Last week I was at Essex for the activities surrounding Derek Walcott’s tenure as Professor of Poetry at Essex. (More about that later.) The local newspaper published the following article about his impact on the community.
IF anyone could be said to have a way with words it is Derek Walcott.
Essex University’s new professor of poetry is a winner of the Nobel Prize and is considered by some to be the best writer of English verse still living.
With a peerless command of the language at his disposal, no doubt he could charm the birds out of the trees if he wanted to.
And – as a class of his Essex students have been finding out – he is equally capable of making his displeasure crystal clear.
“I should take you outside and execute you,” he told a budding poet at a recent seminar, who was guilty – as am I – of resorting to a cliched phrase.
Other targets of the St Lucian writer include French surrealism – “my mortal enemy” – and tutors who encourage students to abandon conventional poetic form.
The class had already irked him in a previous tutorial by demonstrating their ignorance of great English writers.
“I thought you were pretty dumb – almost illiterate,” he frankly declared.
Harsh treatment perhaps, but his young proteges don’t seem to mind a bit.
They know only too well the Wivenhoe Park-based university has pulled off a huge coup in securing the services of Mr Walcott, who is 80 and rarely visits the UK.
It seems all the tough talking is done with the best of intentions. The great man is also taking the time to ring each of them individually to discuss their work.
He admitted: “I had forgotten how much I like teaching the young. I like roughing them up – they’re like recruits, they need to be trained.”
Mr Walcott, also an artist and playwright, has been publishing poetry since the early Fifties.
He became a Nobel Laureate in 1992, by which time he had already won the Queen’s Medal for Poetry.
But he found himself caught up in an unwelcome furore last year when he was nominated for the post of Oxford University’s professor of poetry.
A whispering campaign began against him over unproven allegations of sexual harassment, years earlier at American universities.
The eventual winner of the position, Ruth Padel, stood down after only nine days after it was revealed she had spoken to journalists about the claims against her rival.
After this unpleasantness, which he dismisses as “nonsense, forgotten,” Mr Walcott might have been expected to settle down for good with his pipe and slippers at his Caribbean home.
Instead, he signed up for the job at Essex University – and he clearly feels he still has a lot to offer the promising young writers he is teaching.
In many ways a traditionalist, he firmly believes contemporary poems are not as good as they should be, and remains ready to fight to instil in his students a respect for rhyme and rhythm.
He said: “I can see considerable decline because of the bad teaching. There’s a total lack of control in how poets see themselves.
“They see themselves as too anarchic. They are not interested in shape.
“But I am an old man – perhaps someone younger would see it differently!”
While Mr Walcott’s name is known worldwide, he by no means enjoys the wealth or fame that a pop musician, film director or even a Brit Art painter might expect.
Performance poets such as Colchester’s Luke Wright have raised the profile of the art form, but few could honestly say they rush home from work to get stuck in to a sonnet. Does it matter – and does Mr Walcott think we would benefit from reading more verse?
His reply to this is to say “existence is not political,” which I take to mean that if people don’t want to read poems, that’s up to them.
But he adds it is not true to say non-poetry readers do not have poetry in their lives.
“People who don’t read poems still enjoy all aspects of poetry, perhaps from songs they remember from childhood,” he said.
“The best songs are poems – by people like Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen.
“There are excellent folk songs, pseudo folk songs, for example by James Taylor, which all follow the shape of poetry.”
So if poetry’s not your bag, just listen to music.
But if you do fancy dipping your toe in the water (sorry, another cliche) you could do a lot worse than to seek out a volume by Derek Walcott.