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Up In The Rare Air: Class With Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott, winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, shown here at a news conference in Mexico City, April 1, 2014. Walcott, known for capturing the essence of his native Caribbean, died early Friday, March 17, 2017, on the island of St. Lucia. (Berenice Bautista/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Derek Walcott, winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, shown here at a news conference in Mexico City, April 1, 2014. Walcott, known for capturing the essence of his native Caribbean, died early Friday, March 17, 2017, on the island of St. Lucia. (Berenice Bautista/AP)

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We’d do imitations of Derek. Everyone did. We’d try to capture the full lilt and St. Lucian thunder that came out in his voice when he found our work, as he so frequently found our work, “irri-TAYT-ing” and “infuri-AAA-ting.” He could be a terror, but — we were aware at every moment — a brilliant terror. He lived in a place we never knew existed. We might have heard about the passions of poets, of Yeats and Pound and Robert Graves and Eliot, but we did not expect someone in our presence to be living in that sacred space. We did not expect to have the sense that he would defend his spiritual land — the kingdom of poetry — to the death against the slightest affront. Every class was a battle for him. If he thought you were giving less than your best, you were dead. You were most likely dead anyway, but in a way that carved away the lies in your work and left only the little bit of truth that was there, the one good line or moment on which you could build.

Derek had far more faith in us as writers than we had in ourselves. Even the most withering critiques could be lined with favor. “There are too many good lines here!” he said in exasperation to a classmate. “I don’t want 20 poignant lines! It’s too much! I want six! Only six!” Craft, discipline, editing were the tools that would set the words free, if only we could be as tough with ourselves as he was.

We might have heard about the passions of poets, of Yeats and Pound and Robert Graves and Eliot, but we did not expect someone in our presence to be living in that sacred space.

The thing that was hardest of all to understand, at least for me, was his praise. The first time I presented, there were the usual interruptions, the usual insistence on precision, that I needed to know exactly how many sounds in the dark would happen before the curtain rose. “Three? Five? Four?” It was an experimental piece for me, with a couple in distress on one side of the stage and a space-walking, dreaming astronaut on the other. He let it finish. “Do you … hear music when you write?” Derek asked me. I couldn’t understand what he meant. Did I play music in the background when I wrote? Sometimes. He asked me again and I couldn’t quite answer. Then he said, “Well. It’s 'Hills Like White Elephants,' that’s what it is.” To my shame, I didn’t even know the Hemingway story, didn’t realize that one Nobel laureate was comparing my couple of pages of uncontrolled words and imagery to another.

Then he showed me how to stage it properly, and how to harness the power that only he could see within it. I honestly felt as if he had lifted me up by the scruff of the neck and pulled me up through a rip in the sky to another place. 'Here,' he seemed to be saying, 'here’s where we work, the poets, the playwrights. This is the playing field. Take a look around, breathe the air.' And then my time was done, and he plunked me back down on earth. 'Now it’s your job,' was the sense I got from him, 'to get back there on your own.'

I honestly felt as if he had lifted me up by the scruff of the neck and pulled me up through a rip in the sky to another place. 'Here,' he seemed to be saying, 'here’s where we work, the poets, the playwrights.'

I got out of there and headed toward home on my bike as usual. I rode around the back of the building, maybe one block, before I stopped the bike, got off and began to sob for the validation. Later, turning it all over, I came back to his question and thought about it. Well, yes. Maybe that was music I was hearing when I wrote. I’d never noticed.

The last thing Derek said to me came at the end of the year, as I slumped in an audience seat, despondent over the state of my thesis play. I felt a sharp slap to my knees. “Posture! You’re a playwright.” And because he said it, it was, therefore, true.

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Bill Lattanzi Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Bill Lattanzi is a writer and video producer/editor in Boston.

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