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Bard of The Island Life

4 minute read
Paul Gray

IN HANDING OUT NOBEL PRIZES IN LITERature, the Swedish Academy is sometimes accused of political correctness, of paying undue attention to geopolitical and ethnic considerations. So in one respect, last week’s award to poet Derek Walcott was unsurprising. Of mixed ancestry (African, Dutch, English), Walcott was born 62 years ago on the tiny Windward Island of St. Lucia in what was then the British West Indies. A native Caribbean writer had never before won a Nobel Prize.

But nobody suggested after the announcement was made that Walcott had won * the laurel, worth $1.2 million, on charity. He has long been regarded as one of the finest living poets in English, an accolade made even more impressive by the struggles Walcott underwent to earn it.

Both of his parents were schoolteachers, although his father died when Walcott was only one, and the house in St. Lucia that he, his twin brother and older sister grew up in was filled with books. But the allure of the English language, and of the English poetry recited aloud in his classrooms, came tempered with a sense of exclusion from white British culture, the resentment felt by a subject of an alien, occupying power. In one of his early poems, he pondered his faraway African heritage and asked,

Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?

I who have cursed

The drunken officer of British rule, how choose

Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?

The tension between these divided loyalties animates nearly all of Walcott’s poetry. Rather than seeing his position as impossible — a poet on the margins of two mutually exclusive cultures — Walcott adopted this dilemma as one of his principal subjects. In this respect, much of his work is self-conscious; the point of contact between language and experience is, of necessity, the presiding poet, and the more difficult this contact is, the more visible the poet’s struggle becomes.

But Walcott never whines or indulges in unseemly confessions; he is, in fact, inordinately harsh with himself. Sometimes he claims his material is beyond or beneath the power of his art. In Gros-Ilet, he describes a small, desolate island village and concludes, “This is not the grape-purple Aegean. / There is no wine here, no cheese, the almonds are green, / the sea grapes bitter, the language is that of slaves.” At other times, he is worried that his devotion to the English language has severed him from the people of his childhood. The Light of the World portrays the visiting poet on a bus filled with village inhabitants:

And I had abandoned them, I knew that there

sitting in the transport, in the sea-quiet dusk,

with men hunched in canoes, and the orange lights

from the Vigie headland, black boats on the water;

I, who could never solidify my shadow

to be one of their shadows, had left them their earth,

their white rum quarrels, and their coal bags,

their hatred of corporals, of all authority.

| Such moments revivify nostalgia in the original, classical Greek sense: nostos (return) plus algos (pain). For years Walcott has divided his calendar equally between Boston, where he teaches literature and creative writing at Boston University, and a residence in Trinidad, a base for his frequent travels elsewhere in the Caribbean. This regular shuttling between two worlds has kept his poetry balanced between heartless skill and artless passion. The speakers of Walcott’s poems are half strangers wherever they find themselves, not because they want to be but because they have no choice. In The Lighthouse, an island vendor approaches the poet and smiles: “Fifty? Then/ you love home harder than youth!”

This is a specific statement about a concrete emotion — Walcott rarely generalizes or resorts to abstractions — and yet it echoes well beyond its given point of utterance. At their most intense, Walcott’s 10 volumes of poetry convey all the strangeness and exotica of island life — of poor, forgotten people surrounded by water on a margin of the earth — and make the whole spectacle as familiar as the view across the street.

It is misguided to praise poets for their subjects. Many of them, like Walcott, had little choice in the matter. What poets do with their inheritances means everything. And Walcott’s language has evolved from his early, rather stilted imitations of English poets into an instrument of marvelous flexibility: capable of grand, sweeping imagery but also of harsh interruptions and interjections, slang, pidgin and Creole patois and subtle Caribbean syncopations. The combined effect is a verbal radiance, of scenes illuminated by “a moon so bright / you can read palms by it.”

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