The Magazine

A Summing Up

Derek Walcott is more than a ‘poet of exile .  .  . of place.’

Jun 28, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 39 • By PETER LOPATIN
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In the 12-poem sequence “In Italy,” the Ligurian coast is the occasion for this meditation on memory and absolution:

Things lose their balance

and totter from the small blows of memory.

You wait for revelations, for leaping dolphins,

for nightingales to loosen their knotted throats,

for the bell in the tower to absolve your sins

like the furled sails of the homecoming boats.

But he is at his most elegiac in writing of his native land:

.  .  . I would come back and forget the niggling 

complaints of what the island lacks, how it is without

the certainties of cities, 

.  .  . for the first star

for whom my love of the island has never diminished

but will burn steadily when I am gone.

In a 2002 interview with Glyn Maxwell, Walcott made these remarks about the state of contemporary poetry:

I think that at the rate things are going, poetry will lose its audience entirely. I think nobody will read it anymore because they don’t understand what the stuff is. I read it and I don’t understand it. .  .  . I read a lot of stuff by known names that I won’t mention, that I just say “this is incomprehensible to me and I’m not going to bother to strain to do it.” I don’t consider poetry to be a riddle, an enigma, or a formula. .  .  . I want to be able to understand what I’m reading and I now abandon anything I can’t understand.

In contrast to what seems to me to be the perversely willful obscurity of much of contemporary poetry—rendered all too often in language so sparsely minimalist as to suggest that the authors are allergic to words—Walcott revels in the expressive possibilities that English offers the astute poet, and in the language’s capacity for both rich metaphorical expression and historical and artistic allusion. Although he is acutely aware of British colonial history and its attendant dislocations and injustices—a legacy often thematized in his poetry—Walcott has no inclination whatever to throw off the poetic conventions of the colonizers’ language. Rather, he wisely appropriates those conventions to his own uses, freely plundering the metaphorical and prosodic resources that the English language offers, all to the great benefit of his readers.

.  .  . If it is true

that my gift has withered, that there’s little left of it,

if this man is right then there’s nothing else to do

but abandon poetry like a woman because you love it 

and would not see her hurt, most of all by me;

so walk to the cliff’s edge and soar above it .  .  .

be grateful that you wrote well in this place, 

let the torn poems sail from you like a flock

of white egrets in a long last sigh of release.

I share Walcott’s concern over the future of poetry, but it is evident that his own gifts as a poet have not withered but grown. And if—as the white egrets teach—“the perpetual ideal is astonishment,” then the sense of astonishment that pervades White Egrets offers lovers of fine poetry reason for hope.

Peter Lopatin teaches at the University of Connecticut at Stamford.

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