Niall O'Sullivan

high brow, low brow, none of that stuff in the middle

Derek Walcott – UCSD Convocation

Posted on | February 15, 2017 | 1 Comment

In the first blog in this series, I wrote about literary poets buckling under the weight of poetry’s importance. It’s not the poets’ fault, the literary poetry scene has been led this way by a publicity stategy built around prizes. It has been led this way by vague and toothless criticism from journalists who feel they are saving poetry from extinction. It has been led this way by all the strange and unnecessary rituals of the academic poetry reading. But most of all, it has been led this way by the most ridiculous and compromising prop in the history of spoken word. The biggest share of blame must fall squarely on the lectern.

If lecterns were all similar to the pulpit that Orson Welles speaks from in John Huston’s adaptation of Moby Dick, I would have no beef with it. But most lecterns we see at academic poetry readings are not as ornate, nor do they necessitate that the poet has to climb a ship’s ladder in order to access it. Their main purpose is to stand as a bland, impenetrable barrier between the poet and their audience.

And then there are the dual antenna microphones, normally set to a hypersensitive maximum volume as if the poet has given specific instructions that they intend to mumble while reading with their head bowed. Or, if they choose to read in a low-volume “poet voice“, the mics will pick up all the wet, clicky noises inside their mouth with perfect fidelity.

If the academy aspires to be the secular, bloodless parish of the post-enlightenment, the lectern is its altar. Therefore, it follows that there should also be a priest.

At the UCSD Concovation, Derek Walcott is introduced by the provost, Allan Havis. Here, we must already count our blessings. Many academic readings begin with a senior member of staff introducing the visiting speaker whose job it is to introduce the main speaker. It’s like a little Russian doll of introductions. However, as one introductory speaker could introduce some economy and brevity to the event, Havis endeavours to pad out the introduction with as much redundant information as possible.

He begins his introductions by thanking a lot of people. I’m sure that they are all warm, intelligent and well-mannered folk. I just do not understand how the recitation of their names will enhance my experience of a St Lucian Nobel Laureate reading from his long poem in which the narrative conventions of Homer are filtered through the feuds, loves and losses of a small Caribbean community.

After two minutes, the provost has finished reciting names and has now embarked on a long list of everything Derek Walcott has written and everything he has done. He could have just read the blurb on the book cover and everyone will be just as prepared.

Introductions can sometimes stoke the flames of excitement before the grand entrance of the poet onto the stage, no matter how laboured they can be. Therefore, someone has made the decision to have Derek Walcott stand awkwardly beside the provost during the entirety of the introduction.

I concede that the provost is redeemed by his apparent boredom, as well as his lack of superlative-laded blurb speak that we often hear from visiting speaker’s introductions – micro-essays that seem to exist for the sole purpose of demonstrating all the clever things that they can say about the main speaker.

None of this is in the name of poetry but in the name of the importance of poetry. This reading will not be fun, it will not be informal, any emotion will be invoked and examined from a position of academic neutrality and rigour. It will be important.

If you haven’t already guessed, this isn’t really about Derek Walcott’s peformance but rather how Derek Walcott’s performance is framed.

I read Omeros over a number of years because it deserves to be read carefully and the eye (and ear) can easily skip over the lines because of their pleasing evenness in tone and tempo.

The same is true for his readings. The combination of his lyrical style and his mellifluous voice can lull the reader into a numb daydream. It is up to the listener to stay alert and listen carefully to each line. That’s everything I need to say about Walcott’s performance style. The same can be applied to Heaney too.

The next post in this series is another lectern assisted reading. However, in this instance the poet manages to burst the bubble of importance and carry off a fun, energised reading. It is the same poet who once said, after winning a major prize (I quote from memory): “What I like about poetry is that it’s a lot of fun, it’s not important and it’s not for everyone.”


This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the “Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.


One Response to “Derek Walcott – UCSD Convocation”

  1. August Kleinzahler – Sleeping it off in Rapid City : Niall O'Sullivan
    February 18th, 2017 @ 5:53 pm

    […] Derek Walcott – UCSD Convocation […]

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