A Young Novice Turned Old Master: Reflections on the poetry of Derek Walcott

Photo credit: Bert Nienhuis (Wikipedia)

Life in brief: born in St Lucia in 1930. Educated on the island and in Jamaica. Walcott made his home in Trinidad and divided his time between there, where he established the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, and the United States. He taught in the US, Canada, and the UK, but did not take up a post as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, following personal controversy. He was married three times and had a son and two daughters. He died in 2017, having been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1992.

  1.  ‘Days I have held, days I have lost’

“The classics can console,” the poet counsels in the final line of his 1976 poem, ‘Sea Grapes’. “But not enough.”

This is not to say the classics weren’t indispensable to him. In this poem, he calls out Odysseus, “the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name in every gull’s outcry.” Several decades later, Walcott’s 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature followed the publication of Omeros, his own epic version of Homer’s Odyssey.

His poetry has been described as “a territory that is at once parish and universe” (Selected Poems) – something that connected him to his friend and contemporary, Seamus Heaney. Both stored the Wordsworthian ‘seed-time’ of place and memory (like the sun’s heat in a sailor’s hands); growing outward from self to world entire. The Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky went further: “He simply has absorbed… all the stylistic idioms the north could offer… He is the man by whom the English language lives.”

Walcott’s life spanned the late-colonial period to our own shifting times, and like Heaney, he saw a world transfigured in his own lifetime. His first published work dates back to his youth aged just eighteen, in which he reflects on “this, my prone island” (‘Prelude’), referring to his birth-place of St Lucia. The same incredible body of work reaches out right into his early eighties. In his final, late flourishing, White Egrets (2010), he tells of meeting a lost love, both of them wheelchair-bound: “like a crumpled flower… her devastating smile nettled in wrinkles.” Lamenting his memory, “where a boatman left me, a half-century ago… she like a deer in her shyness.” He uses yet more classical echoes here to acknowledge that he is “stalking an impossible consummation,” as the poem’s title says – ‘Sixty Years After’. He concludes: “Now the silent knives of the intercom went through us.”

2. We are not above such things

“All art,” Walcott says, “has to do with light.” Having briefly described the brilliance of his poetry (in the full sense of the word, full of light), I am reluctant to now describe my own small imitatio. Still, here goes! …This impressionist poem grew out of a poetry workshop I held with my students. Each week I read several poems by a range of poets I loved or liked, or thought interesting. In the case of Derek Walcott, these included the short lyrics ‘Midsummer, Tobago’, and ‘Love after Love.’ (If you want to write, he advises, study the masters). Drawing on these and other poems, between workshops each Wednesday throughout the autumn term, I would sometimes experiment by writing poems after famous poets; encouraging my students to do the same. And so the poem came about.

Finally, a few things to know about Walcott: as well as a poet (playwright and theatre director), he was also a painter. He swam in the Caribbean Sea most days. In the opening section of my poem, I pick up on these ideas of the poet as painter and swimmer (that is, explorer); as well as the breadth of his career and his mastery of poetic form. Into this iconography, I then weave the tragic events unfolding in the Caribbean, as Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas last autumn. In the penultimate couplet, I try to lift the poem above its specific focus, into a wider sense of suffering, and enduring hope. The collective voice of the final lines should suggest our common human experience. And as recent events have shown, we simply don’t know what may befall us. After all, we pass through, not above, our experiences, and (we hope) emerge integral; perhaps changed. In The Odyssey, Odysseus himself – the archetypal hero – often sits down and weeps as he re-lives all that has happened. But, as Walcott suggests, the poetry is the consolation.  

Odysseus: a complicated man (British Museum. Troy: Myth & Reality)

The poem, Hurricane Season, was first published in The New European (#189), Thursday 2 April, 2020. It is posted in the POEMS section of this blog. I hope you enjoy the poem and find some resonance in it. Do leave a comment below, letting me know what you think of this article or the poem.

References and links to Walcott: Derek Walcott, Collected Poems: 1948—1984 (Faber & Faber: 1992); Selected Poems (Ed. Edward Baugh; Faber: 2007); White Egrets (Faber: 2010)   

Derek Walcott discusses his painting and poetry (posted) 5 June 2017.

Derek Walcott reads his poem ‘Sea Grapes’ (Posted) 19 March 2019

Love after Love, by Derek Walcott, read by Tom Hiddleston (Posted) 16 July 2016

Blog content: © Benedict Gilbert 2020