Oh, The Terror, The Terror!
So, maybe terror is the wrong word to use casually, these days. I mean, is it really terror that Walcott feels in front of a blank page? Can a blank page terrorize a poet? Would this work for anyone else? If so, I think high-minded terrorists would just have to drop blank leaflets all across America to really frighten us and make our lives miserable. Teachers terrorize students. At least that is how we felt. But everyone said, “Come on, you are such a melodramatist.” Which was not helpful, but they may have been right, that was not terror. Some people know terror. I can’t rehearse them here. Still, terror is terror to the person feeling terrorized. Our code of decency, however, makes us try to always keep terror of feelings of terror in perspective. It could be worse. At least one can walk away from a blank page. Walcott, though, is being melodramatic, hyperbolic—for God’s sake, he is being a poet.
Still I was not prepared for Kenneth’s [Goldsmith] swipe against Walcott for saying he feels terror at the blank page. I expected him to accuse Walcott of being pretentious, of false modesty, of clichéd language, but KG seems to think Walcott is lying that he feels terror at the blank page—that it is all affectation and artifice, this posture of the tortured poet.
But I do believe Walcott. He is one of an unusual group of poets who continues to try quite different things as he matures. His work can’t be accused of stasis and being tired—not really. You can follow the path of maturation and confidence in his work. He has gradually undressed his work of verbal complexity and replaced with it with an emotional complexity that we don’t see in his earlier work—not at this level.
I believe Walcott because Walcott is quite vain about his work. And one gets the impression that he is decidedly tough on his own work, that is does not give himself much of a break. In his twenties, from all reports, he had fairly little to show for all the promise that people saw in him and his skills. He had published one book at age fourteen and had produced a number of plays, but Walcott had to keep convincing himself of his value. He was not one of the “bright” ones who went off to Oxbridge from his generation. He stayed behind, attended the then fledgling University College of the West Indies, and he kept writing, kept sending his poems out, kept dealing with people who felt that he was not as good as others might think. In a place like the Caribbean, these are not small things. Indeed, one can carry the scar of elitism and class consciousness and the way they have managed to overcome these things for life. Walcott, I believe, has seen himself at some level, as an underdog, as one who took his own path and managed to outshine those “of great promise” that surrounded him. I like to imagine that during those early years, Derek Walcott felt some anxiety about his work, some insecurity, but that is what happens when I start writing novels. But the West Indies is filled with people who are rarely impressed by hype and who will make a spectator sport of bringing people down just because people should be brought down. The West Indian audience is a tough crowd and Walcott, during those years and well into his thirties understood the tedium of cherishing an art even when there was not a great deal of attention given to it by those closest to him. He built his own system, I imagine of constantly challenging himself to do better than the last time.
A reviewer friend of mine has been sending me his notes on reviews he is doing on a poet we both admire. He has read everything by her, studied her work in close detail and he has a frightening recall of all her work. He is able to indicate where an image has been used before, where a word has occurred several times, where a construction has been employed on more than a few occasions. As he writes me notes about the work, I feel like a voyeur staring at her nakedness and I am something close to terrified (okay, a little hyperbole) by this. Partly because he is right about some of this, and mostly because he recently indicated that he might be reviewing my work. Now, I will sleep just fine tonight, but I could obsess about all of this. I believe that some poets live by the challenge to avoid repetition. They are almost anal about this business of being fresh every time. They have an impressive recall of everything they have written and they will do everything within their power to avoid the rehashing of an old image that was once startling and fresh—an old metaphor, an old simile, an old construction, an old rhyme. Maybe Walcott is that kind of poet. And if he is not, he is at least a poet who knows that people are saying, “He is old, is he going to do anything new? Is he just resting on his laurels? What new thing can he say?” You know this because he has declared the end of his writing on at least two occasions in poems. But he continued. What must he do if more ideas for poems come to him? Stop himself, or face the challenge of making it new again. Stanley Kunitz went at it for much longer. Terror? Maybe not, but at least pressured by the weight of his reputation, the anxiety that something new will never come to him again.
Maybe Derek Walcott was engaging in hyperbole using terror to describe how he feels before he writes, but the terror may be caused by people who think he is fantastic and expect him to continue to be fantastic. I expect that maturity will make me more and more confident every time I put out some new poems, but the truth is that I am not. The moment I receive the galleys, I become immediately convinced that everything in the collection is crap and needs more work. And even when I assure myself that this is just false anxiety at work, I hear the voice of KG saying, “Maybe it is crap; shame on you for putting out such crap.”
Whether Walcott feels terror or not, I am fascinated with KG’s idea of the truth of what it takes to be a writer today. Now here is one of those amazingly confident writers who swing to another extreme. You know the extremes: There are those poets (who sometimes sound like Walcott) who say that after writing thousands of poems, they are only convinced that ten are any good. They are the purists. Whether they really believe what they say or not is moot. But KG is right: these writers do exist and they believe in the holiness of poetry—a kind of priestly vocation that demands constant self-deprecation and a devotion to perfection. In the process, they help us to wonder about our work, to doubt our work. If we are not uncertain about the quality of our work, we have to ask whether we belong to that priesthood. KG, though, reminds me of another group. These are the poets who don’t give a hoot about reviews, don’t believe that it is such a big thing to make good poems and who wonder about the pretension of poets who speak of the holiness of the art. My suspicion is that we are all trying to find ways to cope with the very personal nature of making art and making poems. We find our ways to contend with the sense of what others think of our work and we are bothered by people who think in a different way from us.
Maybe tomorrow I will try and take on KG’s ideas about the world of poets that he lives in as against my world. Significantly, I don’t think they are different world at all, and even as he talks about those poets who have nothing to do with prizes, he also shows that somehow the presence of prizes clearly has a great impact on the life of poets. The hard to avoid truth is that an increasing number of publishers are looking at first books ONLY through contests. I don’t think this is a good trend, but it is a trend that forces even the most “anti-prize” poets to participate in that rat race if they want to begin their career as published poets.
Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...