Derek Walcott: making poetry from nothing

As the St Lucian Nobel laureate turns 80, Brendan de Caires reflects on the meaning of Derek Walcott’s life and work

  • Wendell Manwarren in the lead role in Walcott`s Joker of Seville. Photograph by Abigail Hadeed
  • Walcott, right, in rehearsals with the TTW, with Royal Shakespeare Company director Gregory Doran, centre, and Galt MacDermot. Photograph by Abigail Hadeed
  • Derek Walcott. Photograph by Abigail Hadeed

Many years ago, as the Founder Leader’s motorcade flashed past a rumshop in Georgetown, Wilson Harris – the inscrutable magus of Caribbean letters – turned towards an innocent bystander. Grimacing at the noise of the sirens, and the pomposity of the President’s uniformed outriders, he asked, “Can’t you see why I need mythology to write about these people?” I quoted this remark, approvingly, to Lloyd Best as we chatted one afternoon in the offices of the Trinidad and Tobago Review. Perhaps I said something about the need for a few mythographers in contemporary Port of Spain. Lloyd laughed.

Then we talked at length about Guyana’s interior, and the paintings of Aubrey Williams, and how they seemed to belong to something larger than the Caribbean. A few months earlier, en route to Kaieteur, I had lost my way in the bush. Three days in the wilderness had taught me firsthand how different the rainforest is from the coastal plain where most Guyanese live. Outside the city, the landscape belonged to the Americas, and I felt as though its history was rooted much further back than the familiar parts of our colonial past. Wilson Harris had intuited these differences brilliantly and many of his indecipherable novels were philosophical attempts to retrieve our vanished histories. Lloyd advised me to read Derek Walcott’s essay on the Muse of History. “It’s all there,” he said. “Everything that drove Harris’s imagination, and the larger projects of Walcott’s poetry, it’s all there.”

And indeed it is, for anyone with the patience and intellectual fortitude to follow Walcott’s tussles with the larger demons of Caribbean history. For those, like me, who prefer somewhat lighter fare, the poet helpfully produced a related piece called “The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry”, originally for an address to the University of Miami conference on the Americas held in 1973. Thirty-seven years later, Walcott’s speech is depressingly relevant to the Caribbean, and it provides a good overview of the problems which his poetry has faced. “In the Caribbean, we do not pretend to exercise power in the historical sense. I think that what our politicians define as power, the need for it, or the lack of it, should have another name; that, like America, what energises our society is the spiritual force of a culture shaping itself, and it can do this without the formula of politics.”

This vision of West Indian culture is no mere rhetorical flourish. In their indispensable edition of Another Life, Edward Baugh and Colbert Nepaulsingh write that “No message is communicated more clearly in the work and life of Derek Walcott than the [idea] that a nation is created not by its politicians but by its artists. Politicians impede and accept, with time, the nations that people build in spite of politicians.”

One way to grasp the force of his message, and its fundamental optimism about the West Indies, is to compare it with the very different conclusions of our other literary Nobel laureate, the incorrigible sceptic and gainsayer, VS Naipaul. The questions for West Indian readers might look something like this: is the Caribbean a collection of benighted, “half-made” societies, cursing themselves for their own backwardness, and filled with charming imitations of the absent master? As the Naipaul part of my forebrain rushes to agree, the Walcott in my conscience counters with a different set of questions. Are we not, it asks, also deeper than that? What about Minshall and Marley, and the varied delights of calypso and reggae? What about CLR James, Jamaica Kincaid, Martin Carter and Edward Kamau Braithwaite? What about Sobers, Richards and Lara? What about Usain Bolt? Are we really such hollow men?

In many ways, Naipaul’s home truths about the postcolonial Caribbean are unimprovable. No better critic of our pretensions and sentimentalities exists, and none is likely to appear. But who among us has not felt that the great man’s withering stare overlooks something essential too, that what he deems unserious is often just lighthearted, that our confusion – social, political, artistic – could, perhaps, be seen more indulgently as a creative response to the weight of history.

In “Culture or Mimicry?”, Walcott makes this case with prophetic force. “Large sections of the population of this earth have nothing to lose after their history of slavery, colonialism, famine, economic exploitation, patronage, contempt,” he writes. “But the tragedy is that most of its politicians are trapped in the concept of a world proposed by those who rule it [and] have forgotten the desperate authority of a man who has nothing.” Naipaul’s error, we are told, has been to read this emptiness at face value, and to remain a spectator ab extra, instead of facing the dilemma from within. Warming to his task, Walcott translates the mistake into a metaphor: “We align ourselves to this bloc or that, to that way of life or the other, and it is this tiredness which falls so quickly on the powerless, that horrifies Naipaul; but the truth is that there is something else going on, that this is not the force of the current, and that its surface may be littered with the despairs of broken systems and of failed experiments, that the river stilled may reflect, mirror, mimic other images, but that is not its depth.”

Where, then, is our depth? Walcott’s creative work has been a series of answers to this question. Initially his most widely appreciated statements were made as a dramatist with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, but over time far more critical attention has centred, correctly, on his poetry. Of this, the epic poems Another Life and Omeros are particularly successful, book-length arguments that lives in the Caribbean are no less meaningful because they take place in the shadows of European history.

Since Walcott won the Nobel Prize in 1992, a great deal of explanatory ink has been spilled on the text of Omeros. Many who have not bothered to read a line of the poem somehow learn that it hums with “inter-textual” cleverness, that the use of terza rima is as important as the “mythical substructure”, that black Helen is a symbol of St Lucia, attractive to all comers and beholden to none. All true, and very impressive, but anyone who takes the trouble to wrestle with the thing itself will find themselves transfixed by much simpler things. Walcott’s pitch-perfect ear, for instance, his ability to discover hundreds of ingenious half-rhymes that fit so seamlessly into the text that the poem seems to hover between traditional poetry and the hypnotically musical prose of James Joyce.

