Teaching Derek Walcott in Delhi University
Poet and playwright Derek Walcott passed away yesterday on March 17, 2017 at the age of 87. He had a distinguished literary and academic career by any estimation. He was a celebrity in the literary and intellectual spheres and yet, as is the fate of most writers, was unknown to the rest of the world. In death, however, he is ‘trending’ on social media. People who have never heard of him are googling his name, ‘RIP’ing his death, and posting his poems and quotes which they have read for the first time on March 17, 2017. It seems death itself, in this digital age, has become an event that we might miss out on if we do not participate in the virtual funeral parade.
Why is it that a person has to be dead before he or she is remembered? Why does nostalgia thrive on loss? Why is a living entity less important than a dead body? Why are we told not to speak ill of the dead? As I juggle with these questions while writing an obituary, I am left wondering about the ethicality, or lack thereof, of such an enterprise. I believe, I am not equipped to write an obituary for Walcott as a person in a way that is truly authentic and ethical. In fact, separating the man and the poet has been a struggle, considering the documented cases of sexual harassment against him in two universities. The way he refused to even acknowledge them, and escaped unscathed reeks of male privilege that transcends even race. More so, it lays bare the rot in the so-called liberal, equal academia itself.
I have known Derek Walcott, the poet, for just over seven years and his words are never going to die. This is not an obituary. It is a note of thanks for the words that he has left us with.
Walcott has been part of the University of Delhi syllabus for a long time now. Its token paper on post-colonial poetry, much like every other paper, has undergone a series of structuring and restructuring in the last few years but Walcott has survived the onslaught. As a student, I fell in love with the lyrical directness of his poetry. He expressed ideas in language for which I could never find adequate words. Pablo Neruda was beautiful, Margaret Atwood was relevant but Derek Walcott was a revelation. I read the measly few poems in syllabus which barely do any justice to his wide ranging and enormous oeuvre. Then, I discovered Omeros in the library. Since then it has been an on and off romance.
This semester, I was lucky enough to be teaching Walcott along with Neruda and Atwood. Luck is involved because as an ad-hoc lecturer, you are most often given the dregs. What no one wants to teach trickles down to you and you have no say in it. You might be an expert in popular culture but teaching classical literature, or interested in Modernism but stuck with the eighteenth century.
Teaching Walcott meant revisiting not just his poetry but how I responded to it. Neruda is still beautiful but felt a bit clichéd in parts, Atwood is relevant still, but Walcott’s expansive understanding of his content and mastery over his craft became only more obvious. For my students, Neruda exemplifies romance, Atwood is relatable, and Walcott is relevant. I have a suspicion that generations of interested students have been responding in similar ways.
By no means is Walcott an easy poet to read. He conceals layers of meaning in deceptively simple sentences. He demands your attention, your imagination and your knowledge. In an increasingly attention deficit world, where nothing holds your interest more than your cellphone, his poems did something amazing. They spoke to the students. His ideas made sense to them, even when the sentences confused them.That is the power of good poetry. It gives clarity where others ‘problematise’ and ‘complicate’ (academia’s favourite terms). A student came to me a few weeks ago and as she was submitting her assignment on post-colonial poetry, told me, “Walcott explained in one poem [‘Goats and Monkeys’] what was the problem in Shakespeare’s Othello much better than generations of Shakespeare critics did.”
Writers like Walcott allow us to see the the difference we make in the academia. The change may seem paltry, almost imperceptible, but it is relevant and necessary. It gives a renewed sense of purpose to the teachers in an otherwise increasingly intolerant, misinformed, and anti-democratic world. It creates students who are more sensitised, who are not afraid or ashamed of being called feminists, who understand racism beyond its textbook definition,who are aware of their class/caste privilege, and who feel the weight of their gender/caste/religion.
Writers like Walcott make it possible for us teachers to contribute to this change in the most beautiful way. For that, we are grateful.
The fireflies are free and shining, finally.
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