On Derek Walcott’s White Egrets

The Trinidad Guardian published today an article on Derek Walcott’s new book, White Egrets, a collection of poetry in which Walcott treats the characteristic subjects of his career—the Caribbean’s complex colonial legacy, the wisdom that comes through the passing of time, the always strange joys of new love, and the sometimes terrifying beauty of the natural world. The book’s release is scheduled for March 16, 2010. Here are some excerpts, with a link to the full article below.
While Haiti was being buried alive, history was also in the making on a late January Friday night at UWI’s Learning Resource Centre. Derek Walcott’s intimate readings, from a proof of his forthcoming anthology, “White Egrets,” voiced a unique solace for both the Haitian dead and their survivors, and for the many who grieve for them across the Caribbean and the world. Walcott’s rhythmic tones, sometimes rasping with the breathlessness of age, and the poems’ unifying theme of “quiet resignation…to the ravages of time,” were a poignant testimony to Walcott’s dedication to the word and its power to capture and explore life’s complexities, joys and horrors, to cross any boundaries, including death.

An old, but decidedly unsenile, poet was helped to the comfortable armchair onstage, for the finale of the celebrations conducted by UWI in honour of his 80th birthday. Walcott seems spry enough, but at his age and in these times of unlooked for disaster, there were some in the audience only too aware that this might be one of his last major public readings.
He did not disappoint, disarming the entire auditorium by asking each individual to imagine he or she was in a room alone, being read to.

Explaining that his readings would be from the yet unpublished collection, “White Egrets,” he’s been working on for the past five or six years, he mixed intimacy with universality: recounting how his UWI-lecturer-daughter, Elizabeth, had teased him that he’d be rhyming “egrets” with “regrets,” before switching to the tone of the poem’s “quiet stillness at the core”

Unlike the angry staccato of WB Yeats’ last poems, Walcott’s “Egrets” exude calm, hovering over the Caribbean landscape, through groves of acacias or trembling casuarinas, all evoked by the poet/artist’s eye. While the tone may recall dry season-flat afternoon seas, there’s the occasional squall, a line of accurately acid satire, like the analogy between his native St Lucia’s luxury hotel development and the former plantations.

There was also the private voice of the man who remembers the many friends, whose death he’s survived: “I must make a shrine for them in my head” and the shared confidence of the commissioning of his two Obama poems, by the English newspaper, The Sunday Times. When first approached, he pointed out that he didn’t usually “do poems for commission,” but wryly admitted when he heard the proposed fee, he set to work on “Forty Acres,” and did not demur when recalled by the Times to write another poem, once Obama had become president.

His insights into how the second poem was composed are the closest a non-writer can get to being inside a writer’s head. Mindful of the historic occasion and his potential world audience, Walcott experienced a few moments of uncertainty: how to begin? He went to his local barber in the fishing village of Gros Islet in St Lucia, and sitting down anticipating his trim, his barber gave him the opening line:

‘So the world is waiting for Obama’, my barber said.’ Which was another example of what he has been doing since schoolboy days: writing the world from his vantage point as a Caribbean artist; taking the lives of people much like many of those who died beneath the rubble of Port-au-Prince, and making them immortal in his poetry: fishermen, drunks, maxi drivers, country people or displaced urban dwellers who are shunned or have become invisible as they don’t fit the mould of development.

One of his last poems was an “Elegy for ‘Aime Cesaire,’ a brother poet whose neighbouring island “was always in the haze of my mind,” another image drawn direct from St Lucian daily life. We need the voices of Cesaire and Walcott, as both comfort and continuity in these days of devastation and development. Cesaire may be gone, but as Friday night proved, thankfully we still have Walcott, and he hasn’t finished writing yet.

To read a poem from White Egrets go to A poem for Walcott’s White Egrets

For more go to http://guardian.co.tt/features/life/2010/02/21/no-regrets-white-egrets

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s