The Genius of Derek Walcott

When the news spread, just over a month ago, that Derek Walcott had passed, it came devoid of the alarm we tend to associate with calamity. It was the sort of headline that makes you sigh knowingly rather than making your heart jump or skip a beat—more an ellipsis than an exclamation mark. He was after all 87, and had been battling illness for some time. And yet, though inexorable, Walcott’s departure has had more than a symbolic effect, galvanizing the Caribbean literary community around his figure and his achievements, rekindling the profound admiration inspired by a man outsized only by his personality, bringing back to relevance all kinds of anecdotes and memories in a phenomenon that to readers in Anguilla will sound similar to the aftermath of Ronald Webster’s death last year, and that readers elsewhere will undoubtedly be acquainted with, even if in the more reduced microcosm of family or local communities. In some sense, Walcott has been more alive these past few weeks than he had been for years.

To some extent this was always going to be the case, given his extraordinary literary career, his legacy, but also his nomadic life and mixed heritage—in other words, given that he encompassed in a single life the totality of the Caribbean experience. Somehow he made it easy for everyone to claim a piece of Walcott, though no one could comfortably claim him in full, perhaps not even Walcott himself. He was above all St. Lucian, of course, though Trinidad played a key role in his life (just as he played a key role in the development of Trinidad’s cultural life) and by his own admission he owed everything he owned to the United States. What I didn’t know until last week was that Sint Maarten had an oblique but crucial influence on the greatest poet the region has ever produced, for his mother, Alix Maarlin, “Teacher Alix” as she was affectionately known, was a S’maatener. Which brings us back to the beginning.

For before Derek there was Warwick Walcott, the great poet’s father, a civil servant from Barbados and an enthusiast of literature and drama who set up a small community, a group of friends, really, which he dubbed the Star Literary Club. In St. Lucia. In the 1920s. One of the members of the club was Alix, the daughter of Caroline Maarlin and Johannes Diederick van Romondt, who’d left Sint Maarten for St. Lucia as a young girl. Alix would act in the theatricals performed by the Star Literary Club, building a strong bond with Warwick, whom she would go on to marry. Alix might not have been granted the van Romondt name but one thing she carried over from her days in Sint Maarten was her affiliation to the Methodist church, a further bulwark in her relationship with Warwick. In 1928 the couple had their first child, Pamela, followed one and a half years later by twins, Roderick (“Roddy”) and Derek. Tragedy struck just over a year later as Warwick contracted an ear infection that ultimately cost him his life. Alix, a teacher and a seamstress, was left to raise three young children on her own, and though Derek has acknowledged the presence of his aunts (Warwick’s sisters) in his childhood, it would be his mother’s support and his father’s physical absence which would most palpably shape his early development.

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Derek’s The Swimmer (1993). Source: artnet.com

Walcott often talked about his mother’s profound love for her husband and how her devotion to him indirectly exposed him to his father. Surrounded by his large collection of books and a number of paintings of Warwick’s creation, Derek and Roddy both discovered their artistic inclinations. In the case of Derek it initially took the shape of painting, a discipline he would continue to cultivate until the very end of his life. But even at an early age Walcott understood that he had to make a decision—or rather, he understood that if he had to choose between poetry and painting (or anything else, for that matter) it wouldn’t even be close: poetry would win hands down, because that was simply his calling. He was just a teenager, but the foundations—Methodism, aesthetic pleasure, everyday life in St. Lucia—of what would become the most remarkable of literary productions had been firmly set.

Always prolific, Walcott was not terribly fazed by the challenges posed by the total absence of a publishing industry not only in his country but in the entire region. At age 14 he borrowed $250 from his mother to fund the printing of his first book, 25 Poems, which he sold among family and friends to repay his loan. Two more collections followed, as well as several plays, one of which, Henri Christophe, was performed in 1950 by the St. Lucia Arts Guild, which he had founded.

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Trinidad Theatre Workshop, est. 1959. Source: pleasurett.blogspot.com

After completing his degree at University College Mona in Jamaica, Walcott moved to Trinidad in 1953, where he would embark on one of the most remarkable episodes of his career. Together with Roddy he set up the Trinidad Theatre Workshop at the Little Carib Theatre in Port of Spain in 1959. Over the next seventeen years he would be part of one of the most exciting cultural endeavors in the region with both himself and his brother becoming accomplished playwrights, and the company bringing to life works from all around the world in an intimate setting with fully engaged audiences. Years later, in a lengthy interview published by the Paris Review, Walcott would still be overcome by the sense of accomplishment when he spoke about the Theatre Workshop, comparing its stage to a bullring, or a cockfight ring. Some of Walcott’s most respected work, not only on the stage, stems from this period, in particular his play Dream on Monkey Mountain (1970), which was followed in 1972 by The Joker of Seville (1972), a Caribbean reworking of Tirso de Molina’s baroque masterpiece depicting the exploits of Don Juan.

