derek walcott

Derek Walcott stamp

The following piece appears as part of the month-long series “Conscientious Conceptualism and Poetic Practice” on the blog, curated by guest editor Andy Verboom.

1. I am responsible to others and responsible for my words.

This is one thing I learned from late-great formalist poet Derek Walcott—despite his best pulpit thunder on the poet’s “responsibility to the word”—and it’s a lesson that has come to inform my understanding of Conceptual poetics.

Since Walcott’s death in March, many articles celebrating his impact as a teacher of poetic craft have taken the anecdotal mode. Bert Almon’s tribute in The Walrus—recalling Walcott’s annual six-week stints as Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Alberta between 2009 and 2012—is the most objective such celebration I’ve seen. Almon’s rapid-fire vignettes and slight commentary form a pointillist or gestural image of Walcott-the-teacher, but he nevertheless frames it as a portrait of an old-guard genius bucking “the orthodoxy” of the 21st-century creative writing seminar.

The “orthodox” seminar format, Almon writes, “can encourage committee-built works—pleasing to everyone in the workshop, but not necessarily challenging.” This is such a commonplace diagnosis of post-secondary creative writing workshops that to say it’s commonplace is itself commonplace. (E.g., see Jeremy Hanson-Finger’s sharp critique of complaints against ‘workshop fiction’ or Kevin Kvas and Phoebe Wang’s back and forth about ‘workshop poetry’.) I can’t speak to workshop morbidity rates, at least not from a place of experience, because the only creative writing course I took during my decade in and out of universities was the first course that Almon and Walcott co-taught at the U of A. With credit to Walcott, the course certainly didn’t stink of committee.

Walcott’s generosity, as Almon reports it, seemed in short supply in the fall of 2009. Each of his sonorous monologues on rhyme and meter began with a sharp, pre-emptory dismissal of alternative poetics. Each of his rhetorical questions was marked, as with an italicized period, by prophylactic exasperation. After conceiving an assignment on the spot and declining, when asked, to provide any guidelines, he despised the results enough to ask our class, as Almon recounts, whether we were all “ignorant” or all “arrogant.” (But isn’t it difficult to answer the author of a scene when he’s asking the wrong rhetorical question?) His “praise was rare,” yes, but this inflation of value through scarcity is a mundane central premise of capital and emotional manipulation.

It’s possible—it’s certainly easier, and for that reason it’s professionally advisable—to look back on this with good humour and with gratitude for a stern education. But if Walcott’s irritability was exceptional that semester, there was a probable source other than pedagogy. In May of the same year, he had withdrawn his candidacy for Oxford University’s Professor of Poetry position after what he termed “a low and degrading attempt at character assassination,” what his supporters considered a “smear campaign,” but what others still consider an important reminder not only of his sustained sexual harassment of a Harvard student in the 1980s but of the fact that he had refused to even address, never mind apologize for, the harassment.

… maybe poetry workshops of every description breed some inexorable bureaucratic malignancy—but I’m not convinced that the redeemer appears in the guise of a dictatorial bully.

I can’t remember if I was aware of the Oxford ‘smear’ at the time. (I hope I was: being unaware would betray irresponsibility of a kind. I hope I wasn’t: being aware would betray complicity of another kind.) I bring it up for three reasons. First, Walcott’s disdain for being confronted by this reminder speaks to his sense of the proper place of poets’ egos in the writing and reading of poetry. Second, this reminder did not discourage the U of A from courting him—nor I and other poets, some more established, from attending his court—which speaks to the basis of his own ego in a poetry culture built largely on the admiration of poets as individuals. Finally, I want to acknowledge that—in a material way, regardless of my awareness—I was able to take a course under Walcott because he sexually harassed (and assaulted) other students and because his reputation as an admirable poet wasn’t significantly revised to account for his dangerous irresponsibility both toward other people and for his words.

What later, extracurricular workshops have taught me is that earnestly seeking feedback requires developing a sense of responsibility. That translating feedback into revision options requires developing empathy. And that learning how to evaluate and disregard feedback requires ‘merely’ developing self-assurance. (For some, this means cultivating self-assurance in new soil while, for others, this means pruning back or hacking down an overgrown hedge of self-importance inherited along with factors like skin colour, gender expression, and class background. Both are labour-intensive.)

Maybe I’m fooling myself—maybe poetry workshops of every description breed some inexorable bureaucratic malignancy—but I’m not convinced that the redeemer appears in the guise of a dictatorial bully. Holding hands around a campfire may not be your thing (it’s certainly not mine), but how do you benefit, exactly, from being scolded by a PE teacher for not knowing the rules of a sport that exists entirely inside his own head?

2. If free verse is tennis without the net, then a poetics without ethics is tennis without the ball.

It seems to me that Walcott’s vision of poetry was that of a very peculiar sport. In it, there are no beautiful matches. There are no necessary matches—no matches that should, for the sake of some of us or all of us, be played. There are only beautiful players, beautiful educations, beautiful swings, and a horde of philistines in the stands.

