Meeting and Melting: On Discovering Derek Walcott | Matthew Clegg

WalcottI’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.

Omeros

Omeros (oil on canvas), Derek Walcott

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.

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2 Comments on “Meeting and Melting: On Discovering Derek Walcott | Matthew Clegg”

  1. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for all this, the pointer to a poet I’ve not read enough of and to a way of reading him that hadn’t occurred to me at least. The following goes off at a tangent to one thing you mention, and is a further problematization of that issue rather than a coherent argument.

    Adrian Mitchell’s famous dictum deserves debate and currency, but I’m seldom happy with it as it stands, as it’s quite easy to co-opt it into a very parochial and intellectually non-challenging kind of poetic – hello (most, though not necessarily all) slam poetry. You don’t do that in this essay or in your own poetry. But I wish there was a better formulation out there that could prevent it being used in such a way. You point to Walcott as an example of someone who can talk about and – hopefully – to a wide range of people. Neruda comes to mind as someone else with that kind of approach. It can of course all go tits-up with someone like Brecht, where the preachiness just gets too much. It is of course significant that the poets who spring to mind in this regard are not contemporary Brits.

    There are different holes that could be picked in that dictum. One key one is the word “most”, and who it refers to. Excuse the pedantry, but the pithiness and context-free nature of the bon mot requires that it be taken more or less literally for a full engagement with it. I am guessing that Adrian (I once chaperoned him round Berlin for three days and he was a thoroughly nice bloke) was probably using “most” to refer to a culturally, socially and economically disenfranchised reader. But “most” investment bankers don’t read any poetry either I would imagine; “most” readers of novels don’t read poetry. “Most” middle class people don’t – and then of course you’re getting into debates about the relative proportions of the classes in, say, Western states today (whatever else the class structure of the UK is today, it’s not the 85% recognizably working class that it was before WW2). Who’s the “most” exactly? In fact, I’d argue that a very large swathe of contemporary UK poetry does not ignore “most” people. It certainly ignores working-class and low-income experience with few exceptions. But middle-class experience is the very stuff of the mainstream poetic.

    What I also have a problem with in AM’s dictum is the focus it places on the connection with the reader rather than the connection with the world. Both are crucial of course – as you mention, “home” and “away”. But as it stands, AM’s formulation seems to emphasize the “home” rather than the “away”…

    People with not a lot of formal education can and do still get fired up about demanding poetry, and plenty of people with formal education can’t do a thing with it. So I think the least that can be argued is that the relation is more complex than what AM was making out. But then things are always more complex.

    Alistair

  2. Matthew says:

    Alistair,

    Is Adrian Mitchell’s view a dictum? I certainly don’t come at it thinking of it in legalistic terms. It’s just a view I share, and I feel he expresses that view well. The heart and soul of the statement had integrity, in my opinion, and I admire Mitchell for having had the courage to assert it. Of course, there’s always someone clever around to niggle any assertion – and some of them are lawyers!

    I think it was for this very reason that Wordsworth mistrusted the intellect. Mitchell, surely, is speaking from ‘the heart’. No doubt there is a touch of sentiment mixed in with it, and a democratic poet’s desire to reach out and include.

    The more I think about the issues you raise, the more I think ‘most people’ is in fact the most pedantically correct thing Mitchell could have said. Of course, a statistical study of the the content and readership of modern poetry is beyond both of us. My understanding of the nuance of Mitchell’s statement is this: rather than dictating that poets should become more inclusive, he is explaining why readers might choose to ignore a poetry that is not inclusive of them.

    Certainly, I would have dropped reading poetry if I hadn’t found poets who I felt were inclusive of my predicament in the world. For some people, it’s going to take longer for them to find that poetry – especially if they don’t posses a university-educated, middle-class sense of the poetic. And telling them that they should just work harder at ‘admiring the language’ isn’t always going to resonate – which isn’t to say that we all shouldn’t work harder at admiring the language.

    I’m saying this now because I don’t want you to think I’m trying to recruit for an ‘intellectually none-challenging poetry’. As a matter of fact, I think there’s a big difference between inclusive and dumb; and there’s plenty of less inclusive poetry I wouldn’t commend for ‘intellectual challenge’: it just operates within a more closed system of language and concerns.

    I think one of the strengths of Walcott is that he challenges the intellectual hierarchy of those rather old-fashioned parochial/metropolitan categories. Patrick Kavanagh – another poet I admire – also challenged those conventional formulations. Do you know that distinction he tried to make between the provincial and the parochial?

    A provincial writer tries to imitate the poetic of the metropolitan power-centre from the margins, and a parochial writer knows that the universe always starts from where you stand. Personally, I’m more concerned about the stage-dominating arrogance of intellectuals who live in big cities than I am the so-called parochialism of those who inhabit smaller parishes.

    I try not to forget, though, about the modest, open-minded and curious people who also live in power-centres; and not forget about the many poets from those places whose poetry is inclusive of those who are not.

    There is a poet (like you) who lives in a foreign city, and who travels widely, and writes a fascinating poetry about the parallels and differences you encounter across those distances; and then there is a poet who encompasses fewer air-miles, but nevertheless can travel – perceptively, imaginatively and empathically. Praise to both!

    Perhaps what you mistrust is an insular poetic, not a parochial one. Certainly, I see myself as a parochial kind of guy who writes a parochial poetry. I have connections to particular people and places, not to an abstract idea of being more ‘metropolitan’. But I take heart from the likes of Joyce and Walcott, who demonstrate that Dublin and St Lucia can provide springboards from the particular to the more inclusive and universal.

    And few parishes are ‘pure’ or single cultures: there is the pleasure and tension of variety nearly everywhere, if you can look under stones. Walcott said in interview: ‘the more particular you get, the more universal you become..’ I trust in that, as a reader and as a writer. I’m more suspicious of the hierarchical way of approaching those categories – as I’m sure you are too.

    As for the subject of ‘difficulty’, there is insularity on both sides of that argument. The so-called difficulties of the avant-garde are much less difficult once you are educated and literate and have knowledge of the right ideas and theories. Of course, there’s the issue of access to those esoteric ideas and theories – and here we arrive at the door of the expensive modern university. Is it not also insular to ignore the fact of access.

    Of course, academics (and the academically minded), don’t possess a monopoly on language and intelligence. I love the way Walcott’s poetry celebrates the intelligence of the carpenter, the fisherman, and the intelligence of Carnival and street theatre etc. It’s plurality of this kind I find so fresh and meaningfully inclusive. It’s a poetic of largesse. It’s this same spirit of largesse that makes me forgive the ‘holes’ in what you call Mitchell’s ‘dictum’.

    Matt


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