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Literary Treasures: Derek Walcott Reading His Poems (1986)

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The following post is part of our monthly series, “Literary Treasures,” which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

This month’s “Literary Treasures” post highlights a poetry reading given at the Library of Congress on November 24, 1986, by Derek Walcott, who died last Friday at the age of 87. At the conclusion of Walcott’s reading, John Broderick, Assistant Librarian for Research Services, remarked to the large audience who had just witnessed the event in the Jefferson Building’s Coolidge Auditorium:

I’ve heard literally hundreds of poetry readings in this hall but none more remarkable than this.

To understand what Broderick meant, you can listen to a recording of Walcott’s reading below.

The program begins with Broderick reading an introduction written by Poet Laureate Robert Penn Warren (unable to attend in person). Warren describes Walcott as “one of the finest poets writing in English in our time.” When Walcott takes the stage at 8:23, he launches straight into his reading. Walcott reads seven poems, with only a few breaks between for personal observations or comments, during his nearly 45 minute on the stage. Here is the list of poems read by Walcott, with timestamps in case you’d like to skip straight to a particular poem:

  • “Map of the New World: Archipelogos” (8:23)
  • “Beachhead” (9:20)
  • “Tropic Zone” (11:36)
  • “Early Pompeian” (26:45)
  • From Midsummer, XLIX (“A wind-scraped headland, a sludgy, dishwater sea”) (35:30)
  • From Midsummer, XXVIII (“Something primal in our spine makes the child swing”) (39:48)
  • Section from “The Fortunate Traveller” (41:42)
  • The Season of Phantasmal Peace” (48:00)

This event marked the third time Walcott read poetry at the Library. He first visited the Library on October 20, 1964, recording twelve poems in the Jefferson Building’s Recording Lab for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. Four years later, on October 21, 1968, Walcott returned to the Library to participate in a reading and discussion with future Consultant in Poetry Robert Hayden in the Coolidge Auditorium.

For more about the life and legacy and Derek Walcott, read obituaries of Walcott from The Guardian, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post.