Archive for Derek Walcott

Dark August

Posted in Poetry with tags on August 7, 2009 by telescoper

So much rain, so much life like the swollen sky
of this black August. My sister, the sun,
broods in her yellow room and won’t come out.

Everything goes to hell; the mountains fume
like a kettle, rivers overrun; still,
she will not rise and turn off the rain.

She is in her room, fondling old things,
my poems, turning her album. Even if thunder falls
like a crash of plates from the sky,

she does not come out.
Don’t you know I love you but am hopeless
at fixing the rain ? But I am learning slowly

to love the dark days, the steaming hills,
the air with gossiping mosquitoes,
and to sip the medicine of bitterness,

so that when you emerge, my sister,
parting the beads of the rain,
with your forehead of flowers and eyes of forgiveness,

all will not be as it was, but it will be true
(you see they will not let me love
as I want), because, my sister, then

I would have learnt to love black days like bright ones,
The black rain, the white hills, when once
I loved only my happiness and you.

by Derek Walcott.

Professorial Misconduct

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on May 26, 2009 by telescoper

The British political establishment is currently mired in scandal owing to revelations about the widespread abuse of  so-called “second home” expenses allowance by greedy and unscrupulous Members of Parliament.  Combined with the country’s ongoing economic difficulties, this will undoubtedly lead to equally widespread disillusionment with the way our country is being run which will probably also lead to increased support of extremist parties in the forthcoming Local and European elections on 4th June.

You might have hoped that the ivory towers of academe might be immune from this epidemic of sleaze but, alas, that’s not so. Take the recent election to the Oxford Professorship of Poetry, which is claimed to be the most prestigious academic post in the country (apart from mine, of course). The Nobel laureate Derek Walcott – whom I’ve blogged about beforewithdrew from the race after an anonymous source circulated a dossier containing allegations of sexual harassment committed by him during the course of employment at Harvard. It contained pages from a book  entitled “The Lecherous Professor”  detailing Walcott’s attempts to persuade a female student to have sex with him; Walcott had received an official reprimand over this episode and had been forced to make  a written apology for his actions. A later case involving a sexual harassment claim against him (from 1996) also came to light, but that was apparently settled out of court.

I find it difficult to be too sympathetic to Derek Walcott, and  I do think he probably did the right thing by withdrawing. While it is true that students are adults (in reality and in the law), a Professor is obviously in a position of responsiblity for, and power over, his or her students. For a male Professor to ask a female student if she wants to have sex with him does not in itself constitute harassment but to do so repeatedly after refusals clearly does, and so does any attempt to influence events by suggesting changes to grades. To abuse an academic position in order to secure sexual favours is clearly wrong and the disciplinary action taken against Walcott  seems to me to have  been justified. Even if there is no actual coercion, I think it is still very unprofessional behaviour for an academic to pursue a sexual relationship with one of their students as it could lead them into dangerous territory. I know of quite a few successful relationships that have started out that way, though, and  I don’t want to be  sound censorious about behaviour between consenting adults. In general  I don’t think a person’s sexual life is at all relevant to their suitability for a job.  What I mean is that Walcott’s prior inapproriate acts do cast doubt on his suitability for this particular position.

Despite the revelations about his past, I still admire Walcott’s poetry enormously. Beautiful literature, just like beautiful music and art, is not made by saints but by people. We all have our flaws.

Anyway, Walcott’s withdrawal from the election left the way open for Ruth Padel (distant relative of Charles Darwin), who was duly elected to the Chair last week. She had distanced herself from the circulation of the anti-Walcott dossier and stated her regret that Walcott had withdrawn, but it subsequently transpired that she had actually drawn his past behaviour to the attention of some journalists via email. This news caused further uproar, with the result that she yesterday resigned the post only a week or so after having been elected to it.

Oxford University will now hold another election, but this fiasco has already put a stain on the Chair and makes Oxford’s academic world look petty and vindictive, at least to people who didn’t realise how petty and vindictive academics are anyway.

Even if Ruth Padel did not have anything to do with the circulation of the dirty dossier, I think it still was a mistake for her to send emails drawing attention to it. Having allowed herself to be drawn into the affair I think she made the right decision to resign in order to bring the sorry business to an end. It’s all a bit sad, though, and I hope there aren’t any more skeletons in relevant cupboards next time the election is run.

And the issue still remains of who it was that dished the dirt on Derek in the first place? If it was someone or some people wanting to help Ruth Padel win the Oxford position then it seriously backfired. Handwriting experts have been looking at the evidence to try and identify the culprit. Inspector Morse would have been in his element.

