Derek Walcott, Old Master

by David W. Galenson Dr. David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009).

David W. Galenson, picture aboce.
Derek Walcott, picture in the text.
10.03.2014

Fortunately, Derek Walcott didn't study psychology. So he never had to read Harvey Lehman's claim that he was supposed to peak early -- "the golden decade for the writing of secular poetry occurs not later than the '20s" -- or Howard Gardner's belief that "lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age." Fortunately, Walcott knew better, and like a series of great modern poets he admired -- Thomas Hardy, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, and Joseph Brodsky among them -- his art developed gradually and powerfully as he grew older.

Psychologists might take a lesson from the writer Teju Cole, whose review of a new edition of Walcott's poems presents a succinct description of Walcott as an experimental poet, interested above all in making art based on perception -- the way things look:

He brought the patient and accretive sensibility of a realist painter to his poems. They are great piles of intoxicating description, always alert to the demands of meter and form, often employing rhyme or slant rhyme, great layers of adjectives firming up the noun underpainting.

Throughout his career, Walcott has explained that for him poetry was a vocation, and that his art had to grow organically out of his native surroundings:

I remained in the Caribbean... I didn't want to be in Europe and write poems about magnificent monuments. I just felt that you had to find not magnificence, but the reality of the beauty of your immediate surroundings... I knew that the poor people around me were not beautiful in the romantic sense of being colorful people to paint or write about. I lived, I have seen them and I have seen things that I don't need to go far to see. I felt that that was what I would write about. That's what I felt my job was.

As he grew older, Walcott saw his art evolve: "that's what I mean by finding at a certain age that one's tone is much more resigned, and less fussy, and probably humbler, than one imagines one would have been 20 or 30 years ago." At 55, he described himself as a craftsman: "I think of myself in a way as a carpenter, as one making frames, simply and well... I find myself wanting to write very simply cut, very contracted, very speakable and very challenging quatrains in rhymes." Two years later he spoke of his quest for simplicity: "I mean you wish to live to be 90 so you can try to be as clear as that in the effort." And at 60, he spoke of spending the past year in the almost accidental creation of Omeros, the epic poem that most critics consider his greatest achievement: "I just found myself doing it. I had no intention of setting off to write such a long thing, but it just kept coming... With luck this has been going very, very well. And luckily I've done a whole draft and a second draft now."

Teju Cole quotes another great experimental poet, Elizabeth Bishop, who observed that "Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes skill to make it seem natural." Harvey Lehman, Howard Gardner, and a succession of their fellow psychologists have completely failed to understand this skill, and the gradual and painstaking process by which great experimental poets have developed it. This is the loss of academic psychologists, and their sad failure to recognize or understand the creativity of old age. Fortunately, like Bishop, Hardy, and his other heroes, Derek Walcott fully understands this skill and this process. His poetry stands as a monument to the gradual maturation of a great experimental artist.

Picture in the text: Derek Walcott

First posted on the Huffington Post. Posted here with the kind permission of the author.

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