“In the fall of 1970, at the New School in Greenwich Village, a new teacher posted a flyer on the wall,” Alexander Neubauer writes in the introduction to Poetry in Person: 25 Years of Conversation with America’s Poets. “It read, ‘Meet Poets and Poetry, with Pearl London and Guests.’ Few students responded. No one knew Pearl London”—the daughter of M. Lincoln Schuster, the co-founder of Simon & Schuster, and a brilliant reader of poetry. “But the seminar’s first guests turned out to be John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich and Robert Creely. Soon Maxine Kumin followed, then W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and Galway Kinnell. London began asking all poets to send ahead original manuscripts of new poems for discussion. ‘If you can come,’ she wrote each of them, ‘I would appreciate you sending me any notes jotted down on the back of an envelope, or worksheets of any sort, even doodles. This is a course concerned essentially with the making of the poem, with the work in progress as process—with both the vision and the revision. In a sense, the shaping spirit of the imagination is what it is all about.'” Relying on a wonderful trove of audio tapes found in Pearl London’s closet in her apartment near Washington Square Park after her death in 2002, Neubauer has been able to recreate the remarkable classroom conversations she conducted, beginning with Maxine Kumin in 1973 and ending with Eamon Grennan in 1996—a sampling of American poets at work, during a period when our poetry was expanding in its variety and a powerful generation was coming of age. (Wherever possible, the interviews are interspersed with images of the poets’ drafts; see some of these drafts below in the Keep Clicking section of this email.)
In this sample from April, 1982 (condensed for the purposes of our email), London gets Derek Walcott talking about honesty in poetry and his Caribbean background, and coaxes him into a fascinating nuts-and-bolts discussion of how he built his poem “XLVIII” from Midsummer. If you click to listen, you can hear a portion of their discussion from the actual audiotape made in London’s classroom. (Watch throughout the month for further audio bonuses of London’s conversations with poets and readings from their drafts.)
Pearl London: In one of your classes, you said language must be as exact as describing an ashtray. When I read that I thought about "Sunday Lemons" [from Sea Grapes, 1976] and that wonderful line, "as the afternoon vagues / into indigo," and I thought, what marvelous exactment I hear there. Is it in the music? Is it in the metaphor? Is it in the rhythm that moves as the line moves?
Derek Walcott: This is going to be very detailed, what I’m going to say: I don’t like that line anymore.
I think the pitch of a line is where one tests the honesty of a poet, and by honesty one doesn’t mean a moral honesty. The strange thing about poetry that makes it survive and makes it immortal is that somehow in the language of the mind of any race—West Indian, American, Falkland Islands, anywhere language is spoken—what survives is that reality, that vibration that happens differently to millions and millions of people over generations, and that is where the validity of the thing is.
I’m not making any claim, all I’m saying is that when I heard [you repeat] the line, "as the afternoon vagues/ into indigo," I didn’t remember that I’d written it. I looked at it outside, just as any writer or any painter is entitled to look at a passage of a painting and say, In this little bit here, I am being a little rhetorical. I am heating up the poem or the painting to a pitch where I know I can do it, but what I’m doing is dishonest in the sense that I’m using one extra key, one extra note up, one extra pitch up that is not true to the harmony, or maybe the modesty, of what is being painted…
The whole point of effectiveness is where the honesty of a line of poetry lies. Somebody said of Wordsworth that he used plain words instead of the right ones. That is also true in many ways of writers like William Carlos Williams, who insists too much on a modesty of American speech, whereas poetry is not only concerned with the modesty of speech, no more than it is concerned only with the rhetorical attitude to speech.
What is wrong with that verb "vagues" to me here is, if I looked hard enough at it, this is what happens: Here we have three chunks. The blocks are "afternoon," "vagues," "indigo"—in which the last stroke, like a Degas, should be a blur, right? And should not be a reality…The verb is magnetic and it’s a little over-magnetic here, because the extra touch of saying "indigo" somehow hits a note that’s a little too affected for me. It’s pitched a little too high…
London: When we move into your poem "North and South" in The Fortunate Traveller , we move away from "Sainte Lucie" [in Sea Grapes, 1976] and that use of language. I think it’s very crucial.
Walcott: Well, honestly, I have two kinds of experiences that run through me. One is simple, the life I lead on the Islands. And of course [the other is] the metropolitan New York and Boston experiences. For each experience, there’s almost a language that runs along like the sound of traffic or the meter or beat of a city or a metropolis, you know, that Hart Crane tried rhythmically to capture…
Reason is the god in cities. Time dominates logic and reason, conversation and life. It’s a polysyllabic existence that doesn’t confront certain numinous experiences, such as boat, sea, tree. The reduction of the relationship of the experience is not superior in a metropolis, in fact I think it is inferior…We have to be very careful that we aren’t insulted, or we don’t insult ourselves, by using language defined by the metropolis to define us. In other words, when people tell me I come from a "primal," which I now use instead of "primitive," society, that’s fine with me. Backwards societies of course have what is great in them, and that is the numinous, the household gods, the immediate—all these things have more presence.
