He was a prodigy, and he knew it. He self-published his first book, 25 Poems, when he was just eighteen, paying the printer’s bill with $200 borrowed from his mother, and selling copies on the street. Somehow, a handful of books trickled out of St Lucia, passed on from one literary enthusiast to another, and the news spread from island to island of this extraordinary and precocious talent.
Among the Caribbean writers of his generation, one after another has spoken or written of the immediate inspiration of Derek Walcott’s first book, modest for its size but not for its ambitions. To his earliest readers, Walcott’s poems hinted that these small, peripheral islands might have a great literary destiny.
In Walcott’s youth, the shelf of Caribbean poets was still uncrowded. It was easy for him, perhaps, to quickly adopt the role of pre-eminent West Indian poet — in which, for more than six decades, he was essentially unchallenged. His 1992 Nobel Prize merely affirmed that the rest of the world recognised what his readers at home in the Caribbean had long accepted.
In his autobiographical epic Another Life, Walcott described his youth in St Lucia and the trajectoy of ambitions that would inevitably take him away from his birthplace into long years of what sometimes seemed exile: to university in Jamaica, a brief time teaching in Grenada, repeated visits to the United States, where he was based during the 1980s. But during the astonishingly productive stretch of his thirties and forties Walcott lived in Port of Spain, the gloriously unruly city where he found inspiration and a kind of refuge. The journalist Lennox Grant had good reason to call him a St Lucia-born Trinidadian, even if Walcott himself claimed the island of his birth with a single-minded fidelity, saying “I’ve never felt I belong anywhere else but in St Lucia.”
No Caribbean poet following Walcott could escape wrestling with his words, his images, and his vision of the archipelago as a place where everything that mattered was new, and the legacies of Africa, Europe, and Asia were an inheritance to be transformed in art and poetry. He believed he was writing in the company of Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Yeats. He shaped the language we think in and speak in, which means he changed the way we understand the world. He was a poet whose books people reach for in times of trouble, sorrow, celebration. He wrote often about the light: the physical light of the Caribbean, for which he had a painter’s eye, but his poems are also touched with a metaphysical light, illuminating and consoling.
Walcott proved beyond doubt that the English language is the property of no single nation or culture. (Of his first book published in Britain, the eminence Robert Graves famously wrote: “Derek Walcott handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most (if not any) of his contemporaries.”) He had a fierce and almost religious devotion to the landscape of St Lucia and the broader Caribbean, which he immortalised in his lines and metaphors. He believed it was the job of poets to give names to the places, people, and things which history had rendered anonymous, and he emboldened other poets to do the same. He showed that even the most humble village on a tiny island on the fringes of the world could be a place of epic beauty — despite, or even because of, its “insignificance” — once written into his poems.
Above all, he was the living proof that one of us — born in tiny Castries, educated in Kingston, living and working in Port of Spain — could become one of the great poets of all time, writing from the circumstances of everyday life. “At the end of this sentence, rain will begin.”