The Legacy of Derek Walcott: A Remembrance

Words by Olivier Stephenson

Photo by Ryan Loughlin on Unsplash

In my time I have been privileged to have borne witness to people who have come along who can undeniably be classified as one of a kind: Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, the Beatles, Bob Marley, Muhammad Ali, Steve Jobs, Usain Bolt, and Derek Walcott.

On the dust jacket of his breakthrough book of poems In a Green Night (1962), the English poet Robert Graves declared: “Derek Walcott handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most (if not any) of his contemporaries.”

When asked how he saw himself in terms of the great tradition of poetry in the English language, in a Paris Review interview in 1986, Walcott answered simply: “I am primarily, absolutely a Caribbean writer.” He went on to say, however, “The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination; it is the property of the language itself. I have never felt inhibited in trying to write as well as the greatest English poets.” But he allowed: “It’s not a matter of trying to be English. I am obviously a Caribbean poet. I yearn for the company of better Caribbean poets, quite frankly. I feel a little lonely … I consider myself at the beginning, rather than at the end, of a tradition.”

In the November 10, 1983 edition of the New York Review of Books, Walcott’s contemporary and long-time friend, the late Russian poet and Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky wrote: “For the thirty years that Walcott has been at it … critics on both its sides kept calling him ‘a West Indian poet’ or ‘a black poet from the Caribbean.’ These definitions are as myopic and misleading as it would be to call the Saviour a Galilean. The comparison may seem extreme but is appropriate if only because each reductive impulse stems from the terror of the infinite; and when it comes to an appetite for the infinite, poetry often dwarfs creeds. The mental as well as spiritual cowardice, obvious in the attempts to render this man a regional writer, can be further explained by the unwillingness of the critical profession to admit that the great poet of the English language is a black man.”

Walcott’s love of the Caribbean is constantly present in his work, most particularly, the sea. “The sea is always present. It’s always visible. All the roads lead to it. I consider the sound of the sea to be part of my body,” he said in a 1990 profile in The Economist.

As he wrote in his book-length autobiographical poem, Another Life (1973), one of my favorites of his oeuvre:

So, I shall repeat myself,
prayer, same prayer, towards fire, same fire,
as the sun repeats itself and the thundering waters
for what else is there
but books, books and the sea,
verandahs and the pages of the sea,
to write of the wind and the memory of wind-whipped hair
in the sun, the colour of fire?

When asked later in the Paris Review interview how he wrote or if he had any ritual that he used in the practice of his craft, Walcott said: “I do know that if one thinks a poem is coming on – despite the noise of the typewriter, or the traffic outside the window, or whatever – you do make a retreat, a withdrawal into some kind of silence that cuts out everything around you. What you’re taking on is really not a renewal of your identity but actually a renewal of your anonymity, so that what’s in front of you becomes more important than what you are.”

For many years I had anxiously anticipated Derek Walcott winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. For me, it was inevitable and just a matter of time. There was a logical order to recipients of the prize. In 1982 the late Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a recipient from the Latin American region and then in 1986, there was the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka. With that in mind, I knew Walcott’s turn was drawing nigh.

On October 8, 1992, it was finally Walcott’s turn.

It should be noted, however, that at the time he won the Nobel, Walcott was the second writer from the Caribbean and the first from the Anglophone Caribbean to win the prize for literature. His predecessor was the poet Saint-John Perse – aka Alexis Saint Leger-Leger – from Guadeloupe. However, Perse was hardly known in the Caribbean at large and left the island as a youngster for France.  And while he did not mention the Caribbean in his Nobel banquet speech, his first book of poems Pour fêter une enfance (To Celebrate a Childhood), 1910, evoked the dazzling imagery and memories of the land of his birth. But another St. Lucian, the economist Sir Arthur Lewis, won the prize in 1979.

A day after he won the Nobel prize, I interviewed Derek Walcott as a freelance reporter for the New York Amsterdam News in the offices of his publishers Farrar, Straus, Giroux at 19 Union Square in New York City. At the time, when I first saw him he seemed fairly subdued by all the brouhaha and being the new recipient of this most prestigious prize and latest development in his literary life. Indeed, he was in actuality still in a state of considerable stupefaction as he told me that he didn’t know “who’s talking right now” because, he said, “this thing happened yesterday …” and cautioned that anything he said could be misconstrued and allowed that he was still “sort of floating.”

“The Nobel Prize is given to only one person a year,” he said. “When you think of people who should have gotten the prize, any number of people – the dead, recent dead – then you really feel completely abashed and embarrassed about the fact … neither James Joyce nor Graham Greene nor W.H. Auden, for instance, got the Nobel Prize.”

When I asked him about other notable poets who had never been awarded the prize such as the Martiniquan Aimé Césaire, or the Senegalese Leopold Sedar Senghor, he said: “When you really come down to it, when you think of it, it is very stupid and dangerous to think that you have been selected as the best thing around.”

He also said it was not a pretense on his part that he didn’t feel “well enough to be … recognized” by the Swedish Academy of Letters. “There are so many people in this world – this is a world prize – it’s no point in particularizing any [one] area,” he said.

