EVEN AT the very end Derek Walcott yearned to explore new things. Morning, Paramin, his book-length collection of ekphrastic verse with the painter Peter Doig, bears all the hallmarks of Walcott the poet. Here was an artist who was rigorous, but who also tried out new forms, new modes. Though often somber, he could also be playful. At all points, he sought the sublime. Like the greatest poets, he always imagined a poetry that was just out of reach. If, like Icarus, he sometimes came too close to the sun, he also just as often achieved mesmeric flight.
Since his death on Friday, Walcott has been described by many as ambitious. Journalists from outside the Caribbean have said he took Western literature and used it as a tool to his own ends. They suggest his vantage point was that of an outsider. While his work certainly grapples with a feeling of being lost between two worlds, inside and outside the Caribbean, I think Walcott’s achievement is more profound than this. He did not make an argument for inclusion of the so-called Third World, post-colonial Caribbean within the global literary canon. Rather, he set out to show how, all along, we have always resided within it.
No one can question his technical achievements. You think of a Walcott poem and you think of his grasp for the musicality of language; his talent for acute images; his sophisticated metaphors that have the impact of an undeniable truth; his chameleon-like ability to replicate any type of landscape; his ability to surprise. Tiepolo’s Hound opens with these lines:
They stroll on Sundays down Dronningens Street,
passing the bank and the small island shops
quiet as drawings, keeping from the heat
through Danish arches until the street stops
at the blue, gusting harbour, where like commas
in a shop ledger gulls tick the lined waves.
In the poem ‘Islands’, from the collection In a Green Night, he wrote:
As climate seeks its style, to write
Verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight,
Cold as the curled wave, ordinary
As a tumbler of island water.
Walcott worked hard. At one stage he described his calling in terms that brought to mind spiritual devotion. He said:
“I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation. What I described in Another Life—about being on the hill and feeling the sort of dissolution that happened—is a frequent experience in a younger writer. I felt this sweetness of melancholy, of a sense of mortality, or rather of immortality, a sense of gratitude both for what you feel is a gift and for the beauty of the earth, the beauty of life around us.”
If Walcott was a priest, many of us were his acolytes.
I first encountered Walcott’s poetry at secondary school. I will never forget that English Literature class, in 1999, when Mr Perkins asked us to read Walcott’s poem about Carnival, ‘Mass Man’. It was a hot afternoon at St Mary’s College on Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain. I still remember the light of that day, streaming through the bay leaves of the trees that lined the front of the college, and the smell of old wooden desks. At the age of 16, I was not prepared for what was about to happen.
We students read and read and read and read. Walcott’s lines were so simple, they flowed right past us, right over our heads: “Hector Mannix, waterworks clerk, San Juan, has entered a lion”, the poem began. There was a man with “two golden mangoes bobbing for breastplates”. What on earth was happening? The disorientation a first-time Carnival reveler might feel fell upon that all-boys Catholic school classroom. It was only when Mr Perkins began to break down the poem, to critique it, did something click. Until then, for many of us, poetry was a kind of ornamental art: inert, limited to sound and not necessarily sense. That a poem could contain a torrent of fraught truths about ourselves, right there on the cool page, was the revelation.
We came to Walcott’s great lines: “But I am dancing, look, from an old gibbet / my bull-whipped body swings, a metronone! / Like a fruit bat dropped in the silk-cotton’s shade, / My mania, my mania is a terrible calm.”
At last, we saw our own complexity acting on Walcott’s stage. He had written a poem about Carnival and all its queerness, but it was really a ghost story; a gothic horror about slavery and abandoned children. From that moment, the possibility of poetry: what it could simultaneously hide and reveal, what it could say and do (and I insist that poetry can do) came. Poetry could be ours. I don’t remember anything else Mr Perkins ever taught me. But I will never forget that lesson.
And so though I met Walcott only twice, I’ve always felt his presence in my life through his work. Admittedly, sometimes his work became problematic.
Walcott reading at 92nd Street Y in 2007.
I remember recently seeing a re-staging of his play, Ti-Jean and His Brothers and being stunned by the cavalier way in which the poet deployed puns that alienated me, a queer man. Sitting in the darkness of the Little Carib Theatre and hearing actors read out lines in which they repeatedly ask each other for “fags”, conscious of the derogatory meaning of the word, I questioned who this play was intended for? What was its moral heart? And was its audience supposed to include me? In Morning, Paramin (reviewed here) I questioned one poem in particular, ‘Man Dressed As Bat’, feeling there was a violence in the poem that could not be accounted for on its surface. What was intended in this poem, which was literally about a batty man? I also became aware of the sexual harassment allegations that resurfaced when he was in line for a key post at Oxford.
“I am disappointed that such low tactics have been used in this election, and I do not want to get into a race for a post where it causes embarrassment to those who have chosen to support me for the role or to myself,” Walcott told The Evening Standard of London. He added, “While I was happy to be put forward for the post, if it has degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination, I do not want to be part of it.”
While he also had a long feud with VS Naipaul, Walcott had a vision of the Caribbean that was conciliatory.
“Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole,” he said in 1992 in his Nobel lecture. “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.” That is a vision we would do well to remember today, as fragmented and divided as we stand.
Walcott’s poetry never claims to be perfect, though it almost nearly is. Since no woman or man can be known entirely, since our responses to art and artists are distinct and complex, I’ve never stopped being a devotee.
From Sunday Newsday, p 18