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Derek Walcott: the “colonial upstart” who remade the world

The Nobel laureate poet, who has died at the age of 87, hauled his rural Caribbean community into the very centre of the Western canon. 

The writers who matter are the ones who enlarge a form, showing us that there are more ways of thinking and doing than we realised. All sorts of possibilities suddenly appear obvious. They make it all look easy. Descriptions, like “a racketing triumph of cicadas/ setting life’s pitch” seem to clarify something we already knew; ars poetica seem effortless: “the light’s bounty on familiar things/ that stand on the verge of translating themselves into news”

When such writers die, the world correspondingly contracts. Suddenly, there will be no more of this particular way of seeing and interpreting the world. So when my inbox filled up with the news that Derek Walcott has died, what I knew was that the world had shrunk. No-one was any longer going to notice how “the pages of the sea/ are a book left open by an absent master”, or remind us that, “The classics can console. But not enough.”   

The biographical facts are well known. Sir Derek Alton Walcott, KCSL OBE OCC was born 23 January 1930, in Castries, the little port  capital of Saint Lucia. A poet and playwright who was first expected to be a painter and never lost the ability to see the world around him, he worked in Trinidad as a theatre director and critic, then taught at North American universities. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. He published more than 18 poetry collections, and wrote nearly 30 plays. He died on St Lucia on 17 March 2017.

These facts by themselves would be enough to make him a significant figure, a hero beyond his home island. This self-styled “colonial upstart at the end of empire” became a major figure in post-colonial literature. Refusing to be pigeon-holed as a bystander to the cultural mainstream, he hauled his rural community into the very centre of the Western canon. This canon, though it’s far from the only major body of contemporary writing (think of the tremendous resources of Arabic poetry, or of Chinese literature) was the castle available for him to capture – and Walcott captured it.

To put it another way, he out-formalised the formalists, produced sonnets and ottava rima of brilliance, heft and wit, and wrote the major verse-novels of the late 20th century.  His poems are set in Oxfordshire, Rome, and Poland as well as in St Lucia. He is as comfortable introducing Shakespeare or his great Polish contemporary Adam Zagajewski, into his verse as he is retelling Homer in Omeros, or the brutal story of the mutiny on the Bounty, in The Bounty.

Those myths are stories – about encounter, about a connecting sea, about going away and bringing back – that de-centre the world. The Europe from which Odysseus, or Captain Cook, sail is not the most interesting place on the planet. Differences connect. Through interest and beauty an “other” place can answer the power of the old coloniser – and refuse to be defined by it. 

Which is to say that Derek Walcott has sometimes been seen by lazy, pigeon-holing readers as a Eurocentric writer, who failed to forge an entirely new, Caribbean diction in English-language poetry. That he might even be expected to do so is of course a tremendous, and an absurd, compliment: that’s a huge task for any one writer. It’s also an anachronistic, romantic myth. Revolution is appropriative, not scorched-earth: as he writes in “North and South”, “It’s good that everything’s gone, except their language,/ which is everything.”

Writers and artists make their work from when and where they find themselves. The relatively small populations of the island nations of the Caribbean have been shaped by a shameful colonial history that also formed much of what the world on either side of the Atlantic is today.  Yet culturally they punch hugely above their weight – particularly in music. In the middle decades of the 20th century, their cultures were still disproportionately formed by Europe – for example, the Négritude poetics of Walcott’s older contemporary Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), from the neigbouring island of Martinique, developed not in Martinique, nor even through direct influence from the Harlem Renaissance, but in Paris as part of movement there by black Francophone intellectuals of the 1930s.

Césaire’s poetry addressed its Parisian context in jazzy, modernist riffs which were no more “authentic” to an indigenous experience than Picasso’s cubist images were authentic to African sculpture.  Walcott, similarly, appropriated the Western classical education he had received and made it new. Bad poets borrow, good poets steal, to paraphrase T S Eliot. Walcott’s adored Shakespeare was this same kind of cultural cannibal. He took the classical education of his provincial schoolroom and made it so much his own that we tend to think of Anthony and Cleopatra, and Romeo and Juliet, as first of all Shakespearean.

It matters where in the world Walcott was situated; but it matters even more that what he wrote was so extraordinary in its understanding, insight and sheer beauty. He was the very opposite of a local poet. I fell in love with his work when I first started reading poetry and I was still as excited and delighted by Morning Paramin, the book he published with the artist Peter Doig in 2016. A Walcott line is memorable and undeniable, and these at least remain with us: “as a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes/ white again and the book comes to a close”.

Fiona Sampson is an award-winning poet. Her latest books are “The Catch” (Penguin) and “Lyric Cousins: Poetry and Musical Form” (Edinburgh University Press).




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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition