Nobel Laureate and poet Derek Walcott died on March 17. He was 87. (For The Globe and Mail)
I once put a character in a novel who had more than a couple of resemblances to the late Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott.
The character wasn’t Walcott – indeed, another character in the book refers to my poet as “a kind of second-rate Walcott,” just to make that clear – but my publisher’s lawyers were so concerned about the resemblance that they made me write out a list of similarities and differences between my character and Walcott before they would go ahead. They were in the end convinced that my character – a washed-up drunk, quite unlike the productive and sociable Walcott – was no simple caricature, and we published the novel, called Muriella Pent, without fear of lawsuit.
In fact the character was a hybrid of Walcott’s colonial/classical obsessions, his sometimes lecherous behaviour to women, and the self-destructive alcoholism of another Caribbean poet who I met in the 1980s when he was a visiting writer-in-residence at a Canadian university (no, I won’t say who). And of me, of course. I tried to write some of his poems in a Walcottian style but didn’t come close to the man’s lapidary elegance. It’s hard to write so simply and so musically.
Why was I so fascinated by Walcott, his origin and preoccupations? Why did I, a white guy and non-poet, feel I had so much in common with him? I had visited Saint Lucia, Walcott’s country of birth, partly because I wanted to feel the white heat and see the blue sea that infiltrate so many of his poems. He writes of “the sun’s brass coin on my cheek.” He writes of watching “The variegated fists of clouds that gather over/The uncouth features of this, my uncouth island.” He writes of “This village stricken with a single street/Each weathered shack leans on a wooden crutch,/ Contented as a cripple with defeat.”
I wished I could write like that, making every line into song, but I also wanted to see if I, too, would look out at the ocean as he did and see there the ghosts of all the imperial forces in the world – the Greek empire, the Roman, the British – like visible tides. Walcott’s island was informed by classical myth. In his long poem Omeros (1990), St. Lucian fishermen with the names Achille and Hector echo the actions of their Homeric counterparts in mangrove swamps. Helen is a waitress serving tourists.
What I did see in Walcott’s home country was plenty of evidence of the British Empire, in the cricket played on the brown fields, in the formal politeness of every shopkeeper, and in the military architecture, the stone fortresses that looked exactly like the granite towers and batteries I had played among as a kid in Halifax, another British port, right down to their drainage systems and embrasures. It was the same ocean. The same warships had frequented our ports; even the rum that Maritimers still drink in quantity was from that part of the sea.
Walcott was a poet of place and yet his education came from afar: It was firmly colonial. A Methodist, educated at the University College of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, he could and did exist as a card-carrying member of the establishment. He taught at the universities of Boston, Essex and Calgary; he knew Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop; he travelled the great capitals of the world; he came close to being named Oxford Professor of Poetry. His style was perfect British modernism, reminiscent of Robert Graves (he said himself he had been influenced early by Eliot and Pound), and yet this language that had so inspired him and in which he became so majestically fluid was the language of his island’s colonial oppressor, the language of slavery.
He was well conscious of this tension and wrote about it often. “Our bodies think in one language and move in another” he wrote in an essay in 1970. His poetry reflects this anguish: “I who have cursed/The drunken officer of British rule, how choose/Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?/ Betray them both, or give back what they give?”
The anger in his work is rarely violent, though: It is sad and contemplative and beautiful. “For all those who have been/ my eyes’ windows brim.” The lines that one remembers are exquisite metaphors: “the brown reeds of villages mantling and congealing into towns…” “Mama’s sewing machine,/ a Singer, pedaled and steered the house’s human freight.” Or humorous: “Paris looked edible: / salads of parks, a bouillabaisse of fumes.” What one remembers is language worked into magic spells.
And perhaps what is universal about it all is the pervasive sense of having multiple identities and multiple cultures, the sense that although one knows exactly where one is from, one always is also from other places as well – from all the places one has read.