It is easier to appreciate the wonders of Omeros if you have some idea of the evolution of Walcott’s style. In the apprentice years his debts to other writers are self-consciously evident, and the undeniable lyricism of the poetry not quite his own. Before long, however, he masters the techniques necessary to sound like his models, and the poetry achieves a wonderful stylistic equipoise between the Old World pantheon of English literature, and the less constrained voices of the New. It is difficult to discuss Walcott without referring to a daunting range of literary models, which seem to have engaged him even as a child. Another Life, a relatively early work, gathers influences from Proust, Joyce, Conrad, Hemingway and Kipling, and several of the usual Dead White Male suspects. But Walcott gets what he needs from his “mimicry” and soon the hybrid style of these years becomes so fluent that it often seems to embody rather than describe the complex identities that it deals with. After this, and having achieved an enviable mastery of prosody, Walcott settles down to his second West Indian epic, the Paradise Lost to his earlier Prelude.

Walcott’s middle years explore these tensions through the shifting perspectives of a divided mind. Some of the time he is Adam, naming the world anew, or Crusoe, brooding on his lonely isle, sometimes he is “Friday’s progeny,/The brood of Crusoe’s slaves”. Whatever the persona, the poetry works towards an ingenious resolution of this “inbetweenity” by means of what the postcolonial lit-crit crowd often call “multivocality”. In plainer English, this is the mixing of styles and registers, formal “poetic” diction with West Indian vernacular. Walcott was born to do this and after he tries his hand at it in “Tales of the Islands” (Poopa da’ was a fete! I mean it had/Free rum free whiskey and some fellars beating/Pan from one of them band in Trinidad) the rest feels inevitable. “The Schooner Flight” is one of the most-quoted poems of this period – Seamus Heaney has called it “epoch making” – especially the lines,

I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.

Enough has been said about these lines, elsewhere, for us to pass over them in silence, but in the same way that every Guyanese can quote at least a few snatches of Martin Carter, and every educated Russian is expected to have a smattering of Akhmatova, I imagine no West Indian worth the name should be ignorant of that last line.

Even by his own exalted standards, a great deal of Walcott’s later poetry is exceptional. Many of the breathless reviews which Omeros received immediately acknowledged that it was for the ages. In Omeros, Walcott’s voice is absolutely assured, and the conceit of an epic West Indies – proffered semi-apologetically in Another Life – is embraced without any reserve. And instead of trying, schematically, to match episodes in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey with life in St Lucia, Walcott chooses to copy the epic manner. Like Joyce before him, he treats ordinary lives with the respect usually reserved for heroes. Long after we are all dead, these little people will speak for us, just as Joyce’s little people now speak for a bygone Dublin. In the growing canon of West Indian literature, only Naipaul’s Biswas and Kamau Brathwaite’s trilogy have any hope of lasting as long.

As he turns 80, with six decades of creative labour behind him, Walcott may remember some of the inevitable disappointments. The recent intrigues which deprived him of the chance to become Oxford Professor of Poetry were truly shameful, and Naipaul’s well-publicised barbs about his poetry must also rankle. But the shame belongs to the little world of English academia, and the spite demeans Naipaul rather than Walcott – except for the inexplicable lapse in judgment which led Walcott to pen a “poetic” insult at the Calabash literary festival last year. These moments will pass, the work will endure.

Almost 40 years ago, Walcott complained that “in the New World, servitude to the muse of history has produced a literature of recrimination and despair, a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters.” But after wrestling with both legacies – “divided to the vein” – he has produced a body of work which transcends them; he has shown us how we can escape the dark past.

WH Auden’s elegy for WB Yeats famously lamented that “poetry makes nothing happen” – a gloomy thought for a sad occasion. But in retrospect Walcott’s career has shown that the reverse can also be true. Beginning in the ruins of empire, among a people dismissed for “creating nothing”, Walcott has transmuted mimicry into high culture and redeemed our emptiness. In Walcott’s Caribbean, “nothing” makes poetry happen.


About Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott was born in St Lucia on January 23, 1930. He published his first collection of poetry, 25 Poems, at 18. After studying at the university of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, he moved to Trinidad, where he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959, while working as a critic with the Trinidad Guardian. His writing for the TTW included not only original work based on West Indian folklore (Ti-Jean and His Brothers), and plays that explore contemporary West Indian issues (Pantomime), but also adaptations of European classics (The Joker of Seville). He continued to work as a poet during this time.

In 1980 he took up a teaching position at Boston University, though he remained involved with the TTW for many years. He also worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company on his stage adaptation of The Odyssey.

His 1990 epic poem Omeros is the culmination of a lifetime of work in which Walcott, who is of mixed African and European descent, has acknowledged and drawn on both strands of his heritage. His work is imbued with the symbolism of classical mythology, and has also succeeded in combining Caribbean vernacular with formal English and the influence of the greatest English poets.

Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992 “for a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment”. In his acceptance speech, titled “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory”, he writes of watching villagers in rural Trinidad re-enact the Hindu epic The Ramayana, as they do every year. In one passage he sums up his view of West Indian art.

“Break a vase,” wrote Walcott, “and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places. Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.?And this is the exact process of the making of poetry, or what should be called not its ‘making’ but its remaking, the fragmented memory…”

Judy Raymond

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