To me the West Indies is a beginning society, very exhilarating with all its faults, and I do feel, as the whole world feels, that it’s possible, quite possible, that Western civilization is probably suicidal in its direction, and there’s no doubt that one is playing with a loaded revolver and that we live in this despair. I’m in the position where if I write a poem like "North and South," I am then entering the echo of that rhetoric in a language that I can address it to. When I am writing "Sainte Lucie" I am talking very simply to tree, sea, stone, person.
London: [Critic] Denis Donoghue, when talking about The Fortunate Traveller, said, "Derek Walcott wants to bring back heroes. He is a mythmaker." Mythmaker in the very good sense, in the sense of an enlarging context, which is what I think "North and South" does, bringing in larger and more universal context.
Walcott: The Caribbean has been looked at since Trollope as a place that has no heroes, no background, no nothing. And the answer to this is very simple: we are taught in history that trash came to the Caribbean. White convicts— trash—people from India—trash—niggers from Africa—trash—Sephardic Jews—trash—Chinese—trash. You gave us all our trash. This makes the best kind of trash fire, you light a trash fire, see what happens.
What is really true is, you have not the weakest people, you have the strongest kind of person, because to endure the Middle Passage, to be in the hole of a ship among the shit and the pain and the sores and survive how many weeks of this, and to land on a place in America, a new world, and survive that, that is not weakness. That is formidable, physical endurance.
Now I’m not talking about morals, I’m just talking about the lies in history that you look at and were taught as a child that it takes you all your life to wipe out. All I’m describing, and I’ve never spoken in such detail before about things, is that, whether it’s a line of a poem I began to check out for the truth, or the history of that truth, the language, all it has to do with, I think, is severity and honesty. Remorseless honesty.
London: We would like to keep you a few more minutes, if you have that time [to discuss "XLVIII"] ….
Walcott: If you want me to stay, I will. When I was asked to do this, about this succession of drafts, I thought, really, I don’t want to show how I proceed through a poem. And then I thought, really, honestly, it might be interesting. I’ve never done this before. Please do me a favor, when you leave this room, don’t tell anybody, OK? [Laughter]…
OK, I’ll tell you the background [of "XLVIII"].
I just got married again recently—don’t applaud. [Laughter] For the third time. But in a sense, I’m 52 and I thought, Well, wait a minute, life may be divided into thirds, let’s say one marriage, second marriage, third marriage: Act I, Act 2, Act 3…
And somehow I thought of the start. It may have been the light from somewhere. I keep trying to write poems that would be transparent, in which the light would be there. But you see, you have to name the light, right? The Japanese do it: "Bam! Light!" That’s the ideograph, the image. The light I was talking about was an afternoon light, and when I thought of light I thought of panes of light, I thought of shapes of light. I thought maybe of corners of Renaissance paintings where on the side you see a light that is on a cliff…
That kind of light is a last light, it’s not sunset, it is like a late afternoon light that is not harsh and may make a lot of shadows but has a particular clarity, like in the Tropics maybe about four-thirty, five o’clock. And I thought, that’s what Sophocles and "The Tempest" have: these masterpieces have a light that is very calm and is the end of a day, end of a time, an end of the world.
This is very close to me as an image because you see this all the time in the Tropics; you see it everywhere when I’m in my own place, in the late afternoon light, when the bugs collect, and the sanderling, which is a sandpiper turned white in winter and come from a long, long distance.
And so I thought I saw this light and I thought, somehow, if this is a third of my life, let me see, let me very frightenedly put down what’s beginning: and the first line is written.
"In life’s last third, the tempest." And now I’m beginning to build it. I don’t know if it’s the end or the beginning, but it’s there at the beginning. Then you’ve got, "As the orange light…" then "Washes the precipices sways the gold-berried kelp." Take out the "gold." And then for some reason the next line I have is: "Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso." Then it falls apart. I stop…
So what we have [so far] is:
In life’s last third, the tempest, as the orange light
washes the precipices, sways gold-berried kelp,
Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso.
There’s some weight in that "one, two, three," some idea of acts, some idea of the theater, some idea of Prospero leaving, and some idea of the light. So one line that’s there, and this may be a little later: "Holds up his lightning rod. Farewell, farewell"—in brackets. "Farewell farewell," my God, this is very Shakespearian. And then I have: "The gaunt master" in another place—terrible— "hurls down his lightning rod and watches the scepter roll in the sucked wave and the pebbled shell."
