Dear Professor Walcott,
I almost saw you once. I went to the Southbank Centre in London to hear you read during my last year as an undergraduate, when I’d spent a week curled up with Omeros, your (very) loose interpretation of Homer’s two classics, trying to work out why the narrative of a place I didn’t know, seen through the eyes of a man I had little in common with (I’m sorry, but I was on Ruth Padel’s side), had me so tightly in its grasp.
I wasn’t sure yet about your grandiosity, your women always sleeping or washing or leaving, the poem’s veering sidetracks into European cities and 19th century Native American activism.
But I was held by your meter, lulling and challenging as an ocean – and by your lines, each cutting and independent as a ray of light. I was held by the metaphors you layered onto and onto a single thing until it held a whole culture, a whole mind, a whole view of human-ness. You did this, looking at the sea and at white egrets, sea-grapes, herons and the moon, for sixty-five years.
(And I’d loved the Omeros moment when the narrator-you met Homer, and admitted you never actually read the Odyssey, “Not all the way through.” As a magpie reared on overview – a term on medieval literature, a compilation of New Orleans jazz, a Malaysian taster platter – I got that.)
But it was April 2010: a volcano had erupted in Iceland, shutting down air traffic over Europe. I remember being annoyed, even angry, but also a little relieved. Part of me wanted to keep your poems in my own imagination, your metre in my internal voice.
I think you’d understand that. After all, you were the poet who claimed that each sitting-down to write was a renewal of anonymity.
And you were the creole writer who liked to flourish the roots of things – from Africa to Europe, childhood to Homer, Creole to Latin, black painter father to white grandfather who burned himself alive – and then pull them away, more and more roots until your poetry strained with the effort of containing everything, and became something new.
Perhaps every poem is as creole as a human, gathering in everything seen and felt, and becoming something not stable enough to be copied. Or perhaps I loved Omeros’ swelling waves because I was falling in love with London’s créolité and yearning for my mother’s creole country at the same time. You championed créolité, working against the British fantasy of benign empire and Aimé Césaire’s négritude to insist that your island was its own place, not a displaced Africa or Europe – and that being one of the first to write it was a privilege, not a lack.
Since 1992, St Lucia has the greatest number of Nobel winners per capita: two. Sir Arthur Lewis created economic development plans for former colonies; you ran theatre companies, insisted on your right to English and French and Creole and anything else you knew, and with a small band of peers created written Caribbean literature, and with it the 20th century. You were the Crusoe of your long poem “Crusoe’s Journal,” sitting on an island and naming things until they were yours.
You also told us, in Crusoe’s voice, that “to change your language you must change your life.”
Professor Walcott, I think my own island is dying. England is hankering for a time before you could speak, Scotland ponders the unitedness of the kingdom, and voices all over the world insist that places and people can only be one thing or another. I worry that these times will undo the 20th century, will send professors and poets back to their small islands, and then leave those islands to drown.
You say most modern poetry could fit in parentheses. I’m going to take that as a challenge. You explained how grandiosity is part of performance, how those we talk to deserve a show, not a whisper, and I want to be as bold as you: the fourteen-year-old boy, black in 1944, Methodist in a country of Catholics, whose first local publication was an epic denunciation, in Miltonic blank verse, of the priesthood.
When new worries keep washing up like waves, different yet the same each time, it’s easy to panic that there’s nothing we can do. But as you witnessed your time, and helped shape it, I promise to witness mine – and to try.
Colette Sensier is a British poet based in New Orleans. A winner of the Tower, Foyle and Peterloo poetry prizes, her latest poetry collection is Skinless (Eyewear Publishing).