Friday, February 28, 2014

Teju Cole on Derek Walcott's Astonishing Poetry

Derek Walcott
Chris Felver
Getty Images (2000)

The Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole offers a useful reminder of The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013 in his review, "Poet of the Caribbean" (New York Times, February 21, 2014), though Cole opens with a somewhat perplexing paragraph:
"Writing poetry is an unnatural act," Elizabeth Bishop once wrote. "It takes skill to make it seem natural." The thought is kin to the one John Keats expressed in an 1818 letter to his friend John Taylor: "If Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all." Bishop and Keats both evoked a double sense of "natural": that which is concerned with nature, with landscape, flora and fauna, and that which is unforced and fluent. In both senses, Derek Walcott is a natural poet.
I find this perplexing because Bishop's observation doesn't imply that the writing of poetry "is unforced and fluent," rather that such skill makes poetry seem so! But let that be. Cole is surely right about Walcott -- he makes poetry seem so easy . . . and yet, constantly so amazing, as in this passage from "White Egrets":
The perpetual ideal is astonishment.
The cool green lawn, the quiet trees, the forest
on the hill there, then, the white gasp of an egret sent
sailing into the frame then teetering to rest
That "white gasp" is so perfect, for not only Walcott and his readers gasp at the image, the egret's own abrupt appearance is itself a sudden gasp in the otherwise silent scene. Even Walcott's very poetry was like a gasp in my life when I discovered him sometime in the mid-eighties upon reading a review of Omeros in the International Herald Tribune, wherein merely a few quoted lines from that epic poem astonished me! I therefore bought the book and read it slowly, carefully, intensely.

As Cole in his review says, "Walcott did not fail" continually to surprise.

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