Derek Walcott and the Poetry of Liberalism

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An Op-Ed piece by Adam Kirsch for the New York Times.

The death last week of Derek Walcott, at the age of 87, brought an end to one of the longest and most splendid careers in English-language poetry. It was an ending Mr. Walcott himself had been thinking about for decades. “I imagine my absence,” he wrote in his book “The Bounty,” and he took a sort of comfort in knowing that this absence would make no difference to nature: “the shadows returning exactly some May as they ought,/but with the seam of air I inhabited closed.”

In a larger sense, too, the passing of Mr. Walcott feels like the closing of an era. For he was the last survivor of a group of three poets who, in the late 20th century, exerted an unparalleled moral influence on American letters, even though — or perhaps because — they were not American. Mr. Walcott, Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney each won the Nobel Prize in Literature in the 1990s. They came from very different backgrounds: Mr. Brodsky grew up in a Jewish household in what was then Leningrad, Mr. Heaney was from Northern Irish farm country and Mr. Walcott was born on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, where he died.

But all three poets spent a significant part of their lives in the United States, teaching at American colleges and becoming well known in the world of American poetry, where they were larger-than-life figures. It was not just that they were poets of genius; American poetry has had its share of those, as well. What set them apart was their intimate experience of history, and the lessons they drew from it about the close connection between poetry and freedom.

Mr. Walcott was one of the great postcolonial writers in English. He was born on an island that was still a British colony, and he had both white and black ancestry. His early work seethes with the effort to understand where, and whether, he belongs in English literature. “I who am poisoned with the blood of both,/Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” he asked. Mr. Heaney, who was born in Northern Ireland but lived as an adult in the Irish Republic, wrote at yet another of the British Empire’s bloody fault lines. And Mr. Brodsky, who spent years in a Soviet labor camp before escaping to the West, was pressed most closely of all by the ideologies of the 20th century.

It is because they were heirs to bitter and complex historical conflicts — over race and nation, empire and language — that these poets learned to treasure the dimension of human experience that is not historical. Mr. Heaney’s emblem of history was an ancient corpse dug up in an Irish bog, its throat slit in some act of ritual or revenge: “the actual weight/of each hooded victim,/slashed and dumped.” But in his poem “To Urania,” Mr. Brodsky observed that Urania, the Greek muse of astronomy, is older than Clio, the muse of history. However overpowering history may seem, nature is prior, and more permanent. No wonder that all three poets wrote so lovingly about the natural world — none more so than Mr. Walcott, whose imagery of island life is pervasive, saturating: “I was fluent as water,/I would escape/with the linear elation of the eel.”

Still, these poets flourished here because there was a deep compatibility between their poetics of freedom and our tradition of liberty. America honored itself in honoring these immigrant artists, and in learning from them what freedom means. To close our borders, or our minds, to the next generation of such artists — as Donald Trump’s America now threatens to do — would be to forfeit one of the truest sources of American greatness.

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