U of A's Nobel Laureate wins top poetry prize

(Edmonton) Derek Walcott, the University of Alberta’s first Nobel laureate faculty member, has scored one of the highest recognitions in British poetry. Walcott has won the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry for his collection of poems, White Egrets, which was partially completed during his time at the U of A.

Walcott was with friends in his native St. Lucia celebrating Nobel laureate Week when news came that he had won. U of A English professor Bert Almon was there and says the man of words was at a loss for them when told of his new accolade.

“It was the day after his birthday and we had gone out. When we returned his partner Sigrid met us at the door and said, 'Derek, there is a wonderful birthday gift for you in the living room.'

“We walked into the living room; other friends were there, and Sigrid said, ‘you won the T.S. Elliot prize.’ He was quite overwhelmed. He was speechless. It’s one of the most important poetry prizes in the English-speaking world,” Almon says.

Anne Stevenson, chair of the judges, called White Egrets is “moving, risk-taking and technically flawless book."

“Any poem you undertake is risk taking because you don’t know if you’re going to be clear,” says Walcott. He says his daughter’s home influenced the title of the book. “In Santa Cruz in Trinidad and Tobago, at my daughter’s house, the egrets come out onto the lawn and they’re very beautiful. It’s a very exhilarating site to see the egrets on the ground.  

“To a certain extent, the book is about self-renewal,” Walcott says and that, while some of the poems are reflective, he would not comment on the themes.

“It’s up to the reader to find out, but I guess old age is one of them.”

Walcott’s relationship with the U of A goes back to 2007, when he read a poem while being accompanied by a percussionist. During the same visit the poet also taught a master’s class with students from more than a dozen countries, where he asked each student to translate Dante’s Inferno into their language and read it aloud.

U of A political science professor, Malinda Smith, said Walcott wanted the students to determine how the poem would read when translated, recalling an extraordinary debate with an Italian student.

“Afterward I remember Derek saying, ‘wasn’t that great. That student sure gave it to me,’” Smith said. “It was magical. He was very impressed by it. He also said that he’d never been in a class with students from so many countries, speaking different languages.”

Walcott joined the U of A shortly after on a three-year contract that will end this fall. Smith and Almon have both attended classes the laureate taught and Almon also jointly teaches a course with Walcott. He says the poet has had a tremendous impact on students.

“I’ve been studying poetry all of my life and I attended all of the classes he taught because I could learn so much from him,” Almon said. “He has an immense command of the language and literature. He’s been an inspiration to the students and I think in a few years some of them would show how much they’ve profited from his influence by publishing their own works.”

Smith said Walcott does not like the charm of fame, which comes in handy in relating with his students. “When I watched him give feedback to students, he concentrates on each student,” Smith said. “That memory will carry on with students because he does not come across as a Nobel Laureate who's above them. 

“It’s rare for undergraduate students to have that direct teaching access to someone like Derek and that makes the U of A one of the few places where this rich experience would happen.”

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