‘All art is conspicuous technique.’ As he returned to this axiom each week, he began to mean not only that any art is defined by craft but also that art is reducible to the impressiveness of the artist’s skill.

When I read of Walcott’s death, I dug out my notes from that 2009 course. According to my younger self, Walcott espoused a poetics of meter and versification, craft and admiration. It was decidedly ‘Formalist’ in its practice—and, by capitalizing this, I mean to name a poetic practical complement to New Criticism’s methods. In this Formalist poetics, it was poets who were to be admired rather than poems: “disciplined verse” served to demonstrate a poet’s mastery of “craft” and so to engender admiration of the poet. On the first day of class, Walcott declared, “All art is conspicuous technique.” As he returned to this axiom each week, he began to mean not only that any art is defined by craft but also that art is reducible to the impressiveness of the artist’s skill.

Only trying to be admirable was admirable. (Except when, on rare occasions, Walcott found a poet’s not trying to be admirable to be admirable, as Thomas Hardy in “The Voice”). Reflexivity and self-interrogation—or, in his terms, trying not to be admirable—was right out of consideration. Apparently, so was ideological investigation of medium, of language, of poetic form—distractions, as he put it, from “going for the big metrical effect.” As if the barbs and placebos and glitches and bullshit of words were not the responsibility of poets.

Here is the crux: Walcott was vociferous about the poet’s “responsibility to the word,” a phrase I find both in Almon’s Walrus piece and repeated, week to week, in my course notes. The dimensions of this responsibility seemed informed by Walcott’s consideration, as he relates in his Paris Review interview of 1986, of poetry as “a religious vocation” and the poet as capable of—as most capable when—transcending “history.” His “responsibility to the word” was like fealty to a god above all others. He taught us a refusal to inherit the debts accrued by poetry’s past, even as he insisted we claim the debtors as literary forebears.

As Walcott walked our class across Hart Crane’s The Bridge—praising at one point how Crane took “the rhythm of Indian drumming into his pentameter” and at another how he created a rhythm that “runs like a train across the country”—a few students confronted him about Crane’s imperialist rhetoric. In his transhistorical account of the settlement and development of the US, for instance, Crane feminizes American landscapes, metaphorizes exploration as penetration, and so figures settlement as natural consummation—a common series of tropes that blends colonialism and sexism as if to justify each through the other.

Walcott’s furious response: “This is the way poetry has always been. This is the way poetry is. Poets feminize the landscape.” It was in class and to us that Walcott repeated, as Almon reports in his version of this anecdote, “You’ve ruined one of my favourite poems” and “You white people cherish your guilt.” He ended class an hour early.

This is what comes to mind when Almon recounts Walcott saying, “‘every art contains moral strength, and moral strength means narrative strength.’” I understand this to mean that all art forms are potentially “moral”—and if an artwork is “moral,” we can know it through an external sign: how well crafted the artwork is. As a dictum or utopianism, that’s rather difficult to argue with. (Who wouldn’t want ethical art to be aesthetically exceptional—and the converse, unethical art to be blasé?) But it’s a dangerous notion when craft is considered the only litmus test for morality. Walcott, in his prioritization of craft, seemed to teach just that. What’s worse, he seemed enthusiastic about reversing cause and effect, about committing a fallacy of the converse by flipping ‘moral art is well crafted’ into ‘well crafted art is moral.’ This sacrificing of ethical concerns for the sake of teaching artistic craft doesn’t make one a refreshingly no-bullshit teacher. It makes one an exhaustingly unethical teacher.

His ‘responsibility to the word’ was like fealty to a god above all others. He taught us a refusal to inherit the debts accrued by poetry’s past, even as he insisted we claim the debtors as literary forebears.

Take this pedagogical gem from another paean for Walcott: “‘The problem with students … is that they’re not taught love.’ I said, ‘In life, you mean?’ And he said, ‘In poetry.’” As if poetry were the place where love begins.

3. The boomerang effect can turn bad education into good.

This is all very easy to write because, in agonistic terms, Formalism (or practical New Criticism) is a toothless old dog. It hounded a Romanticism whose twitching half-life in university classrooms is now little more than a dead cat bounce. Formalism’s grand strategic declarations are now basically dad jokes, though formal practices developed during the mid-20th century—deprivatized, to a degree; disassembled into a bank of tactics; softened to the descriptivism, frankly, of New Formalism—still pervade “orthodox” poetic education.

derek walcott

“The Boomerang Effect” from xkcd comics

Considering Formalism through Walcott, though, has made it easier for me to think directly about this messy big-C Conceptualism. About how Conceptualism hounds what it purports to be a big-L Lyric poetry and displace the lyric “I” through uncreative practices, as Formalism purported to displace Romantic ego (what of it had survived Modernism) through a focus on craft. How Conceptualism’s impulsion toward sensationalism echoes the Formalist compulsion toward impressiveness. How Conceptualism’s responsibility to the mundane ‘concept’ above all else and others (or, as Karissa Larocque puts it, to structure above content) echoes the Formalist responsibility to the divine ‘word’ above all else and others (or form above context). How Conceptualism and Formalism can treat a poet’s language as immediate (as not the proper medium of poetry or as un-pre-mediated, respectively). How both can treat a poet’s others as distractions from the project of selflessness.

