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In Memoriam: Derek Walcott

Derek WalcottJust a couple weeks ago KROnline published my in memoriam for Nancy Willard, and a year ago for Michael Harper. Over the last year or two such poets as C.D. Wright, Leonard Cohen, Yves Bonnefoy, and Geoffrey Hill have died, among many others. And now Derek Walcott, who passed away at the age of 87 on March 17 in the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, where he was born.

During the planning stage a few years before the first issue of the new series of the Kenyon Review, when Frederick Turner and I were trying to get various writers to commit to publishing in the new journal, Derek was one of the first people we contacted, and he immediately responded by sending us a bunch of new poems and telling us he was happy to wait until Kenyon’s Board of Trustees gave us the final authorization to proceed. In 1980 we published three of those poems in our winter issue (“Credit Card,” “A Separate Peace,” and “Piano Practice,” which is reprinted below) and the next winter, in 1981, we published three more (“Snow,” “Map of the New World,” and “Beach Head.”). Twenty years later, in the spring 2001 issue, KR also published “Form in Poetry,” a conversation with Derek, Joseph Brodsky, and Brodsky’s Swedish translator Bengt Jangfeldt.

In 1981 New York University co-sponsored with KR a series of readings and parties in New York to celebrate the second anniversary of the new series of the Kenyon Review. “We’ll throw the party,” NYU told us; “you supply the poets.” Over the course of two evenings, we had readings by Derek, Joseph Brodsky, James Merrill, Galway Kinnell, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Philip Schultz, E.L. Doctorow, and Anthony Hecht. In the nearly forty years that have followed, it is difficult to recall any occasion on which so many major poets gathered together for a reading. Those events actually had no small impact on the development of NYU’s graduate writing program, which was founded soon thereafter and employed three of those who read that night—Schultz, Kinnell, and Doctorow.

This was not long after Joseph Brodsky’s heart surgery, and I remember Derek’s frantic concern that his friend Joseph was continuing to smoke despite doctor’s orders. But for me the most memorable moment of that celebration occurred at a party after one of the readings, which is captured by the photograph below. Phil Schultz, whose sense of humor was already legendary, was telling a funny story and Joseph, who at that time was skeptical about Phil’s antics, was trying hard but not quite succeeding in restraining his laughter, whereas Derek, very much in character, is laughing so hard that he is doubling over and virtually slapping his knees. Undeniably Derek had a darker side, but for me this photograph captures something joyful, passionate, and central that was at the heart of both his work and his life.

Walcott Party

Derek came to Kenyon on several occasions to read his poetry, and on one of those visits he agreed to come and talk with the students in my course on British Romantic Poetry. As we were walking to the class, he asked what was scheduled for discussion that day, and when I said Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes,” he said he loved that poem and would be delighted to talk with the students about it. Over the next hour, with no preparation at all, Derek took the students through that poem with a level of insight and eloquence that left me speechless, not least when he was reciting whole stanzas from memory.

The awarding of the Nobel Prize to Derek in 1992 seemed to me well deserved at the time and still does today. We have lost a poet who in my view is one of the most ambitious and accomplished poets of the last half century. Remembering him in part through the lens of the photograph below only deepens and intensifies the brilliant play of light at the heart of both the man and his work.

Derek Walcott

Piano Practice

From the Kenyon Review, New Series, Winter 1980, Volume II, No. 1

for Mark Strand

April, in another fortnight, metropolitan April.
Light rain-gauze across the museum’s entrance,
like their eyes when they leave you, equivocating Spring!
The sun dries the avenue’s pumice façade
delicately as a girl tamps tissues on her cheek;
this is my spring piece, can you hear me, Laforgue?
The asphalt shines like sealskin,
like the drizzle trying to bring sadness in,
as furrows part their lips to the spring rain.
But here, in mock Belle Epoque Manhattan,
its avenues hazy as Impressionist clichés,
its gargoyle cornices,
its concrete flowers on chipped pediments,
its subway stops in Byzantine mosaic—
the soul sneezes and one tries to compile
the collage of a lost vocabulary,
the epistolary pathos, the old Laforguian ache.

Deserted piazzas swept by gusts of remorse,
rain-polished cobbles where a curtained carriage
trotted around a corner of Europe for the last time,
the ending that began with Sarajevo,
when the canals were folded like accordions.
Now yellow fever flares in the trouble spots of the globe,
rain drizzles on the white iron chairs in the gardens.
Today is Thursday, Vallejo is dying,
but come, girl, get your raincoat, let’s look for life
in some café behind tear-streaked windows,
let’s give in to the rain, even if I catch
that touch of a fatal chill called Europe.
Perhaps the fin-de-siècle isn’t really finished,
maybe there’s a piano playing it somewhere,
or else they have brought the evening on too early
as the lights go on in the heart of the afternoon.
I called the Muse, she pleaded a headache,
but maybe she was just shy at being seen
with someone who has only one climate,
who knows only Manhattan’s mock-malaise,
so I passed the flowers in stone, the sylvan pediments,
alone. It wasn’t I who shot the archduke,
I excuse myself of all crimes of that ilk,
I accept the subway’s obscene graffiti,
and I could offer her nothing but the predictable
pale head-scarf of the twilight’s lurid silk.

Well, goodbye then, I’m sorry I’ve never gone
to the great city that gave Vallejo fever,
I can offer her nothing but the bracelet of the sun,
I know that I can never
rhyme my exile with the damp fields of Dijon,
but the place I can offer is still yours—
the north coast of an island with wind-bleached grass,
with the one season, with no history,
with stones like white sheep in its pastures
by a silver-circletted sea.

Ronald A. Sharp is Professor Emeritus of English at Vassar College, where he was also Dean of the Faculty from 2003 to 2008. Before coming to Vassar he was John Crowe Ransom Professor of English at Kenyon College, where he also served as Provost, Acting President, and Editor of the Kenyon Review. His six books focus on poetry, Romanticism, Keats, and friendship.