How to Vacation Like a Poet: A Postcard from Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott
By Maria Popova
Something strange happens when we depart for vacation. We are plunged into a parallel universe, which we inhabit much like we do dreams — as not-quite-ourselves, as a particular version of ourselves unburdened from our everyday selves. If there exists a “sleeping counterpart” who becomes us at night, then there surely exists a “vacationing counterpart” who becomes us on holiday. Presence has a different texture: We eat and drink different things, sleep different hours, and time itself flows differently; even vacation sex is unlike ordinary sex. We are faced with the Ship of Thesus conundrum — what remains of the so-called self when we are stripped of our everyday habits, the trappings of our routines, and all the other patterns that compose us?
If James Baldwin was right that the poets are the only ones who know the truth about us, then they are perhaps the high priestesses and priests of that parallel universe, too. And king among them is the great Caribbean poet and playwright Derek Walcott (January 23, 1930–March 17, 2017). “Feast on your life,” he commanded in one of the most beautiful poems ever written, and feast he did himself.
On a recent visit to the endlessly enchanting archive of the Academy of American Poets, I came upon this impossibly charming postcard, aglow with Walcott’s mischievous genius and geniality, which he sent from Antigua to his friends at the Academy a little more than a year after he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. It stands as a supreme testament to German philosopher Josef Pieper’s assertion that leisure is the basis of culture.
On the front of the card, depicting the island’s most idyllic beach, Walcott circles four areas:
On the back, he writes:
Hello you poor fools.
By now I will have returned + recounted the difficulties of life in Antigua, but here you have a map of daily responsibilities in the sun: On the upper right we eat, sleep, lie in the sun. Upper left is where we obtain rum-this and rum-that. Lower right is the little beach on the island where we swim to. Lower left, the perils of the barracudas on the reef.
Derek W. sends regards to us all
For more lost treasures from the Academy’s archives, see E.E. Cummings and the artist’s right to challenge the status quo, Amiri Baraka and the power of solidarity against racial violence, and Thom Gunn’s reading list of ten essential books to enchant young minds with poetry, then join me in supporting the Academy of American Poets with a donation to ensure the survival of their remarkable archive and their ongoing advocacy of poetry as an invigorating force for the human spirit.
Published September 5, 2016