He also allowed that he did not think that his winning the prize would bring notice to Caribbean literature in any appreciable way as have Latin American writers over preceding decades. “It’s like giving things a passing epoch,” he said and named such Latin American writers as Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and Garcia Marquez.

He went on to point out the noticeable upsurge of wide interest in Latin American writers that had been taking place and said “things change in terms of appreciation, so if there is sort of a fast vogue for Caribbean literature now, I hope they make the money very fast and let the vogue go to somebody else.”

He finally added that he hoped his winning the Nobel Prize might “open up more readership to Caribbean writers” not just in English, he said, but “because the Caribbean is a multilingual basin” that has many writers.

The very first time I became aware of Derek Walcott was through an NBC television production of his play Dream on Monkey Mountain in 1970. This became more compounded after my older late brother Erik worked as a set design intern and performer in a Negro Ensemble Company 1971 production of the play in which Walcott won an Obie Award. However, it wasn’t until I became more involved in New York City Theatre in 1974 that I would eventually become a co-founding member of the Caribbean American Repertory Theatre (CART) as well as its executive director in 1975, which would eventually lead to my meeting with Derek.

In two years the company was beginning to show strong indications of a positive meteoric rise along with a stronger organizational and financial footing as it was then being funded by grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and the Brooklyn Cultural Arts Council, respectively. By the 1976-77 theatre season CART had produced Guyanese-British playwright Michael Abbensetts’ play, Sweet Talk, at the Riverside Church Theater in New York.

Walcott who had recently departed the Trinidad Theatre Workshop as its artistic director, which he had founded in 1959, was in New York scouting possibilities for productions of his plays. CART’s then artistic director, Neville Richen, had been in contact with Walcott whom he said had a play, Beef, No Chicken, a comedy – a production of the play would eventually be done by the company years later in the 1980s – that he would like to offer our company as a production possibility. The idea of staging a Walcott play was, for an up-and-coming company, very appealing, to say the least. It was at that juncture that it occurred to me that apart from producing one of his plays, it would also be an opportune time to interview him, as well. It was at that point time that the idea for a book of interviews with English-speaking Caribbean playwrights was still being formulated in my head.

On August 29, 1977, I met Derek in person for the first time at the internationally renowned Chelsea Hotel at 222 W. 23rd St. in Manhattan where he regularly stayed whenever he was in the city. We would again meet for another session at the Chelsea on September 12 that year and for a third session at the home of his friend Joseph Brodsky, on Morton Street, Greenwich Village, on February 10, 1981.

Throughout the years since those days, I would see him from time to time whenever he was in New York, in Montreal when I went to interview his late twin brother, Roderick in October 1982, or in South Florida in 2000 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, which was the last time that I saw him in person.

I’ve always enjoyed Derek Walcott’s poetry, primarily for his use of metaphor and imagery, and social, cultural, and political observances – his plays and essays notwithstanding. Prof Edward Baugh echoed a similar take. “I have always loved the way he is able to express ideas about the world, self, society, the Caribbean through the use of metaphors. Just the way he described through images was amazing,” Baugh told the Jamaica Observer. “He was also able to capture the tension in West Indian society due to the cultural differences brought about by the Europeans and colonisation and what was indigenous and African — that tension was expressed very well in his work,” Baugh said.

Take this verse from his poem  “The Star-Apple Kingdom” (1979)

One morning the Caribbean was cut up
by seven prime ministers who bought the sea in bolts—
one thousand miles of aquamarine with lace trimmings,
one million yards of lime-colored silk,
one mile of violet, leagues of cerulean satin—
who sold it at a markup to the conglomerates,
the same conglomerates who had rented the water spouts
for ninety-nine years in exchange for fifty ships,
who retailed it in turn to the ministers
with only one bank account, who then resold it
in ads for the Caribbean Economic Community,
till everyone owned a little piece of the sea,
from which some made saris, some made bandannas;
the rest was offered on trays to white cruise ships
taller than the post office; then the dogfights
began in the cabinets as to who had first sold
the archipelago for this chain store of islands.

Derek Walcott was a man who always cascaded brilliant quotable gems that resonated remarkably keen truths about so many things, be it about literature, art, Caribbean society, ad infinitum. His perceptive insights were piercingly sharp and acute.

In my book Visions and Voices: Conversations with Fourteen Caribbean Playwrights, I mentioned to Walcott that a poet once told me that he wrote not to entertain but to heal. Walcott laughed and said he thought that such a notion was pretentious. “I don’t think even Jesus said that,” he proffered, “a writer can’t heal the world. “I don’t know how a poem can heal,” he said. “A poem can do great things, it can change a man subtly. You can look at the world as a poet and be in very profound anguish about it or you can have a kind of sublime resignation about it. But in terms of its doing something miraculous for the condition of man, that’s religion. The confusion between poetry and religion is an old one; I mean, you can call Jesus a poet, if you see what I’m saying. To set out to heal in a poem, I think, is a little pretentious.”

Sir Derek Walcott has left the world a priceless body of work that will last down through the ages and to that which he now belongs.

Olivier Stephenson is a freelance journalist, poet, playwright, and author of Visions and Voices: Conversations with Fourteen Caribbean Playwrights (Peepal Tree Press, 2013)

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