Kei Miller: In the Shadow of Derek Walcott


Kai Miller’s thoughts on Derek Walcott appeared in PNR. Here is an excerpt. For the complete essay click here.

I HAVE LABOURED, like all Caribbean poets of my generation (if not all Caribbean writers), under the shadow of Derek Walcott. I was not always aware of this. Maybe if I had been, I would also have been resentful. In time, though, I would learn the things important for any Caribbean poet to make a way in the world today – always to have a Walcott anecdote at hand for interviews; to answer questions about him; to accept that reviewers and critics would read as ‘Walcottian’ some image, some line that I had written; humbly to acknowledge some way, however tenuous, in which his poetry had influenced mine. It hadn’t, though. Not really. Still, in reading through his own interviews and essays I would often find that he had been there before me. He had already thought through some thought that I was presently struggling with. He had thought it through carefully and had articulated, in a way that profoundly resonated with me, what it meant to be a poet from the Caribbean, what it meant to speak one language while committing another to the page; even what it meant to be a boy watching the Caribbean sun go down, knowing there was a whole wide world out there, and still not to be intimidated by your own ambition.

Walcott had even lived in Jamaica for a few years. That was before I was born. Still, I like to imagine him on top of our Blue Mountains, hands outstretched like Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer, throwing his shadow across the entire Antilles – a shadow stretching across geography and time, across both future and history, a shadow so impressively large even poets who came before Walcott would sometimes seem to have grown up in it.
There is another sense that I have hinted at – perhaps the more important sense – in which I did not grow up in Walcott’s shadow. For this I am grateful. Writers have little choice in their shadows. We are drawn to the shades of great women and men, pulled into their areas of darkness as helplessly as moths are drawn to light. If we did get to choose I would give this advice: choose a shadow, a shade, large enough for you to grow, but not so large that you can never escape it.

Even to his death, the Trinidadian poet Wayne Brown never fully escaped the shadow of his mentor. For all Brown’s technical acumen, for all his metrical sophistication, for all the fact that he was possibly the most elegant Caribbean poet of his own generation, Brown was still seen as a protégé of Walcott – an incredibly gifted student, but always lesser than the master. It was through Wayne that I met Walcott that first time.

I was barely twenty years old. I had recently dropped out of University. Wayne had recently dropped out of Trinidad, so to speak. In Jamaica, his new country, he edited an arts supplement for one of the main newspapers. My first poems were published there. Wayne inveigled Walcott to come to Jamaica, or perhaps Walcott had already planned to be there and Wayne extracted a favour from him. Whatever the reason, one Saturday a group of Jamaican poets found itself at the Hilton Hotel in New Kingston, in a conference room where the a/c was set almost to freezing. We were to have a master-class with the master himself. I remember being struck by the blue-greenness of Walcott’s eyes, an aspect of sea perhaps, but also an aspect of ice.

At twenty, I still had the brashness of youth – more confidence than talent, too unread to know I hadn’t yet written a good poem. I was not quite the prodigy that Walcott was. I look back at those early poems and there was, at best, a musicality to them, and even my adolescent self knew to avoid clichés. Still, the poems lacked a sophistication of thought, and also an ambition of utterance.

I had taken a few of these poems with me to the Hilton and I imagined myself perhaps the way Walcott imagines himself in Another Life, a young painter walking with his work to the balding figure of Harold Simmons, the master, taking it and observing the work carefully, then lovingly correcting it. I imagined that Walcott might have seen something in my work – some spark of talent – and would welcome me into the kingdom.

Walcott never read my poems. Not then and perhaps to his death he never read them. We spent the first half of the workshop looking on the sixteen-line sonnets of George Meredith. Walcott swooned at the beauty of it all. An older, white-haired Jamaican poet tried, it seemed, to out-swoon Walcott. I was a little repulsed by the display.

In the second half it was time to look at each other’s work. Walcott chose a young poet whose name I cannot now remember. I remember however that while her poetic abilities were modest, her beauty was not, and Walcott’s focus was more than flirtatious but less than lecherous. And I envied her. Not being talented, beautiful or female, I could never earn Walcott’s attention. Next, we looked at a poem by Delores Gauntlett, a poet of considerable talents, but Walcott frowned at one of her lines. ‘You do realise,’ he said ‘that there is a grammatical error here.’ Delores nodded sheepishly – a half acknowledgment, a half apology.

I looked at the line in question but saw no error. It seemed to me that Walcott – the great man himself –
was misreading the thing, taking for a noun what Gauntlett had meant as a verb. I piped up. ‘But sir, there isn’t an error.’ The class erupted. Who was I to challenge a man so great! The laureate waved my comment away as one might wave away a mosquito. ‘I’m not asking you; I’m telling you,’ he said curtly, but I was near enough to lean over and explain my case. ‘I think you might be reading the poem in this way when instead it should be read this way. Don’t you see?’

I’m not sure that he did see. Without acknowledging me, he turned to the class. ‘Shall we move on to the next line?’ For years I took that as a strange kind of victory – how I had proven the aging poet’s fallibility, but I no longer trust my memory. I think, maybe he didn’t hear me at all, or maybe he really was right –
there was some obvious grammatical error that I had missed, and he was too impatient to take the time to explain it to me when everyone else understood.

So Walcott never read my poems, and I was not welcomed into the kingdom, though he did say something about them – kingdoms, that is. Perhaps it was the moment he was most annoyed that he had agreed to spend an evening in Jamaica, and in this manner, and with this lot. So he told us: ‘Poetry is not a democracy. It is a kingdom. Only some are welcome.’ And then he was gone, like the king riding atop a lovely horse, across the moat and into the castle. On the other side, we could only see the drawbridge being pulled up, the sun setting, and the shadows of the turrets falling over us like crowned omens.

2 thoughts on “Kei Miller: In the Shadow of Derek Walcott

  1. A candid reflection, Kei. Much has been said in private about DW’s attitude to writers and critics. I was present at a Blue Metropolis Literary Festival (Montreal) where he insulted the chair of the panel. Art is sometimes a way for humans to deal with psychic suffering. DW had his demons and they weren’t always contained within art. If we are lucky we’ll contain ours.

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