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A poet's letter to Derek Walcott (1930-2017)

Saint Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott died on 17 March 2017.

Dear Professor Walcott,

I almost saw you once. I went to the Southbank Centre in London to hear you read during my last year as an undergraduate, when I’d spent a week curled up with Omeros, your (very) loose interpretation of Homer’s two classics, trying to work out why the narrative of a place I didn’t know, seen through the eyes of a man I had little in common with (I’m sorry, but I was on Ruth Padel’s side), had me so tightly in its grasp.

I wasn’t sure yet about your grandiosity, your women always sleeping or washing or leaving, the poem’s veering sidetracks into European cities and 19th century Native American activism.

But I was held by your meter, lulling and challenging as an ocean – and by your lines, each cutting and independent as a ray of light. I was held by the metaphors you layered onto and onto a single thing until it held a whole culture, a whole mind, a whole view of human-ness. You did this, looking at the sea and at white egrets, sea-grapes, herons and the moon, for sixty-five years.

(And I’d loved the Omeros moment when the narrator-you met Homer, and admitted you never actually read the Odyssey, “Not all the way through.” As a magpie reared on overview – a term on medieval literature, a compilation of New Orleans jazz, a Malaysian taster platter – I got that.)

But it was April 2010: a volcano had erupted in Iceland, shutting down air traffic over Europe. I remember being annoyed, even angry, but also a little relieved. Part of me wanted to keep your poems in my own imagination, your metre in my internal voice.

I think you’d understand that. After all, you were the poet who claimed that each sitting-down to write was a renewal of anonymity.

And you were the creole writer who liked to flourish the roots of things – from Africa to Europe, childhood to Homer, Creole to Latin, black painter father to white grandfather who burned himself alive - and then pull them away, more and more roots until your poetry strained with the effort of containing everything, and became something new.

Perhaps every poem is as creole as a human, gathering in everything seen and felt, and becoming something not stable enough to be copied. Or perhaps I loved Omeros’ swelling waves because I was falling in love with London’s créolité and yearning for my mother’s creole country at the same time. You championed créolité, working against the British fantasy of benign empire and Aimé Césaire’s négritude to insist that your island was its own place, not a displaced Africa or Europe – and that being one of the first to write it was a privilege, not a lack.

Since 1992, St Lucia has the greatest number of Nobel winners per capita: two. Sir Arthur Lewis created economic development plans for former colonies; you ran theatre companies, insisted on your right to English and French and Creole and anything else you knew, and with a small band of peers created written Caribbean literature, and with it the 20th century. You were the Crusoe of your long poem “Crusoe’s Journal,” sitting on an island and naming things until they were yours.

You also told us, in Crusoe’s voice, that “to change your language you must change your life.”

Professor Walcott, I think my own island is dying. England is hankering for a time before you could speak, Scotland ponders the unitedness of the kingdom, and voices all over the world insist that places and people can only be one thing or another. I worry that these times will undo the 20th century, will send professors and poets back to their small islands, and then leave those islands to drown.

You say most modern poetry could fit in parentheses. I’m going to take that as a challenge. You explained how grandiosity is part of performance, how those we talk to deserve a show, not a whisper, and I want to be as bold as you: the fourteen-year-old boy, black in 1944, Methodist in a country of Catholics, whose first local publication was an epic denunciation, in Miltonic blank verse, of the priesthood.

When new worries keep washing up like waves, different yet the same each time, it’s easy to panic that there’s nothing we can do. But as you witnessed your time, and helped shape it, I promise to witness mine – and to try.

Colette Sensier

Colette Sensier is a British poet based in New Orleans. A winner of the Tower, Foyle and Peterloo poetry prizes, her latest poetry collection is Skinless (Eyewear Publishing).

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7 things we learned from the Comic Relief Love, Actually sequel

Even gay subtext is enough to get you killed.

After weeks of hype, the Love, Actually Comic Relief short sequel, Red Nose Day, Actually, finally aired tonight. It might not compare to Stephen’s version of events, but was exactly what you’d expect, really – the most memorable elements of each plotline recreated and recycled, with lots of jokes about the charity added in. So what did Red Nose Day, Actually actually teach us?

Andrew Lincoln’s character was always a creep

It was weird to show up outside Keira Knightley’s house in 2003, and it’s even weirder now, when you haven’t seen each other in almost a decade. Please stop.

It’s also really weird to bring your supermodel wife purely to show her off like a trophy. She doesn’t even know these people. She must be really confused. Let her go home, “Mark”.

Kate Moss is forever a great sport

Judging by the staggering number of appearances she makes at these things, Kate Moss has never said no to a charity appearance, even when she’s asked to do the most ridiculous and frankly insulting things, like pretend she would ever voluntarily have sex with “Mark”.

Self-service machines are a gift and a curse

In reality, Rowan Atkinson’s gift-wrapping enthusiast would have lasted about one hour in Sainsbury’s before being replaced by a machine.

Colin Firth’s character is an utter embarrassment, pull yourself together man

You’re a writer, Colin. You make a living out of paying attention to language and words. You’ve been married to your Portuguese-speaking wife for almost fourteen years. You learned enough to make a terrible proposal all those years ago. Are you seriously telling me you haven’t learned enough to sustain a single conversation with your family? Do you hate them? Kind of seems that way, Colin.

Even gay subtext is enough to get you killed

As Eleanor Margolis reminds us, a deleted storyline from the original Love, Actually was one in which “the resplendent Frances de la Tour plays the terminally ill partner of a “stern headmistress” with a marshmallow interior (Anne Reid).” Of course, even in deleted scenes, gay love stories can only end in death, especially in 2003. The same applies to 2017’s Red Nose Day actually. Many fans speculated that Bill Nighy’s character was in romantic love with his manager, Joe – so, reliably, Joe has met a tragic end by the time the sequel rolls around.  

Hugh Grant is a fantasy Prime Minister for 2017

Telling a predatory POTUS to fuck off despite the pressure to preserve good relations with the USA? Inspirational. No wonder he’s held on to office this long, despite only demonstrating skills of “swearing”, “possibly harassing junior staff members” and “somewhat rousing narration”.

If you get together in Christmas 2003, you will stay together forever. It’s just science.

Even if you’ve spent nearly fourteen years clinging onto public office. Even if you were a literal child when you met. Even if you hate your wife so much you refuse to learn her first language.

Now listen to the SRSLY Love, Actually special:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.