My relationship with poetry is very off and on. Besides required poetry readings in Freshman english, it was a rare occurrence for me to cross paths with poetry in high school. One instance where poetry and I did come together happened in the fall of my senior year.
I had developed a crush on this uber-brainy girl in my grade. In an effort to spend time with her and show her I had more to me than being a sports obsessed political junkie, I attended a meeting of the school’s poetry club. In my mind’s planning, I’d attend, keep my mouth shut, be attentive, and leave having said nothing that would reveal me for the scamster I was.
As it was, the Poetry Club met in the school’s library. As I showed up and took a seat, I was quickly reassessing the thought process that had brought me to this juncture. It would only get worse. There might have been a few poems read at the beginning of the meeting or not. All I remember is the faculty advisor posing a question to the group at large: Who is your favorite poet?
Sounds like an innocuous question, but I quickly realized my seat location towards the end of the circle doomed me as the old stand-bys quickly went off the board. My mind was scrambling. And then it was my turn. As if it were yesterday, I still remember saying, “My favorite poet is Bob Dylan’s favorite poet: Smokey Robinson.” Now a Poetry Club is a pretty quiet group as it is, but even their silence at that moment was deafening.
Uncertain how to respond at this out of left field response, the group kept going around the circle. I don’t remember anything else from the meeting, except that was the last time I show up at the Poetry Club. And my love of Smokey Robinson, the man who wrote Tears of a Clown, got me nowhere with said girl. Fitting.
I share this with you all not for purposes of catharsis but as a humble nod to my inexperience with poetry. This inexperience, I fear, if not put into proper context, could make the following, my review of a collection of poems by Derek Walcott seem facile, sophomoric, or even trite.
White Egrets is Derek Walcott’s 14th collection of poems. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992, Walcott’s poems offer a glimpse into the world seen as it was and currently is by an artist who knows his best days are behind him. Aware that what is in front of him is limited, the poems are more than just a collection, they represent a journey and a transformation.
Walcott hones in on this theme through various topics. Always close to Walcott’s thoughts is his home of St. Lucia as well as the titular bird. Those egrets, whose name is one letter off from the word regrets, appear throughout the poems. In the poem, The Acacia Tree, Walcott reveals the transformations St. Lucia has undergone in the name of attracting tourists.
From what St. Lucia used to be to the long dead British Empire, the theme of changes at home (St. Lucia) and glorious pasts lost (the British) are shown to the reader. While the theme stays the same, it is Walcott’s tone that changes. By the end of the collection he has come to embrace his old age and in some ways, his fate.
A recurring feature in the collection is suites or poems penned in tribute to his experiences in cities and places across the globe, from Barcelona and Sicily to New York and Amsterdam. I couldn’t help but smile as Walcott writes of my home city, ” Everybody is New York is in a sitcom.” His descriptions of these places make the locations jump off the page.
From the opening poems, the specter of death is present in odes to fallen friends, including the playwright of August Wilson. As we travel with Walcott and revisit the places of his youth and the loves he lost, the poet also shares new hopes and realizations that have been revealed to Walcott in his old age.
Subjectively speaking as a poetry luddite, I liked a good many of the poems found in White Egrets. But two stand out. In the first, Walcott encounters a past lover from his youth, now both ravaged by old age, she in a wheelchair, at an airport. There is a simple beauty in the description of this interaction. In the other, Walcott, who is also a painter, describes the realization that he not only never reached the heights of a Picasso or Bacon, but he also invites the reader into how it feels to be an artist who senses they are losing control over their craft as old age’s power increases. It is this honesty, found throughout the collection, that makes Derek Walcott a poet I wish I’d knew of in high school.