The large-scale strategies of both Formalism and Conceptualism, in their campaigns to valuate or devaluate poetic conventions, can foster active disregard for how language functions discursively both within and beyond poetry. In their linguistic and social irresponsibility, both Formalism and Conceptualism can act as launderers for egoism, as platforms for shouting, in Stephen Collis’s joking terms, “‘[S]ee, I did this practice to erase myself. Come see me erasing myself!’” (Take Christian Bök’s Xenotext project as the exemplar of the egoism of both strategies. A. M. Juster does a fine job of contextualizing Bök’s egoism as irresponsibility.) Conceptualism, uniquely, encourages poets to print rebel capital on the blank sheets of their privilege.

In their linguistic and social irresponsibility, both Formalism and Conceptualism can act as launderers for egoism …

If the “orthodoxy” of poetic education, a mix of lyric and formal practices, confers a terrible historical malignancy—self-contentedness blended with obsolescence—I’m still not convinced that the redeemer appears in the guise of a well-heeled libertarian. You might think I’m skeptical of messianic strategies generally, but it’s more that I’m generally skeptical of strategies. As many have elucidated (in more detail than I could give and with more at stake than I could have), Conceptualism’s grand strategies are not harmless. Neither were Formalism’s. Thinking back to those six weeks writing under Walcott, I take little solace in knowing that Conceptualism might, one day, be merely a tool of temporary humiliation wielded by giant old men, its strategies decades beyond salvage, its best practices already deployed to too many other, conflicting ends. But I’m not content to wait quietly for Conceptualism to fade, sigh, and curl up in the hospice. (Or, if Conceptualism is already dead or extinct, then I’m not content to wait for the period of polite mourning to pass.)

Egoism keeps finding new disguises. Efforts to temporarily humiliate repeat into a permanent shaming. Abuses of authority keep fleeing from one poetic movement to the next. So a poetics of responsibility to others is also responsible for seizing practices from organized poetic movements and figuring out how to do those practices more ethically. It is responsible, through that seizure, for hastening the disintegration of decidedly irresponsible poetics. And so it could be responsible for engaging in something like conscientious conceptualism.

4. If I am responsible to the poets I value, I am at least as responsible for them.

The paeans keep piling up, so maybe Walcott’s reputation really is beyond reproach. Maybe his “two faces” really were limited to “‘tough teacher’” and “‘generous’” teacher—his authority that of bad cop and good cop, ever unimpeachable as the police. Or maybe holding his reputation beyond the reach of social criticism protects his contributions to literatures. Maybe it protects ‘the literature’ so shaped by his contributions. Maybe every last bit of him must be transmuted to gold so that, for the duration of another poet’s long funeral march, we can put off facing our own complicities in the endangering aspects of poetry and poetry communities. We benefit when we choose this religious responsibility to ‘the greats’ rather than a responsibility for them.

… a poetics of responsibility to others is also responsible for seizing practices from organized poetic movements and figuring out how to do those practices more ethically. It is responsible, through that seizure, for hastening the disintegration of decidedly irresponsible poetics.

You may deeply value Walcott’s poetry, you may have benefitted from his teaching, or you may respect Walcott the person—in which case I respect that value, that experience, and that respect. But if you champion the value of Walcott’s contributions to literatures, then you should be willing to take on a responsibility for him—to own up to acts he wouldn’t and to acknowledge the seedy undersides of his words.

It may be, as Almon implies in his Walrus piece, that “providing students with ‘a safe place to write’” can be more anodyne than generative or educative. But if you celebrate that “Walcott offered students a dangerous place to write,” I think you conflate risking ourselves in our writing with endangering others, both discursively and socially. The problems of boring poetry cannot be resolved through irresponsible writing practices.

Andy Verboom is from subrural Nova Scotia and lives in London, ON, where he organizes Couplets, a collaborative poetry reading series, and edits Word Hoard, a journal of creative and academic dialogues. His poetry has won Descant’s Winston Collins Prize for Best Canadian Poem, been shortlisted for Arc’s Poem of the Year, and appeared in Arc, CV2, BafterC, The Puritan, and Vallum. His chapbooks are Tower (Anstruther, 2016), Full Mondegreens (Frog Hollow, 2016), and Orthric Sonnets (Baseline, 2017).

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