Saturday, May 23, 2009

In Defense of Derek Walcott



I returned home from St. Lucia to discover controversy brewing about the island's most famous son, Caribbean Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. He was a front-runner for the highly prestigious, mostly honorary position of Oxford University Professor of Poetry. But a few days ago, he withdrew his candidacy because of a nasty behind-the-scenes, smear campaign. Instead of a first black professor of poetry, Oxford now has its first woman, Ruth Padel. And there has been nothing even remotely poetic about the fallout.

The issues of course, run a lot deeper than just gender and racial politics. Derek Walcott has been plagued with sexual harassment claims for years. London's Guardian revealed the salacious details of how anonymous opponents of Walcott, largely believed to be backers for Padel, sent photo copies from the book The Lecherous Professor to Oxford academics. The book explores the 1982 sexual harassment claims made by a Harvard student against Walcott. Rather than dignify such underhanded tactics, Walcott resigned from consideration for the 300-year-old post. Walcott supporters, including prominent feminist scholar Herminone Lee, loudly protested the double standard that focuses on an artist's behavior and not his work. They pointed out that if they censored all writers for inappropriate behavior, from Keats, to Byron and Elliot, there would be hardly anyone left. Even his former accuser Nicole Kelby, who sued Boston University for what she believed was sexual harassment by Walcott in 1996, lamented the lost opportunity to hear lectures from the "greatest living poet in our time."

As a feminist immersed in Caribbean culture, I feel compelled to add my perspective. Derek Walcott should not be excused for his behavior. Sexual harassment is painful and damaging on many levels. Too often, it's treated as a minor offense but it's not. It's about power and control wielded unjustly and nobody should have to deal with it. That being said, the Professor of Poetry position does not involve any situations where the holder has power or control over students. The position does not include classes or any one-on one or small group workshops. It only calls for 3 university wide lectures a year.

Derek Walcott is of a generation and culture that rewards womanizing. In the Caribbean, men who are experts at flirting and maintaining lots of simultaneous relationships with women are highly regarded. Women expect it and men congratulate it. It's a deep-seated cultural issue that plays havoc with families and women's self esteem. It's an issue that needs to be seriously addressed but Oxford is not the place for that. Derek Walcott is considered the greatest living poet of the English-speaking world. He swirls the heart and soul of the Caribbean with the classic canon for verses that sear into you. He is 79-years-old. There will not be many more opportunities for him to share his genius in person. I believe that it is a disservice to his talent and to Oxford students for him not to hold the Professor of Poetry position. I feel that the underhanded politics that undermined his candidacy reflect outdated colonial attitudes and bias. If the situation were reversed and Walcott was a woman accused of sexually harassing young men, I'd feel the same way. It's not about sex or race but the greatness of talent.

UPDATE:

According to the Guardian Ruth Padel, the Oxford Professor of Poetry for just 9 days, has stepped down from the position. She has admitted to sending emails to journalists that emphasized Walcott's sexual harassment charges. A new election will have to be organized and hopefully, Walcott will again be considered.

Love After Love by Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

12 comments:

Ebony Intuition said...

Great post.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Well written.

Fly Girl said...

Ebony and Jean-Luc, thanks for your insight.

Kalyber said...

I love to read your writing because I always learn something new about you and the wider world. I'm glad we've rediscovered each other. Miss you miss.

A Cuban In London said...

This is the first time I've read a poem by Derek Walcott and may I say that you chose a really good one to enthuse me in his oeuvre. I have followed closely the hoo-haa about his candidature for the Oxford position. Just one correction. It was not the Guardian that started the hullabaloo, but The Independent. The Grun (short for Guardian for us readers) followed it up and then it was picked by its sister paper, The Observer. However there have been defenders in both The Grun and The Observer. Look up Catherine Bennet's column last in the latter for a good read.

I'm with you in that noone shoule be exempt of punishment when it comes to secual harassment, but that should not have been taken into account when deciding on who the best candidate would be for the post.

Many thanks for the poem. I read again whilst typing this comment (thanks for the pop-up window for responses, it makes it easier to write and to go back to the column to check if I've left anything out).

Greetings from London.

marina villatoro said...

Hi,
I've never heard of this poet, but I did love the poem you added.
All I have to say, for some crazy reason, people just love to stand in others way. For whatever the reason, this gives them joy. I know, it's a negative thing to say, and not really coming up with the solution. However, I've found that people will excert more energy on the bad because I'm sure it gives them a boost.

Fly Girl said...

Katie, thanks for visiting, I miss you too.

Cubano, I'm glad you like the poem, it's one of my favorites. I urge you to check more out, Walcott's truly gifted. I've been following all of the London news coverage and have read Bennet's take. I don't agree with all the points but as I said, there are so many complex levels to this.

Marina, I know exactly what you mean. A lot of people waste tons of energy just to give other people a difficult time but it always comes back to them one way or the other.

Wendy said...

This is incredibly well written. I am not familiar with his work but will now check it out.

Fly Girl said...

Thanks Wendy!

A Cuban In London said...

Maybe you want to check out on this piece of news. Keep the good work. Many thanks.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/may/26/padel-error-poetry-election

Greetings from London.

Fly Girl said...

Thanks so much Cubano! I will update my post.

Pa Ibou said...

Great post, and beautiful poem by Walcott.