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18 March 2017

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. 

By Fiona Sampson

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.

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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. 

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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).