While drama took center stage all this while in Walcott’s production, he wrote his plays in verse and further built his profile as a poet with the publication of several collections by Jonathan Cape in London, beginning with In a Green Night in 1962. Though Walcott later referred to much of his early work as juvenilia, his poems from the 1960s, lush and bright like the Caribbean, are really an exploration into the limits of form and the essence of his own self, an inward journey through both the nature of poetry and of Caribbean identity which eventually made possible the miracle of his later production.

796999It isn’t coincidental that Walcott reached maturity in terms of his verse while the Trinidad Workshop was going through a period of turbulence. After the book-length autobiographical poem Another Life (1973) Walcott produced two of his most acclaimed collections, Sea Grapes (1976) and The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979). Curiously, it was from Sea Grapes that both John Robert Lee and Mc Donald Dixon, two of St. Lucia’s prominent writers, chose to read last week in the tribute paid to Walcott during the Caribbean Writers Conference in Guadeloupe. Mac in particular looked affected by the reading, his pulse quivering as he fiddled with the book in his hands, his voice not quite breaking but stuttering, as if reticent to find Walcott’s characteristic cadence. I later asked him about reading the Walcott poem onstage. “Boy, I was shaking,” he admitted, “I missed him there, you know. I hadn’t missed him so much yet, but I missed him just now.” Mac was a good friend of Walcott’s, and he would most probably have missed him regardless of what he read, but the fact that it was a poem from Sea Grapes is not insignificant, because at this stage of his career Walcott was distilling more of himself into his poems. That is not to say his previous work is less genuine or more conceited—it isn’t. But by now Walcott didn’t have to concern himself with playing the role of poet: by now he was a poet, regardless of what he did and this allowed him the freedom to be more candid, more raw, more Walcott.

Though he once said poets should only write about a perimeter no greater than 20 miles around them, with increased fame and exposure Walcott’s nucleus became more and more itinerant. Trinidad was replaced by New York and Boston, a city he learned to love (he once said Boston should be the capital of Canada—and I don’t think he meant it in a good way) thanks to his position at the university, where he taught for twenty years, not always free of controversy. In 1981 The Fortunate Traveller introduced new topics to his work: there is awe at the changes he experiences as he travels through America and Europe; and there is the humble, haunting recognition that he is part of the privileged few who are able to travel at will and return home when they want to; there are impressionistic representations of the beauty he encounters in Italy and Spain, in buildings and people, a theme that would continue to shape his work until his acclaimed final book of poems, White Egrets (2010) in which he is particularly troubled by his recurrent fascination with the female sex and the numerous young women who entertain his fantasies; but The Fortunate Traveller is at its best when Walcott deals with his islands, both St. Lucia and in particular Trinidad, which is the subject of the most powerful, most heartfelt poems in the collection.

220px-omerosbookIf Walcott’s production had ended in the 1980s it would already have been prodigious, insightful, profoundly influential. Luckily, however, it didn’t. Luckily he had the stamina, the imagination and the guts to pursue through the late eighties and into the nineties his “Homeric” works, which ultimately earned him the Nobel Prize. Published in 1990, Omeros is not so much a reworking or even an interpretation of the Iliad, but rather an astute juxtaposition of the vessels (names, forms, structure) of a number of Western traditions, from Homer to Dante, quite literally jammed onto the ordinary challenges of everyday life in his natal St. Lucia. The result is mesmerizing in its beauty, engaging in its inventiveness and impressive in its scale. But it is a lot more than that because by arbitrarily transporting familiar elements of the hegemonic Western culture onto the exotic setting of St. Lucia he isn’t so much elevating the unglamorous context (Helen is a waitress, Achilles a fisherman) of this New World to epic status (though it could be argued he is doing that too), he is instead sucking the traditional meaning out of these well-known vehicles of learning and impregnating the empty shells with aspects of the Caribbean reality that might be different or even contrary to the original content. In some sense, then, by appropriating and corrupting tradition Walcott reverses the dynamics of colonization and directs it against the dominant culture.

Omeros is the culmination of forty years of introspective contemplation into the essence of Caribbean identity. In love with English as much as he was with the landscape of his homeland, Walcott fiercely believed in the need to marry in a single culture, in a single gesture, in a single poem the legacy of the colonist and the colonized, the cadence of Africa, the containment of Methodism, the oppression of the slave driver and the pain of the oppressed. He believed in the power of the word like most Christians believe in the power of prayer. For Walcott poetry was a source of strength and knowledge and beauty and healing power, it was a magical mechanism of discovery and creation, a common database, almost, available to mankind regardless of the language or the culture. And yet, he was proud, happy, excited to have been around at a time when Caribbean literature, certainly in English language, was pretty much in its infancy. With no other tongues but his genius he yanked that child straight into adolescence, which is why his production can be intimidating. But we should not recoil, we should be equally happy, equally proud, equally excited to follow on his gigantic footsteps.

 

 

 

Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday April 22, 2017

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