Long Tables, Open Bottles, and Smoke: Hanging Out with Derek Walcott
Sven Birkerts on Literary Life in 1980s Boston, with a Trio of Great Poets
I learned a good deal about poets and poetry from Joseph Brodsky, whose classes I audited in the 1970s in Ann Arbor and whose opinion on most anything I took as holy writ in those days. Joseph was a great one for naming and ranking poets, and much of our conversation consisted of him delivering his various verdicts. “Miroslav Holub is terrific, ya?” Or “Yevtushenko, he’s just shit.” So-and-so was in fact a good poet, “too bad he had to get a Bly-job.” I was all ears, and tuned in closely whenever a new name appeared on his list. “Derek Walcott,” he said one day, “Caribbean poet—look him out [sic].” And I, ever dutiful, did just that, picking up Sea Grapes and Another Life. I remember liking both, and I also remember pushing myself to like them still more so I could be adequate to Brodsky’s esteem. I certainly felt Walcott’s power and freshness, and got that this was poetry with a unique rhythmic surge. But at that point I hadn’t fully connected with it. Some time later, after I moved to Cambridge, I thought I might try to get closer by writing about the man. I decided to set Walcott’s work and worldview against that of his fellow Caribbean writer V.S. Naipaul. The two had been friends in their youth but had since taken radically divergent paths, Naipaul dismissing his roots, Walcott putting his at the core of his poems and plays. I had heard there was friction.
When I finished, I showed the essay to Brodsky, who seemed to like it well enough. He made some noise about showing it to Walcott—the two had by this point become fast friends—but if he did, I never heard anything about it.
My memories here are impressionistic and jumbled. I know it was around this time—1981—that Derek was hired to teach at Boston University, where he also founded and then presided over the Playwrights’ Theatre. Brodsky was then teaching at Mt. Holyoke and, as if obeying some larger pattern of intended convergence, Seamus Heaney had recently begun his semester-a-year teaching stint at Harvard. All three had at different times been taken up and touted by Robert Lowell; all three published with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. They could have set up as rivals, but instead became friends with a rabelaisian gusto rarely—maybe never—seen in academe.
What a delight it was to see these three utterly distinctive looking individuals together at a party! And it seems, looking back, that there were parties all the time. Long tables, open bottles, and smoke. God, how people smoked in 1981—Joseph with his L&M’s (“Wystan smoked these”), Derek with filterless Pall Malls, Seamus with his Dunhills. And everyone gathered around them doing the same. If the reader now expects accounts of high literary seriousness, however, she will be disappointed. These gatherings were about play. They were exercises in comic brinksmanship. Who would pull off the night’s best line, the funniest story; which of the three would most quickly reduce the other two to convulsions? Those of us lucky enough to be at the table barely got a word in. If we had any function, it was to keep things going, to prompt. A question, a compliment—it didn’t matter, anything could be a trigger. Joseph was usually first out of the box with some dark jibe, which would inevitably set Derek into volatile contortions, releasing his extraordinary laugh, a full-body explosion. It would then fall to Seamus to offer the judicious sardonic rejoinder. I wished I could have brought it all home in a jar. My stomach hurt from laughing. I lay in bed, my head spinning from combined excesses, but also with the feeling that the world was, as Frost had it, “the right place for love.”
I’ve gotten ahead of myself—it’s the way of memory. I actually met Derek in 1981 at the start of the school year. I’d heard he was allowing non-students to audit his poetry seminar, and hurried to get a place. At the first class meeting, we gave our names. I remember being nervous. Maybe, I thought, he had read my essay. I waited for a look, an indication. Nothing. I didn’t dare ask him when we had conversations later.
In this setting of students and admirers, Derek was very meetable—as Seamus too would later be (Joseph could be a bit more standoffish). We all soon found out that Derek enjoyed going out after class, sitting around over coffee or Chinese food, surrounded by the adulatory young. He did not drink, though word was out that he had been a big carouser in his younger days.
We met in #222, the same second-floor room on Bay State road where Robert Lowell had taught his now-legendary seminar that included, among others, young poets George Starbuck, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. Derek was pleased by the association and often invoked his old mentor “Cal.” Our class, which I audited for two years, had a loose free-associational format, like nothing I’d experienced—at least not before I met Joseph back in Ann Arbor. Was this how poets did it? It seemed radical and right, such a change from the syllabus-driven proceedings I’d known as an undergrad. In these sessions, a poem would be passed around—a ballad, something by Thomas Hardy or Elizabeth Bishop, say—like a specimen we could study, or, more flatteringly, like a melody handed off to a group of musicians to see what might happen. Meanings were not at issue—not in any conventional way. The conversations turned on rhythm, rhyme, cadence: the elements we came to see as primary to meaning.
