Derek Walcott

Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott opens up about literature, family and his new book at the Hart House Theatre.

At 80, Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott can still command a room with his larger-than-life persona. Speaking at The University of Toronto’s Hart House Theatre with Assistant Professor of English Christian Campbell on November 23, Walcott engaged a sold-out crowd with mischievous humor and the wisdom of a man whose writing career already spans seven decades. Widely regarded as the greatest living poet in the English language, Walcott is also known as a playwright, essayist, and painter, and was presented with prints of two of his own paintings in commemoration of his visit.

The night began with Walcott reading one of his most beloved poems, The Light of the World. Building on an epigraph from Bob Marley, The Light of the World fuses Caribbean rhythms with ordinary speech to produce an almost hypnotic effect that mirrors waves breaking on a shore. Walcott explained that the poem was intended to induce “a suspended kind of experience, something magical.” Indeed, it set the tone for the evening, as he and Christian Campbell - a talented poet in his own right - touched on war, race, music and the future of poetry in an eclectic intergenerational conversation.

Visiting from The University of Alberta where he is beginning a tenure that will last 3 years, Walcott spoke of his affinity for Toronto. Besides the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library being one of only two libraries to house his literary papers, Walcott once held the Northrop Frye Visiting Professorship at U of T. Toronto was also the permanent home of his twin brother Roderick from 1968 until his death in 2000. Asked about his brother, Walcott refused to comment, implying that his death remains too painful to discuss.

Family was certainly one of the central themes of the evening, as the audience included Walcott’s wife and niece. The most touching moment of the night came when the poet discussed fame and his influence in his children’s own artistic careers. He remarked that celebrity would mean nothing without a family to share in his accomplishment.

An eternal optimist, Walcott was vibrant when talking about his latest book of poetry, White Egrets. A series of elegies that veer towards the autobiographical, White Egrets reflects on age and death with the grace of the bird that lends its name to the collection. Firmly opposed to the sentiment behind Auden’s famous quote, “poetry makes nothing happen,” Walcott emphasized to Campbell that he felt it was important for poets to strive to be heroic and that poetry itself was in no danger of dying off. A fitting description for a man who is adored in his home of St. Lucia and abroad, Walcott indeed embodies the idea of poet as hero, and left his audience with the magic of his seascape as they flooded towards the exits to end a rapturous evening.

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