously in a poem from 1980’s The Star-Apple Kingdom as having “Dutch, nigger, and English in me, / and either I’m nobody, or I’m a / nation”. Both of his grandmothers were said to have been descended from slaves, but his father, who died when Walcott was only a year old, was a painter, and his mother the headmistress of a methodist school - enough to ensure that Walcott received what he called in the same poem a “sound colonial education”. He published his first collection of poems – funded by his mother – at the age of 19. A year later, in 1950, he staged his first play and went to study English literature, French and Latin at the newly established University College of the West Indies in Jamaica.

After graduating in 1953 he moved to Trinidad, an island recently vacated by VS Naipaul, a contemporary of Walcott’s whose career advanced in eerie synchronicity – from early dreams of a life in literature to Nobel success. Naipaul was first to find a London publisher, Walcott first to find favour with the Swedish Academy - but their contrasting approach to the legacy of empire soured their early friendship, igniting a feud which reached its apogee when Walcott read out an attack in verse at the 2008 Calabash festival in Jamaica: “I have been bitten, I must avoid infection / Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.”
Walcott continued his project to make the western canon his own, summoning up the spirits of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yeats and Eliot in collections that explored his position “between the Greek and African pantheon”. His decision to write mostly in standard English brought attacks from the Black Power movement in the 1970s, which Walcott answered in the voice of a mulatto sea-dog in The Star-Apple Kingdom: “I have no nation now but the imagination./ After the white man, the niggers didn’t want me/ when the power swing to their side./ The first chain my hands and apologize, ‘History’ / the next said I wasn’t black enough for their pride.” While Omeros tackled the ghost of Homer head on, relocating Achilles, Helen and Philoctetes among the island fishermen of the West Indies.

A 1981 MacArthur “genius” grant cemented Walcott’s links with the US, first forged during a Rockefeller fellowship begun in 1957. Teaching positions at Boston, Columbia, Rutgers and Yale followed, but his teaching style, which he described as “deliberately personal and intense”, got him into trouble. Two female students at two universities accused him of interfering with their academic achievements after they rejected his advances. One case was settled out of court, but this was said to have counted against him when he was passed over for the post of poet laureate in 1999. It was also the focus of an anonymous smear campaign which forced him to withdraw his candidacy for the post of Oxford professor of poetry in the notorious 2009 election campaign for the post, and which forced the resignation of his rival Ruth Padel only nine days into her term, after it emerged that she had sent details of a book discussing both cases to a journalist at the Evening Standard. Walcott won the TS Eliot prize in 2011 two years later, with his collection White Egrets.

In 2012, he told the Guardian that he felt that he was still defined as a black writer in the US and the UK. “It’s a little ridiculous. The division of black theatre and white theatre still goes on, and I don’t wish to be a part of any one of those definitions. I’m a Caribbean writer.”

Monday, March 13, 2017

Robert Lowell at 100 / Why his poetry has never been more relevant

Robert Lowell by James Loucks

Robert Lowell at 100: why his poetry has never been more relevant

Lowell’s confessional work of the 1960s marked a sea change in American letters – then he fell out of favour. But on the eve of his centenary, his work offers an urgent political message in a time of Trump

Max Liu
Wednesday 1 March 2017 11.23 GMT

was born under the shadow of the Dome of the Boston State House,” wrote the poet Robert Lowell, “and under Pisces, the Fish, on the first of March, 1917.” With his aristocratic background – all the inherited furniture and ancestral portraits surrounding him as a child, as he recalled in the memoir 91 Revere Street – perhaps it’s no surprise, reading Lowell 100 years after his birth, that he was often preoccupied with the passing of time. “Thirty-one / Nothing done,” he writes in 1948. A decade later: “These are the tranquillized Fifties, / and I am forty.” In the elegiac Grandparents, he stands over his late grandfather’s billiards table and contemplates his own “life-lease”.

Lowell is best known for his fourth collection, Life Studies (1959). He abandoned the tight metrical forms of his earlier work for free verse, helping him articulate his experiences and the turbulence of postwar America. Radiant and unsettling, Lowell examines his parents’ unhappy marriage, his responses to their deaths and his bouts of manic depression, in a pioneering style of confessional writing (“the C-word,” as Michael Hofmann put it). His psychological insights are as sharp as the “locked razor” of Waking in the Blue; in the magnificent Skunk Hour, his clarity pierces the night: “My mind’s not right.”

Listen to Robert Lowell read Skunk Hour

In an age when we narrate our lives online, it is difficult to appreciate how revolutionary Lowell’s candour seemed to his contemporaries. Not that the poems are unmediated or spontaneous: he was a rigorous rewriter, who altered facts where it suited him and whose finished poems rarely contained a line of his first drafts. But Life Studies opened up new possibilities for poetic subject matter and made Lowell, along with his friends John Berryman and Elizabeth Bishop, one of the most influential poets of the mid-20th century. Sylvia Plath, who was taught by Lowell at Boston University, hailed his “intense breakthrough into very serious, very personal, emotional experience which … has been partly taboo”.

Lowell continued to make art from life. The title poem of his collection For the Union Dead (1964) combines American social change with personal loss. In 1973, he controversially deployed letters from his second wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, in The Dolphin. Fellow poet Bishop considered this move crass and unethical, telling him: “Art just isn’t worth that much.”

Listen to Lowell read For the Union Dead

Today, Bishop’s popularity is soaring while Lowell’s has waned. Seamus Heaney once attributed this to Lowell’s background and the “orchestral crash” of his verse: “Lowell was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, a Eurocentric, egotistical sublime, writing as if he intended to be heard in a high wind.” It’s not always easy to feel sympathy for an artist with a trust fund and whose family have their own graveyard. But Lowell knew he was privileged, and the beauty and specificity with which he describes his world creates space for the reader to reflect on their own experience. His writing may even have subtle political messages for our times; the poet Claudia Rankine, who cites Life Studies as an influence on her groundbreaking 2015 work Citizen: An American Lyric, sees in Lowell’s book “a struggle with … the construction of whiteness”.

Grand, intimate, eccentric, funny, disturbing – the voice of Lowell, who died in 1977, is distinctly American. Perhaps as you’d expect of somebody who had an ancestor on the Mayflower and was a friend of Jackie Kennedy. Nevertheless, Lowell was consistently at odds with the US government, serving jail time as a conscientious objector during the second world war, rejecting an invitation to the White House in 1965 to protest Lyndon Johnson’s foreign policy, speaking at the March on the Pentagon in 1967.
This January, while watching Donald Trump’s inauguration I switched off the TV and reached for Lowell’s sonnet Inauguration Day: January 1953, which distils an atmosphere of disaffection in New York as a new era of old mistakes begins in Washington under President Eisenhower: “The Republic summons Ike / the mausoleum in her heart.” In his centenary year, it seems Lowell still speaks to us – with renewed urgency.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Edwin Morgan / In Glasgow

Edwin Morgan

In Glasgow
By Edwin Morgan

In my smoochy corner
take me on a cloud
I'll wrap you round
and lay you down
in smoky tinfoil
rings and records
sheets of whisky
and the moon all right
old pal all right
the moon all night
Mercy for the rainy
tyres and the violet
thunder that bring you
shambling and shy
from chains of Easterhouse
plains of lights
make your delight
in my nest my spell
my arms and my shell
my barn my bell
I've combed your hair
and washed your feet
and made you turn
like a dark eel
in my white bed
till morning lights
a silent cigarette
throw on your shirt
I lie staring yet
forget forget