LEWISBURG, Pa. – Award-winning poet and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott read from a collection of his poems and described how his mother and Greek literature influenced his writing before a crowd of more than 500 gathered Oct. 9 at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts.
One of just 19 living recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the first to visit Bucknell University in half a decade, Walcott was honored before his talk by Bucknell President Brian C. Mitchell as the 2007 Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters.
Seated in a large chair set on the stage, Walcott read from a collection of his poems dating back to the 1940s, starting with "A Letter from Brooklyn."
"She describes my father, yet I forget her face more easily than my father's yearly dying," he read. "Of her I remember small, buttoned boots and the place she kept in our wooden church on those Sundays whenever her strength allowed; grey-haired, thin-voiced, perpetually bowed."
Walcott read a dozen or so poems, including "Blues," in which the author is beaten by thugs only to realize, "It's nothing really. They don't get enough love. You know they wouldn't kill you. Just playing rough, like young Americans will. Still it taught me something about love. If it's so tough, forget it."
He also read about loving yourself when others have stopped doing so in "Love After Love": "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."
Passion for literature
During the question-and-answer segment, Walcott described how his widowed mother recited Shakespeare "tirelessly" when he was young and encouraged his passion for literature. He also said his work was inspired in part by the "great stories" and imagery of Greek literature, including the many images of coastal life and fishing familiar to the Caribbean.
Bucknell established the annual Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters in 2002 to honor and recognize an individual who represents the highest level of achievement in fiction, non-fiction, or biography writing. Previous recipients have been Toni Morrison, John Updike, Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe, and Joyce Carol Oates.
"We are delighted to be able to honor Mr. Walcott on what will be a special day at Bucknell," President Mitchell said before the event, noting that Walcott's visit coincides with the 50th anniversary of The Bucknell Review, and the 20th anniversary of the Stadler Center for Poetry.
Shara McCallum, director of the Stadler Center for Poetry, said that Walcott looks squarely at the totality of the human experience.
"One of his many contributions to world literature is to have crafted a body of work that demonstrates how the life of the individual is played out against and within the grand narratives of history," she said. "My experience with reading Walcott’s work is that, in doing so, something in me shifts — ideas of place, of self-definition, and of the very language we use to capture experience and thought."
Walcott is the first Nobel Laureate to visit Bucknell since Toni Morrison came to campus in 2002. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.
Born in 1930
Walcott was born in 1930 in the West Indies of African and European ancestry and has maintained a permanent residence in Trinidad for more than 20 years.
He has published many books of plays, including Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays, which won the Obie Award for distinguished foreign play, The Joker of Seville and O Babylon!: Two Plays; Beef, No Chicken; A Branch of the Blue Nile; and The Odyssey. His plays have been produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and the Negro Ensemble Company.
But he is perhaps best know for his numerous books of poetry, including The Gulf, Another Life, The Star Apple Kingdom, The Fortunate Traveller, Collected Poems 1948-1984 (which won the 1986 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry), The Arkansas Testament, Omeros, and The Bounty.
His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Kenyon Review, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, London Magazine, Antaeus, and other periodicals.
When Walcott received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992, he was recognized for creating "a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment."
The Weis Fellowship was established through a grant from the Degenstein Foundation in honor of Janet Weis, author, civic leader, and philanthropist. Weis is trustee emerita of the University. Her late husband, Sigfried Weis, was chair of the Bucknell Board of Trustees from 1982 to 1988.
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Posted Oct. 10, 2007