Derek was all about repetition, sounding out a line or two, maybe from “Tom o’ Bedlam’s Song,” pausing often to highlight some pairing of sounds, making us listen and echo them back, slowing things even more, until an iamb or a caesura reared up enormous in the ear. He was an appreciator, an enthusiast, and he taught us mainly through the modulations of his own reactions. “Do you hear that? Say that line again!”
From the hagg and hungrie goblin
That into raggs would rend ye,
And the spirit that stands by the naked man
In the Book of Moones—defend ye!
His ear was tuned for incantation, for the way sounds in the right pulse could drum up emotion. That into raggs would rend ye—“Listen to that, do you hear it?” I felt uneasy at times, aware that I did not in fact hear “it,” or maybe just wasn’t clear on what he wanted us to be responding to. But isn’t this the oldest story? The listener beside you at the concert goes into raptures during some passage and you can only assume his is the deeper sensibility, cut from a finer cloth.
Contemporaries did not get much airplay in those classes, at least not in the early days, but I do recall one exception, when Derek found himself completely taken with Adam Zagajewski’s “Going to Lvov.” The poem is long, and we read it out loud again and again. And, as sometimes happens, the world would go away for a time. All attention was on the beat of those translated lines:
To go to Lvov. Which station for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew
gleams on a suitcase, when express
trains and bullet trains are being born. To leave
in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September
or in March. But only if Lvov exists,
if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just
in my new passport, if lances of trees
—of poplar and ash—still breathe aloud
like Indians, and if streams mumble
their dark esperanto, and grass snakes like soft signs
in the Russian language disappear
Derek’s reasons for adoring it are immediately clear. Zagajewski is writing directly in what I think of as the key of Walcott—and Brodsky—moving forward by the same logic of transformations, assuming the same coded equivalences between the things of the world and the words with which they are transmitted. Here the poet plays with such likeness directly, joining in our minds the visual punctuation of the Russian “soft sign” and the sibilance that calls up the movement of water.
Derek’s instruction, his sleeves-rolled-up approach to the poetic line, was persuasive, but even so I’m surprised all these years later how much those incantatory repetitions have stuck with me, how they inform not just my sense of the various poems we discussed, but my reading of poetry in general. The process, I’ve learned, is very different from engaging with prose, even highly crafted literary prose. A poem is a thing made of sound, Rilke’s “tall tree in the ear.” You do not address it in logical sequence, as a set of messages, and hurry on. Instead, you greet it with a different kind of attention: all those syllables, those sounds, have combined to make meanings and sensations. You grasp that primary fact at the same time as you grasp those meanings and sensations. Derek never stated the matter in quite these terms, but this is what I understood him to be communicating.
This talk, this instruction, was offered to us by a great poet working at the top of his powers. The work of those years—collected in The Fortunate Traveller and Midsummer—was Derek’s very finest, and we were lucky to be in the room with him. Though it can never be measured or fully described, there is a definite radiance emanating from what Shelley called “the mind in creation”—a sense of concentrated intent, of passion. Derek was writing at a mighty clip and the publications confirmed it.
Those of us who went to his class all knew his routine— that he woke at first light and wrote. By the time he arrived at 222 in the late morning, his workday was mostly behind him, and when class ended after two hours, he was ready to adjourn for food and coffee. The understanding—I don’t know if it was ever expressly stated—was that we would not talk poetry. Lunch was meant for banter, jokes, and insults; it was for talking about Barney Miller, his favorite show, not Hart Crane.
Derek loved verbal sparring and being silly—and he could be very silly. When he was in the throes, it was easy to forget that this man could also strike the elegiac note like few others. That was his note—it defines his work. Stately, mournful, the poems carry the sorrows of colonial oppression as well as the stuff of his own melancholic temperament, as in these opening lines of “North and South,” possibly the first of Derek’s poems that gripped me fully:
Now, at the rising of Venus—the steady star
that survives translation, if one can call this lamp
the planet that pierces us over indigo islands—
despite the critical sand flies, I accept my function
as a colonial upstart at the end of an empire,
a single, circling, homeless satellite.
