Poetry

On Giving Derek Walcott (1930-2017) Credit for His Final Act — As a Writer

In Morning, Paramin Derek Walcott ends as he began. Not by an umpteenth iteration of the origin story he created to become famous. Not by the mad-libbed patchwork of boasts, clichés, and academy-tailored homilies that became more prevalent in his style. No, Walcott (in ekphrastic partnership with Peter Doig) ends his remarkable career with one of the strongest books of poems he’d ever written; a lean, exact, and gorgeous collection immersed in nothing but the fundamentals of his gifts. Here, in his last trips home to the Caribbean and back, Walcott ditches his superstar persona and disappears into the poems in a way he hasn’t in over a generation. Stamped as Walcott’s final act by the occasion of his passing, Paramin serves as a beautiful coda to one of the great (if often stormy) careers in the history of poetry.

Walcott’s defenders will point to the merits of his later books and they will be half right. There are enough moments in all of them where you can sense the vivid eye, the idiosyncratic cultural voice, and the gift for lyric that made him one of the most celebrated poets in the English language. My point would be the other half: all the things he did in his popular books he better in the early ones. In Green Night, The Castaway, and The Gulf, Walcott almost single handedly resurrected formalism and lyric poetry by infusing it with imagery it had never seen before, and a kind of speech its champions had long worked to suppress. Written in an almost baroque language, they never had a baroque feel. They existed on emotional contrasts: both fluid and emotionally chaotic; terse and heartbreaking; misanthropic when among the beautiful complexities of his homeland, and mournful when a free “great man” away from it.

Those who champion Another Life, his epic poem about Trinidad and his upbringing, point to it as the last chapter of his Hero’s Journey, where he emerges from the insecurities and blues of the earlier poems as a superheroic man of letters. To this writer, however, that book reads like a repudiation of his complex early work. It also reads like the building of a persona, one Walcott would go deeper and deeper into, becoming less and less of a timeless poet, and more a literary pop figure. The Walcott beloved by academia was a negro Mailer of the anti-PC left, full of macho rhetoric, flat statements and locker room talk that became more and more immersed around the breathtaking poetic lines, and it was those flourishes — along with his reputation for who he wasn’t — that helped him win the Nobel Prize in 1991. However, the subtext of those lines was often fucking wretched: to read Walcott’s later work was to increasingly inhabit the artless jock world in which he is celebrated for a bad boy for getting kicked out of two Ivy League colleges for sexual harassment while beating every one of his ex-wives.

So take my jaundiced appraisal of the man and his work into account when I say that Paramin will do more to remind the new Walcott reader of his talent than any interview, public award or book in the last two generations. Paramin is him coming home to the Caribbean, but not to chase girls old enough to be his granddaughter or write sloppy late-Frostian clichés on overwrought lines. It is him coming home to mourn the death of his third wife Margaret and take inventory of the land and his memories of it. Final elegy has been on Walcott’s mind this decade. In White Egrets Walcott contemplated death while traveling Europe in the states — in his idle-rich snipings about his surroundings and repudiations of old lovers’ ages, however. Walcott seemed to had completely killed the pensive young writer and replaced him with the tacky and cruel public man that he had often been in the last thirty-five years of his life.

So Paramin took me for a loop. In the book’s first elegy of Margaret, “The Poem In the Heart Of Old San Juan” when he writes

Margaret was gone but all the streets were hers,
sunlight down White Street down by the Little Carib or
the talkative reflections in the harbor ―
all these are her monuments, not paint or verse.

and the line (written to Doig) in “Lapeyrouse Umbrella” – a poem about missing a place that really isn’t about missing a place, where he writes:

what she has forgotten you learn every day, Peter

Walcott burns his macho man persona to the ground. Agony, mortality, and the need to fully inhabit the house that was his imagination make poems like “Lapreyouse Wall,” whose first part

Along the cemetery wall of Lapeyrouse
in Port of Spain, Trinidad, he saw this truth:
a fellow walking with a floral umbrella
that seems both parasol and parachute ―
all our wishes are still rooted in ground,
but solid as a hydrant on a sill
of the sidewalk. Both urgent and casual,
the painting is in dialect, with its big shoes
and heavy eyeglasses almost a cartoon, but
in the perspective of the wall there
is both infinity and patience,
the qualities that are praised in a Protestant hymn.

reads like a rejoinder to the cruel old man of Egrets who sneered at his surroundings without giving a reader a reason why. Stylistically it is also – in this writer’s estimation – vintage Walcott: stripped of syntactical fat, organically fusing blank verse and form, electric in the way it can incorporate plain speech and sprung rhythm into a poetic line. This is the Walcott of Paramin, binding and molding in modes both direct and surreal, tones both sweet and heartbreaking, and in language both clear and gorgeously grand. This — not the painfully public, backward, and obvious macho man whose presence in institutions did more harm than good — is the Walcott that will endure on the page.

Like all great writers, in the end, the work will be the thing that matters the most with Derek Walcott. I’m not that crazy about the idea that it should. Walcott’s defenders demanded people focus on the art and not the artist when his record of domestic violence and sexual harassment cost him both an American and Oxford poet laureateship, but they forgot that the art wouldn’t be teaching, or in contact with women, Walcott would have. As of now, with him gone to posterity and not another Ivy League soiree, the focus will return to his writing again. At his best, Walcott showed that he was one of the greatest poets in the history of the 20th (or any) Century. In Morning, Paramin he shed his public persona and demons, and let the work speak for him in a way that it hadn’t in years.

Rest in peace, sir. At least the good you put into this world will not be interred within your bones.