Thursday, March 30, 2017

AGNI's Sven Birkerts on Derek Walcott

The following essay is from the editor of AGNI magazine, Sven Birkerts. It was sent this morning to subscribers via mailing list, with a subject line: ""We mourn a loss & celebrate a career."

We reproduce the text here since it is not otherwise available online.

No Man Loses His Shadow
by Sven Birkerts 

Derek Walcott & poet Katy Aisenberg in Cambridge 1980s
Derek Walcott died on March 17 at his home in Saint Lucia. The Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright taught at Boston University for several decades, starting in the early 1980s. He founded Boston Playwrights' Theatre, which continues to flourish and has been the site of AGNI's twice-yearly publication readings for many years now. He was also, along with Leslie Epstein, Rosanna Warren, and Robert Pinsky, a valued member of our Advisory Board.

These words feel very formal.
Until shortly after my arrival as editor in 2002, our office (singular) was a cluttered narrow room at Playwrights' Theatre, directly and audibly opposite the stage and rehearsal space, where Derek was often to be found, sitting off to the side with a sketchbook on his lap, drawing as he listened, and from time to time barking out a gruff admonition to the actors. 

Room 222
Though his advisory role at AGNI did not require much hands-on engagement, Derek's presence was pervasive, especially in his early years at BU. For starters, there were his regular poetry seminars in the legendary Room 222 at 236 Bay State Road - just upstairs from where our offices (plural) are now housed. This is the "If walls could talk" room, where Robert Lowell once taught Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and George Starbuck, and where Derek opened the doors to poets like Melissa Green, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and interested auditors like Askold and myself.

The literary conversations continued on in various eateries or at Derek's large apartment on St. Mary's Street, and the mix was made warm and rich - and antic - when his friends Joseph Brodsky, who was teaching at Mt. Holyoke College, and Seamus Heaney, recently arrived at Harvard, started coming by. AGNI could not but take energy and inspiration from its proximity to this convergence of master spirits.

Altogether, Derek's work has appeared in six separate issues of the magazine, starting with AGNI 15 (1983). In addition, he agreed to let designers Shawna Parker and Wyn Cooper create a broadside of "A Sea-Change," a poem that had first appeared in AGNI 67 and was later reprinted in The Best American Poetry.

AGNI's "A Sea-Change" broadside
But this still sounds like public reminiscence. I don't feel I'm really getting Derek the poet, the person, or the influence he exerted on our little world.

The poet ... I don't know what I can say that has not been said by the best critics in a hundred variations. Derek fully claimed - owned - his place of origin and, from its images and speech-cadences, created his own poetic idiom. His lines are utterly distinct from the lines of any other poets. They are sea-haunted, never losing the pulse of long waves; they memorialize the life of place. Mainly St. Lucia, but other places, too - England, Italy, America ... One of Derek's first celebrants, poet Robert Graves, wrote early on that he "handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most, if not any, of his contemporaries." I understand that "inner magic" to be its music, and reading this I can't but remember Derek in that upstairs room insisting that we all enunciate words of the old song "Shenandoah," counting out its perfections line by line.

He was not, in the orthodox sense, a man for the classroom. He used no comprehensive syllabus, had no interest in laying out the standard takes on any poets. Like his friend Brodsky, Derek proceeded by way of an impulsive-seeming intuition, taking off from whatever happened to catch him - a student's poem, a classic - tracking rhythm, sound, and image, repeating and repeating, slowing things down to make sure we understood their sources in the body. He did the count, the beat, be it Tom O' Bedlam's "From the hag and hungry goblin / that into rags would rend ye" or Hart Crane's "How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest" - and each time Derek would show himself bedazzled anew as he underscored the emphases. His delight was a big part of his instruction.

Years passed and as time went on we all saw less of Derek. His Nobel Prize brought fame and travels and other teaching; he returned more often to Saint Lucia; his health began to decline. Still, now and again he would show up in his old haunts. I had what felt like a body shock one afternoon. I had taken the elevator to the fourth floor to pick up our AGNI mail, and when I turned back into the corridor, Derek was standing there. I hadn't set eyes on him for several years and right away I sensed a change, a new distance. I didn't presume much more than a nod and a greeting. He nodded back, friendly but not forthcoming. The man looked deeply tired. We passed those few seconds riding down together in an awkward silence. I suddenly recalled him telling a story at a party about being in an elevator in London and realizing that the man next to him was none other than Laurence Olivier. Well, I was not Olivier, but he knew me. I had written about his work - twice glowingly, then once with a few reservations. Was he remembering that last review? How egotistical of me to suppose I was in his thoughts at all just then.

Many of us knew for some time that Derek's health was bad, worsening. When news came of his death, it was not a shock. The first report came via social media, and right away the airwaves - the cyber galleries - were crowded with images, quotes from his poems, reminiscences. The public homage from all quarters was intense. It seemed the whole world knew and loved the poet. The adulation made it very hard to see the man I had known. But then - wonderfully, surprisingly - there were the lines and likenesses that registered, that threw open a door, put me in the presence, if only briefly, of our old friend. I recovered a taste of those nights - nights of irreverent hilarity, of jokes and jibes that can't be repeated here - and at the same time felt again the freshness and immense dignity of the work.

As he wrote in Omeros:

No man loses his shadow except it is in the night, 
and even then his shadow is hidden, not lost. At the glow
of sunrise, he stands on his own name in that light.

Derek stands there now. We miss him.

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