Meeting and Melting: On Discovering Derek Walcott | Matthew CleggPosted: July 7, 2014
I’m a white male who grew up on the edge of a housing estate in East Leeds. At the start of the 1990s I struggled to get work and found myself moving between employment training schemes and voluntary placements. I was a young man of vague aspirations and low self-esteem. To shield myself from the feeling I was going nowhere, I read insatiably. I began as a free-range reader. I discovered my own pathways without a guide, and without knowledge of prestige, reputations or fashion. I was especially attracted to writers who offered two things: I wanted to broaden my horizons, but I also sought parallels with my own world and predicament. I wanted ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’, ‘home’ and ‘away’. I experienced more parallels reading Derek Walcott’s poetry than when reading nearly everything produced for the shelves of my own country at that time.
It was during this period that I first became aware of the endless prizes and selective promotions that characterise the British poetry scene. Even then, I suspected they were not targeting the likes of me as a prospective reader. The centre of what people call ‘culture’ seemed a long way away from Foxwood Training Base or Crossgates Library. I felt like I was leading an island life and Walcott’s Caribbean felt closer to home.
I’d take Omeros out into my community. I’d study it in the reading room of my local library, amongst the long term unemployed, within earshot of pensioners. I’d read it in parks, outside tennis courts, and often, at weekends, I’d take it with me on walks between cricket pitches. The book always made more sense to me when read in these locations. One afternoon I sat on the edge of an empty cricket field in Crossgates – my Dad’s club, and where I’d climbed trees and run amok all through my childhood. Crossgates CC had never been rich. The ground was leased. It didn’t have a club house or a bar. The field itself wasn’t even properly flat. It had a homespun, ramshackle quality to it; but through all the ebbs and flows of membership and money it was a focus of health and joy and it survived. It also had its catalogue of modest heroics, on and off the field.
It was here that a vital aspect of Omeros started to make sense. This had something to do with the relationship of the ordinary to the heroic. I find it hard to put this into ideas that don’t sound like clichés. Or those ideas can feel like clichés when you are far away from the source of what gives them social necessity and value. Omeros identifies heroic qualities in men and women who live in shacks, fish from canoes, drive taxis or tend rum shops. It’s a heroism of integrity or loyalty under pressure, of ordinary (and extraordinary) decency in the face of poverty, corruption and economic expedience. It connects a small island community to routes through layers of a larger history. It felt local and universal. It was classical in scope and reference, and yet it was pioneering in terms of the territory it rendered into poetry.
I came to Collected Poems 1948-1984 and The Bounty after my encounter with Omeros. I took the books with me on walks from Crossgates to the grounds of Temple Newsam House, a one-time stately home now open to the public. There you can find parks and walled gardens – and a glasshouse containing tropical flowers. I’d sit amongst foaming buddleia, or within sight of the purples, reds and yellows of exotic-seeming plants, and read. It was here that I made a connection with a spirit that seems to blossom through much of Walcott’s poetry. It has something to do with what appears to be a marriage between the Methodism of his mother, and the climate, flora and fauna of the Caribbean. In his poetry, nature is both wealth and God – pleasure and blessing fused into one. It’s richer than the bought pleasures of Western materialism; and it’s a material blessing that has nothing to do with the hierarchies, dogmas and institutions of the church. Walcott made bays and forests his galleries and cathedrals. The poet was something between a lay priest and a drunk Vincent. This bowled me over.
In Another Life I recognised a role for the artist. As I read about Walcott’s quest to render a culture, climate and ecology into art, I began to think about all the acres of my own locale that seemed outside the written stanzas of English poetry. In a time that often declares itself as democratic, plural and inclusive, it seemed to me then – and it still does – that many people go about their business in places and predicaments unexplored by poets. Adrian Mitchell once said ‘most people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people.’ This still feels like bracing critique.
I grow uncomfortable with how poets have been professionalised. They seem lured away from a community that might provide readers, and into a network of cliques and academies that offer prestige and finance. In this artificial limelight, poets make funding bids, apply for commissions and posts, and slowly find themselves with obligations to sponsors, funding bodies and institutions that interfere with their ability to speak truth to power, or to achieve fellow-feeling with those outside elite spaces. I’ve often asked myself: can institutions remove poets from the source of one spirit of poetry? Inside the competitive, intellectual hothouse, it’s possible for us to lose common feeling and common touch.
Back in 1992 I signed up for an access course at Leeds University. This was by far the most positive experience of education I’ve had. I studied alongside a nurse, an office worker, an Asian businessman, a hospital porter, a mother of Afro-Caribbean background, and a woman who worked for a company operating phone-sex. The head of the course was a sociologist from a Yorkshire mining family, and the woman who taught me English literature was about to embark on another career as a drama therapist. It was a culture that deserved to be called a melting pot in a way that many expensive universities conceptualise better than they embody.
One evening, halfway through this course, I was listening to the radio. I was browsing the stations when I stumbled upon a dramatization of ‘The Schooner Flight’. I’d not yet read this piece in Walcott’s Collected Poems. In the cramped dark of my box-room I listened, riveted, and when the final ‘chapter’ closed on its stoical prayer to work and craft, I knew I’d discovered a new heroic figure in Shabine. He was sailor and poet; rooted and wayward; man of action and man of art; black and white; African and European; neither and both. He melted categories like Rimbaud, and embodied Patrick Kavanagh’s belief that the universe always starts from where you stand. His Caribbean felt as particular and universal as Joyce’s Dublin.
Shabine was the man who tried to sail away from his troubled home, but who could never get beyond the tides of his island sea. I’ve had very few such encounters with a poem that so coalesced with my own emerging sense of poetry and the world, and no poem that could have been further away from my own parish. I taped a copy of that dramatization, and when I left the access course I gave it to the woman who taught me English Literature. Now I teach an adult education course about to be closed down – as the course I studied at Leeds was eventually closed. Melting pots coalesce and disappear all the time, subject to the fickle expedience of economics. The torch is carried in the human imagination.
I read somewhere that a true university shouldn’t be thought of as a building or an institution. It’s a spirit or a happening. I’ve encountered so much of the spirit of meeting and melting-pot in Walcott’s poetry. It’s the embodiment of how cultures melt and merge to create something vital and fresh. I’ve bought my copy of The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1948-2013. It had been my intention to write a critique of this new selection, but I’m no more capable of reviewing it than I’m capable of reviewing myself. I’ve been reading and drawing from Walcott’s poems for so long, they’ve been stirred into the soup of my life. Better, perhaps, to offer a letter of thanks, or to carry on the spirit of meeting and melting that I find so abundant in his poetry. It is bounty indeed, and I’ll be returning to it often.
The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1948-2013 (selected by Glyn Maxwell) is published by Faber & Faber. Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book.