It was the gravitas that captured me right away, the voice, and only after that did I hear the sense—the poet pronouncing on his great themes of place and empire.
Nowhere does Derek express the Caribbean’s colonial legacy with more sensory nuance than in the poem “Jean Rhys,” in The Fortunate Traveller. Here is the first stanza:
In their faint photographs
Mottled with chemicals,
Like the left hand of some spinster aunt,
They have drifted to the edge
Of verandahs in Whistlerian
White, their jungle turned
tea-brown—even its spiked palms—
Their features pale,
To be penciled in:
With spiked moustaches
And their wives embayed in the wickerwork
Armchairs, all looking coloured
From the distance of a century
Beginning to groan sideways
from the axe stroke!
Jean Rhys was the white West Indies–born writer who made her name with a number of novels, including Wide Sargasso Sea, which has been described as a “prequel” to Jane Eyre in telling the story of the first (mad) Mrs. Rochester. Walcott captures the imagined atmosphere of her girlhood, attuned to setting, cultural milieu, and rendering each separate detail with his keen artist’s eye (Derek was, it should be said, an accomplished watercolorist and a number of his books feature his work as the cover art). To me the power of this passage, representative of the rest of the poem, is found in the play between the clarifying precision of the details and then the sudden imposition of the vast perspective of centuries. And of course the music. Poet Robert Graves helped launch Derek’s career with these early, and now often quoted, words of praise, saying that he “handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most (if not any) of his English-born contemporaries.” Consider just the play from “hand” to “aunt” (pronounced ont, of course) to “verandahs” carried over to “palms,” and then the mimetic crackle of “wives embayed in the wickerwork” . . . The poet could make the slightest nuances of sound serve him. In that latter line we pick up a settling sensation from the drawn-out vowels in “embayed,” which, suspended between the crisp vowels of “wives” and “wickerwork,” suggests the brittle tension or unease of those women.
Let me stay with The Fortunate Traveller just a moment longer, to cite the book’s concluding poem, “The Season of Phantasmal Peace,” with its almost orchestral consonances, its powerful feeling of gravity overcome:
Then all the nations of birds lifted together
The huge net of the shadows of this earth
In multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
Stitching and crossing it.
Here is the other Derek. Though his vision from the start had much to do with the pressures of empire, he also expressed a counterpoint vision of the extraordinary beauty of nature. His eye took in light and color, rejoiced in the proliferations of tropical flora, and he was never not heeding the measured tempo of the sea. It was his attentiveness to this alternately percussive and soothing rhythm, his powerful conjuring of an order beyond human travail, which made that poem so powerful. Derek composed a moment of pure duration, a feeling of nature linked to love and not yet befouled:
And this season lasted one long moment, like the pause
Between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
But, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.
Looking back all these years later, I appreciate more than ever the importance not just of Derek’s work, but also of what it meant to have the force of such dedication to the art in our midst. And then to have it so massively amplified by the near presence of Seamus and Joseph. Three of our greatest poets, all at the height of their powers, urging each other on. Imagine the inspiration of that.
These, I think, were the best years—before the Nobel Prizes. Say what you will, the feeling in a room changes when a certified Nobelist is present, never mind two or three. There is, of course, the overt or conspicuously concealed regard of the non-Nobelists present; and then the deft but still obvious efforts of the laureates not to be acting as eminences. It’s true, of course, that the poets were already known and honored before then, but somehow their earlier celebrity energized much more than it constrained.
After he won the Nobel in 1992, Derek was less often at BU. He traveled, taught, and eventually, as his health began to decline, spent more and more time in Saint Lucia with his partner Sigrid Nama. There were years when I did not set eyes on the man, though reports came to us from Seamus, who visited him there frequently. It had been well over a decade since those early classes. Nevertheless, I could not pass room 222 without a cinching tug of recollection. Another decade on and I still can’t.
Memories of Derek bring back the feel of the times, how it was for all of us who came up together wanting to be writers. We showed up at the same readings, went to the same bars afterward. We watched each others’ trajectories closely as we sent our work to literary journals. In this we were no different from would-be writers who came before or after us. The only difference might have been the figures we took as our inspirations. Derek, Seamus, and Joseph were each a force unto themselves. Autochthonic is the word I want: self-generating. They put forth entire and unique poetic worlds. What was remarkable, given that, was how obviously and enthusiastically they enjoyed each other and communicated the idea that poetry—literature—was not a competition but a commons. Many of us, I know, count it our great good fortune to have learned that as we did.