Shadows of Sylvia

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , , , on April 5, 2009 by telescoper

The other day I decided to visit a few bookshops in Cardiff in order to spend the money I won in the TLS Crossword competition. It seemed only right to use it that way. These days I seem to buying poetry books more often than anything else. I’m not sure what that means.

I treated myself to the collected poems of Derek Walcott, whose work I have never really looked at before. He hails from St Lucia in the West Indies, and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992. His poems are truly wonderful, full of allusions to classical history and mythology, but with a distinctive Caribbean flavour all his own.  Definitely money well spent.

One of the other books I bought was a collection of peoms by Sylvia Plath, called The Colossus. This is one of those smart editions from Faber & Faber that are just the right size to fit into your pocket for a long journey on train or plane. I have had Ariel for some time, and have been meaning to read more of her verse for a long time but somehow never got around to it.

The only two things that most people are likely to know about Sylvia Plath are (1) that she was married to another poet, Ted Hughes , and (2) that she killed herself in 1963 by putting her head in a gas oven. The manner of her death endowed her with a cult status, which was further amplified when the collection called Ariel was eventually published after her death. In fact The Colossus was the only collection of her poems that was published during her life.

Although it’s a very banal way to put it, Sylvia Plath led a troubled life. She had a history of mental illness and nervous breakdown. Her poems are mostly of a confessional nature, unsurprisingly bleak, but often searingly intense and shot through with vivid imagery.  It’s not exactly easy reading, but if it’s catharsis you’re looking for, go no further. She’s even good for a quote or two about astronomy. How’s this, for example, from the poem Years (which didn’t make it into the collection of poems I blogged about a while ago):

O God, I am not like you
In your vacuous black,
Stars stuck all over, bright stupid confetti.
Eternity bores me,
I never wanted it.

One of the things that spurred me on to read a bit more of Sylvia Plath was the news  that her son, Nicholas Hughes, had committed suicide at the age of 46; as a young boy he was asleep in bed when his mother had ended her own life. There was also a very moving story in yesterday’s Guardian by writer Jeremy Gavron, whose mother Hannah Gavron also took her own life, in circumstances very similar to Sylvia Plath, in 1965.

Of course there’s been a lot of rather morbid stuff written about whether Sylvia Plath was somehow responsible for the eventual death of her son, whether the propensity to suicide may be inherited, whether it was all Ted Hughes’ fault, and so on. I think all this tells us is that one person can never really understand another’s pain and the greater the pain, the greater the incomprehension also.

A few years ago when I was external examiner, I was on a train from Nottingham to Cambridge going to an examiners meeting at the University of Cambridge. I had a window seat near the front of the carriage on the right hand side. Just outside Peterborough, the train was on a curved stretch of track so I could see the line in front of us. There was a level crossing with the barriers down and cars waiting either side. I could see quite clearly a female figure standing in the middle of the crossing but as the train got closer to her she vanished from view, obscured by the train. I heard the train’s warning signal and, seconds later, the driver shouted out “Oh No..”.

There was a horrible thump and the train lurched as it travelled over something that had gone underneath. The gruesome sound of a human body being sliced apart by metal wheels is something I’ll never forget. The train came to a halt, and the driver opened the door to his compartment. Icould see that blood had sprayed over the driver’s window. The poor driver looked like a ghost. He said that when he sounded the alarm the lady had turned and walked along the track towards the train. She looked directly into his eyes as the train hit her.

Eventually, perhaps an hour later, transport police and an ambulance arrived at the scene and a replacement driver was brought to us; train drivers can never carry on after such an event.  Some even have to quit the job. A police chaplain came too. The police and ambulance people collected the remains, made measurements, interviewed various people who had seen what happened and declared it a suicide. We moved to the next station, March, and got off onto the platform, the front of the train quickly hidden from us by a large piece of white canvas.

There had been time for the transport policemen to talk to the passengers who were all, like me, rattled by the experience. They (the police) had been through this all before, they said. That particular level crossing was  a place people came to specifically for that reason. Nobody could say why there and not somewhere else. Apparently it’s the same on the London Underground. Some stations have many suicides of people jumping in front of trains, others virtually none. Who can say why.

Suicides are not as rare as you might think. In the United Kingdom each year about one person in ten thousand takes their own life; we’re actually quite a long way down the league table for suicide rates. Men are about three times as likely to do it as women. My cousin Gary did it about five years ago.
There are several per week just at railway stations or on railway lines across the United Kingdom.

When I was told these facts I was completely shocked. It has never crossed my mind to take my own life, especially not in a way that seems designed to cause other people suffering too.  The time comes all too soon anyway.

This intriguing video features Sylvia Plath reading probably her most famous poem Lady Lazarus.


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