Derek Walcott on the necessity of ritual

"Any serious attempt to try to do something worthwhile is ritualistic."

Welcome to the seventh issue of Subtle Maneuvers. In honor of National Poetry Month, I’ll be looking at the routines and rituals of poets for the next few weeks. First up, the Nobel Prize–winning poet and playwright Derek Walcott.


Derek Walcott (1930–2017)

In 1985, the American poet Edward Hirsch went to St. Lucia to visit Walcott, who was born on the island and lived there for much of his adult life. “To live next door to Walcott, even for a week,” Hirsch wrote, “is to understand how he has managed to be so productive over the years. A prodigious worker, he often starts at about 4:30 in the morning and continues until he has done a four- or five-hour stint—by the time most people are getting up for the day.”

Over three days, Hirsch and Walcott talked for a Paris Review interview published the following year. At one point Hirsch asked Walcott if his writing was “ritualized in any way.” Walcott replied:

I don’t know how many writers are willing to confess to their private preparatory rituals before they get down to putting something on paper. But I imagine that all artists and all writers in that moment before they begin their working day or working night have that area between beginning and preparation, and however brief it is, there is something about it votive and humble and in a sense ritualistic. Individual writers have different postures, different stances, even different physical attitudes as they stand or sit over their blank paper, and in a sense, without doing it, they are crossing themselves; I mean, it’s like the habit of Catholics going into water: you cross yourself before you go in. Any serious attempt to try to do something worthwhile is ritualistic. I haven’t noticed what my own devices are. But I do know that if one thinks a poem is coming on—in spite of the noise of the typewriter, or the traffic outside the window, or whatever—you do make a retreat, a withdrawal into some kind of silence that cuts out everything around you. What you’re taking on is really not a renewal of your identity but actually a renewal of your anonymity, so that what’s in front of you becomes more important than what you are. Equally—and it may be a little pretentious-sounding to say it—sometimes if I feel that I have done good work I do pray, I do say thanks. It isn’t often, of course. I don’t do it every day. I’m not a monk, but if something does happen I say thanks because I feel that it is really a piece of luck, a kind of fleeting grace that has happened to one. Between the beginning and the ending and the actual composition that goes on, there is a kind of trance that you hope to enter where every aspect of your intellect is functioning simultaneously for the progress of the composition. But there is no way you can induce that trance.

Walcott went on to say that part of his ritual was to get up early—as early as 3:30 a.m. sometimes, though the average time was around 5:00—make a cup of coffee, have a cigarette, and savor “the cool darkness and the joy and splendor of the sunrise coming up.” In a 1980 interview with the Indian journal Kunapipi, Walcott went into more detail on his morning writing routine:

Because I write plays as well as poems, and recently have been working on a prose book as well, I always have something to do in the mornings, whether it is re-writing a scene from a play or whatever—I mean I don’t get up in the morning saying “I am going to write poems”, but you can always work on them. My ritual is still, even if I live in a temperate country, to get up very early in the morning, have a cup of coffee, watch the sunrise come up, smoking like hell unfortunately and drinking too much coffee. So my working day, if I've had a good night's sleep, and I try to sleep as much as I can, starts at about 6 a.m. I get tired of work at about half-past ten to eleven in the mornings, and I never work in the afternoons except when I'm lying down scribbling, and never at night, absolutely not at night. It's a terrific kind of life when you're on an island . . . where you can get up early in the morning—it's cool and it's quiet and beautiful—you work and then go for a swim; that's really [a] millionaire's paradise, but you don't have to be rich to do it though.

For more on Walcott, be sure to read Sven Birkerts’s wonderful essay on hanging out with the poet in 1980s Boston.

Derek Walcott in St. Lucia. Photo from Caribbean-beat.com. Previous photo from Nobelprize.org


LIKE ICE IN THE SUN

Last week, in the Atlantic, I wrote about how the coronavirus is messing with our sense of time, and how writers provide some relevant case studies in the saving power of routine.


ROUTINE EXAMINATION

Thanks for everyone who has written to ask for advice! I’m behind on replying to you all, but I will be doing so this week and answering your questions over the next few newsletters. In the meantime, please keep the questions coming! You send them to subtlemaneuvers@substack.com or just reply to this email.


WRIGGLING THROUGH

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