I heard Derek Walcott read at the 92nd St Y last night (and ran into some poets from NYU I met at Calabash back in May, including Dante Micheaux). The British poet Glyn Maxwell introduced Walcott, and I have to say Maxwell gave one of the best introductions I’ve ever heard. His homage to the line (and though he spoke about rendering the line right in painting, he clearly meant the metaphor to poetry), and the squiggle vs. the line was spot on. Though your squiggle might look new and pleasurable at first, and spare you the headache of trying to capture the line, after a hundred years when everyone is doing squiggles, it’s no longer unique and you’re still left with the simple fact that there’s no greater power than being able to get that line right, even if your attempts end as more squiggles.
Walcott read mostly new work, and I quote “so you can mark the decline” which I hate to say I felt, especially in the sequences upon sequences of poems inspired by his European travels, where he seems to be spending most of his time these days. He even said “I never thought I’d say that” upon announcing “Here is a sequence of poems in Italy” and again about Spain, “I never thought I’d write a sequence about Spain” and then about England “this is a really show-off book.” But there are only so many poems written while on a train in Europe I can stand—it seems all too done before, not only by others, but by him in his recent books, most notably the disappointing The Prodigal. The St. Lucia poems were his best—“The Acacia Trees,” “The Sea Change” (about St. Lucian politics), “The Egrets” (which the program had a hand-written draft of for us to follow along, already revised in many spots, making it interesting to see how he reworked the final lines) and “St. Lucia” as were the numerous “For…” poems since “the older we get, the more we write elegies.”
His final two poems were striking—the penultimate about when he first came to New York and was exiting the subway, only to find everyone huddled on the stairs and not a soul on the Avenue above. He then realized it was a Cold War nuclear holocaust drill. The final lines were amusing: “it was no way to live no way to die / but if we were it was at least New York.” And the final poem, his famous “The Light of the World” which elicited gasps from the audience upon him uttering its final syllables.