Derek Walcott published his first poem at age 14 in 1944 (entitled, appropriately enough, “1944, ”); had self-published two volumes of poetry by age 19; and received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992. He was born in St. Lucia in the West Indies, been active in the theater (acting, directing, producing, playwriting), and currently divides his residence between New York City and St. Lucia.
Among other honors and accolades, he’s received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant; a Royal Society of Literature Award; the Queen’s Medal for Poetry; and an honorary membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Here’s what the poet Joseph Brodsky had to say about Walcott’s work: “For almost forty years his throbbing and relentless lines kept arriving in the English language like tidal waves, coagulating into an archipelago of poems without which the map of modern literature would effectively match wallpaper. He gives us more than himself or ‘a world’; he gives us a sense of infinity embodied in the language.”
For National Poetry Month, three by Derek Walcott:
Those five or six young guys
lunched on the stoop
that oven-hot summer night
whistled me over. Nice
and friendly. So, I stop.
MacDougal or Christopher
Street in chains of light.
A summer festival. Or some
saint’s. I wasn’t too far from
home, but not too bright
for a nigger, and not too dark.
I figured we were all
one, wop, nigger, jew,
besides, this wasn’t Central Park.
I’m coming on too strong? You figure
right! They beat this yellow nigger
black and blue.
Yeah. During all this, scared
on case one used a knife,
I hung my olive-green, just-bought
sports coat on a fire plug.
I did nothing. They fought
each other, really. Life
gives them a few kicks,
that’s all. The spades, the spicks.
My face smashed in, my bloddy mug
pouring, my olive-branch jacket saved
from cuts and tears,
I crawled four flights upstairs.
Sprawled in the gutter, I
remember a few watchers waved
loudly, and one kid’s mother shouting
like “Jackie” or “Terry, ”
“now that’s enough!”
It’s nothing really.
They don’t get enough love.
You know they wouldn’t kill
you. Just playing rough,
like young Americans will.
Still it taught me something
about love. If it’s so tough,
Broad sun-stoned beaches.
A green river.
scorched yellow palms
from the summer-sleeping house
drowsing through August.
Days I have held,
days I have lost,
days that outgrow, like daughters,
my harbouring arms.
A City’s Death by Fire
After that hot gospeller has levelled all but the churched sky,
I wrote the tale by tallow of a city’s death by fire;
Under a candle’s eye, that smoked in tears, I
Wanted to tell, in more than wax, of faiths that were snapped like wire.
All day I walked abroad among the rubbled tales,
Shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar;
Loud was the bird-rocked sky, and all the clouds were bales
Torn open by looting, and white, in spite of the fire.
By the smoking sea, where Christ walked, I asked, why
Should a man wax tears, when his wooden world fails?
In town, leaves were paper, but the hills were a flock of faiths;
To a boy who walked all day, each leaf was a green breath
Rebuilding a love I thought was dead as nails,
Blessing the death and the baptism by fire.
You can also hear Derek Walcott recite one of his poems, “A Lesson for This Sunday.”
Postings and News Updates:
The Academy of American Poets has a gallery for all of the posters it’s produced for National Poetry Month, going back to 1996.
The Academy also has a pretty cool “poetry map, ” or “Poem on the Range” – where you can map places in the United States via iconic poems and a multitude of links. I clicked on Missouri and found everything from famous poets born in Missouri (from Maya Angelou and Howard Nemerov to Eugene Field) to literary journals, small presses and poetry-friendly bookstores.
“Yet Another Heresy, ” poem written by Marcus Goodyear for National Poetry Month.
The Poem A Day for yesterday was Gerald Stern’s “Kissing Stieglitz Good-Bye.”