O.K., this is not going well. [Laughter]
So another day, big deal, I get up and I say, "I have it"—and what is it? Light. It’s all I have, light…
So I go back to light and then I have, "Dry ochre cliffs in the slanted afternoon." The whole line comes, "Dry ochre cliffs"—ochre is the yellow ochre—I begin to see where I am now, the cliffs are dry and the slant of light across the face of the cliff. "Dry somnolent shallows where the exhausted…" —I was feeling exhausted—"surf," but no, [instead] "abandoned scepter." "Abandoned scepter" is Prospero’s rod.
Now this is a habit that I think all poets have. As soon as you put down a word that’s challenging, you say, I’m going to get a rhyme for this mother—excuse me—for this thing. "Scepter." OK, scepter’s over here—[trying to rhyme it], "kept her, leapt her?" You know, you’re doing this thing, and you’ve got to get back to "scepter."
Why? Why bother? Well, a rhyme is harmony. A couplet to me encloses the word. It is the truth. And, you know, it is that concluding circle that makes rhyme reality, right? The necessity of rhyme is a philosophical, organic necessity. When Milton can dismiss rhyme, it’s [only] after he wrote Lycidas. He said, "I don’t need this stuff anymore." It’s like Charlie Parker not playing "Melancholy Baby" or Ornette Coleman, you don’t ask him to play "When the Saints Go Marching In."
Dry ochre cliffs in the slanting afternoon,
And somnolent shallows where the dead scepter spins.
So now I’ve faked it, now I have "spins" at the end of the line, but I want "scepter." And then: "Elevation into print," I don’t know what happened, suddenly I’ve thought of Auden’s face: "Elevation into crinkled waterless rock like a sage’s face."
Then I have the "sanderlings." Now I realize immediately I’m preceded by Shakespeare’s line, "chase the ebbing Neptune and defy him when he comes back." I can’t compete with that. There’s Bishop’s terrific poem about sandpipers also. But I can’t help it. I saw the birds so I’m going to put them in.
So I have: "The sanderlings"—next line—"Spitted down to ground and picked…" "Like a flame lowered, the sail goes out on the horizon." Now I have an idea: somehow the light on the cliff is a reflection of a smaller light of a ship going out or a sail caught in the light that somehow is connected to the light on the cliff’s edge. I have:
"The sanderlings skitter after with surf and pick with quick white stabs of shellfish between the shale."
Now up top I have "sail" and later "shale"—alright—"with quick white stabs." I thought well, maybe that’s OK because I’m trying to get the action of the sanderlings picking between the pebbles, right? And they’re white and I don’t know if it’s "quick white" or "white quick stabs," the jab of the big bird’s beak at the shellfish. But then, you have to watch for the sibilants, because [if] you go with "quick white stabs the shellfish between the shale," you flub the audition. Now I’ve got to think. Now I’ve got something shaped like a stanza.
"Like a flame, the sail goes out on the horizon/"—I’m in trouble, because I’ve got "horizon" and I’ve got to rhyme horizon: "Eyes on…goes on…"
So I’m trying for "horizon"… "with the sanderlings skittering after the surf to pick." The imitation of the line is almost as fast as the birds moving, because I’m writing fast. By taking lines from all over and fitting them in. And this is beyond the reality of a poem. People have said that rhyme dominates reason, but it’s deeper than that. It refutes reason.
This is now a kind of a poem of stained glass, which has been corrected. The rhyme for "scepter" now came quite naturally, because "In life’s last third, its movements, we accept the/ measurements." "Accept the"—not a hard rhyme—with "scepter."
White sanderlings race the withdrawing surf to pick,
with wink-quick stabs shellfish between the pebbles,
ignoring the horizon where a sail goes out
like the light of Prospero from his island kingdom.
Come light, make weightless the burden of our thoughts,
let our misfortune have no need for magic,
be untranslatable in verse or prose.
Make us like stones that have never frowned or known
the need for medicine or art, for Prospero’s
snake-knotted staff, or sea-bewildering stick;
make useless the ciphers of birds’ prints on sand.
Proportion benedict us, as in fables,
so that in life’s last third, we may accept the
measurements of our acts from one to three,
and boarding this craft, sail with the last bright wind
that rolls this pen on a desktop, a scepter
swayed by the surf, the scansion of the sea.
Well, that’s what [the draft] wound up as. But it needs—well, I would say it’s a little heightened and now it has to be…not watered down, but diffused and leveled out in some way. The pitch of it is a little too high.
London: I can’t think of anything that could have been more of a privilege for us. Here we come to the meaning of the shaping spirit of the imagination. This is it.
Listen to an audio clip of Derek Walcott on mythmaking:
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