Writings / Essay

Derek Walcott: Plain But Not So Simple

George Elliott Clarke

        When Edmonton poet, Bert Almon, and Victoria Publisher, Richard Olafson, told me that The Honourable Derek Walcott, Nobel Laureate in Literature, would give a reading in Victoria, B.C., in mid-November, and would accept to be interviewed, I didn’t hesitate to sacrifice my jealously hoarded Aeroplan points.  Walcott is, for me, the Muhammad Ali of poetry, the Malcolm X of song, in short, a hero:  the greatest of poets in English.

           He is also as true a gentleman as his wife, Sigrid, is gracious.  They welcomed me and a Globe and Mail photographer, Deddeda, to their suite at the Inn at Laurel Point at approximately 4 p.m. on a cool, drizzly, grey Saturday, November 13.  The dull weather could not dampen my spirits; and the Walcotts later ordered up red wine, which also had a fortifying effect.  Dr. Walcott—“Derek,” he insisted—and I spoke for a half-hour.  My questions were rambling; his answers were both precise and, yes, poetic.  The greyness outside did have one unquestionable effect:  it deepened the deliberate grey cover of his latest—and great—book of poetry, White Egrets (FSG, $28).
           We discussed the symbolism of those birds, and I wondered whether there was any connection to Baudelaire’s “L’Albatros” (1857).  Walcott replied, “I think that the poem principally does talk about achieving grace.  But … before that grace is achieved, there’s a lot of lumbering around....  Before the poem can soar, it needs to stagger and try to find its balance….  So it’s moving from the ugly into the graceful that’s what he [Baudelaire] says happens in poems….”
            Something similar is at work in White Egrets:  Walcott has taken the accumulated awkwardness that results from the collective mistakes, miscues, misunderstandings, and faux pas of his life—our lives—and forged a voice that is grace, the achievement of regret, remembering, and, yes, mercy too.  So, for Walcott, who’s now 80, the egrets represent “resignation,” but also “good-heartedness.”  His poems shadow the sonnet, but soar beyond the traditional form, if with a casual plainness that is no less majestic and elegant for being plain.
            I asked Walcott about the formidable grey—of shadow, fog, oblivion—that his book’s dust jacket projects.  He explained:  “I do my own watercolour jackets….  But I haven’t done this one, and I didn’t want to do it because I paint realistically in my watercolours.  And I didn’t want to do a watercolour with birds, you know, soaring: they look like tourist advertisements, and they’re very elegant.  So I thought I’d let the printer do it; I think they’ve done a good job, with the colour that they’ve chosen.  And it’s not a blatant blue; it’s a delicate…, nice balance of grey.”
           The discussion of colour got me thinking about ‘race’—and the ways in which ‘black’ poets get racialized.  We’re usually perceived to be about kinetics—performance—and, seldom, aesthetics.  Walcott’s response was diplomatic; he rejected the clichéd pairing of writers and “jazz.”  But he also engaged the question of his own aesthetic, suggesting that one should employ meter, but to foster “casualness.”  He gave this example:  “To say, ‘Virgin Mary, Mother of Thy Son,’ I mean, that is so compact….  I think that’s what you aim at because you’re trying to combine the colloquial—that is your past life, the experience is in the colloquial—what happened to you, I mean, the narration….”
            For me, there is powerful wisdom in that comment, perhaps especially for poets of marginalized communities:  We should invest the formal elements of English poetry with a diction that is, in fact, vernacular because it is autobiographical. Walcott’s musings on the difficulty of establishing a conversational “pitch” in formal poetry bid me ask him about the greatness of the plain—as in late Yeats and in impounded Pound.  He held that “Pound is a great poet in the way that poets know he’s great, not in the way that academics may praise him….”
           The greatness of Pound and Yeats (and W.C. Williams) resides, Walcott elucidated, in their inalienable honesty:  “I think that’s the only thing you can go by.  And I think the example of that has been Pound….  Yeats—in a different way, Yeats in a more arrogant way, than Pound.”  I asked him to explain his reservations regarding Yeats, and he smiled and argued that Yeats wants to “command” the listener….  He’s not a poet to try before one has had one’s coffee, Walcott quipped.
           I asked the Bard of the Caribbean about his sense of his own achievement—the excellent verse-plays, Omeros (1990), the sole successful epic in English in the last century—and what he might like next to do.  He was humble, but also daunting, in terms of the standard that he set for himself:  “I think you have an approach to, whatever fame you may have, or whatever achievement you may have, that is not complete in you, at your age, because you realize you have not done what you thought you might have done, which is kind of hard to take…. 
           “But also you still have the desire to do it; you still have the ambition—an ambition that satisfies your being in the company of great poets, of saying I can move from reading one of my poems to reading one of their poems, without any false modesty or any false conceit.”
            But the strength of his self-daring is rooted in his culture:  “I’m lucky to come from a culture that dramatizes itself continually, that sings about itself.  So, that becomes a natural…. It’s like what Yeats wanted to happen in the Irish Republic, and it has happened in the Caribbean…. 

           “We live at simultaneous levels.  In other words, we live on a level of both song and theatre.  In other words, there’s always a song about something that happened—in the calypso, or even in reggae:  Some event happened; and it’s celebrated with a rhythm that is lyrical—although the theme is dramatic or tragic; so that you have the tragic turn into the lyrical, regardless.  That’s a great thing to have happen in the culture.”
            The turn in our conversation toward the Caribbean had me asking Walcott about his past likening of that American archipelago to the Mediterranean archipelago of Greece.  I also wondered about all his canon of poems of travel, including those in White Egrets.  In reply, Walcott made clear his love for St. Lucia, his native land, but also Italia and Spain:  “The Nobel Prize means that you get invited to a lot of places you might never have visited, if you didn’t have the prize.  And some places where people keep re-inviting you, like Medellin, in Colombia, for instance.  I think it’s partly the fact of the Nobel, which is, you know, a great thing to have, I mean, as [leading to] an invitation….  Or even teaching for periods of time, brief periods, in different places.
           “I don’t really have a traveller’s instinct.  I don’t really want to get up and go anywhere.  I’m very happy to be in St. Lucia.  Basically, if I were there, I’d be great; I’d be fine.  But you get invited….  When you go to places and you meet other people, other writers…, you’re just in a culture you know nothing about…. 
           “I swore to myself when I was younger, ‘I’m not going to write any poems about Italy.  Italy is out.  Too many Italian poems.’  I go to Italy, and I’m knocked out.  I can’t help but write about it.  I think there’s something sympathetic between the Caribbean temperament and the Italian temperament, for instance.  There are a lot of places that look like each other.  Same thing for Spain, I think.  But I’m lucky in that respect.  I’m going to Italy often; I love it.  The same for Spain, actually.”
           We arrived at the end of the interview:  Time to uncork the wine!  As we relaxed a little (not too much because Walcott had to prepare for a reading later), I had cause to reflect on one of the many poignant sentences that Walcott offered.  It’s an idea that likely haunts all poets:  “The mystery remains… Poetry remains a mystery, even at old age.”

About The Author


George Elliott Clarke is arguably one of Canada’s most accomplished poets. He has several groundbreaking verse and dramatic poetry collections. He was recently inducted into the Order of Canada.

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