The language of assimilation

Print edition : December 19, 1998

In 1948, at the age of 18, Derek Walcott had to hawk copies of his first major literary work, a collection of poems entitled 25 Poems, in the streets of Castries, St. Lucia, to earn $200 to pay off a debt he owed his widowed mother. In 1992 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Descended from a white grandfather and a black grandmother on both the paternal and the maternal sides, Walcott is a living example of the divided loyalties and hatreds that have kept his society suspended between two worlds. Through his poetry and plays, Walcott creates a literary universe which reflects his diverse cultural background: Caribbean culture is an amalgam of African, Oriental and Occidental cultures. He borrows from Europe the established but flexible language of classical literature; from Africa and parts of the Orient mime, ritual dances and narrative; from Kabuki and Noh plays emphatic power, beauty, restrained gesture, rhythm and form. His widely acclaimed works include Omeros (1990), Three Plays (1986), Midsummer (1984), The Fortunate Traveller (1981), Another Life (1973), The Gulf and Other Poems (1969), Selected Poems (1964) and 25 Poems (1948).

Excerpts from an interview he gave Mujibur Rehman in Heidelberg, Ger-many:

What is poetry?

The description of poetry has always been an elusive thing. Poetry is common to every culture. I can react to a poem even in translation; to the feel of a poem from Africa or Malta in terms of what it does to me as a reader. In terms of composition, it is very hard to describe poetry because there are so many things that go into it. There are so many descriptions but they are not adequate - whether it is Wordsworth's idea of poetry being "emotion recollected in tranquillity" or "the best words in the best order". It is capable of moving us in the same way any art does, particularly in the astonishment of language, the element of surprise or in the accuracy of feeling.

What do you think should be the role of a poet in a society?

It depends on society. I think the poet and society should be left alone, because a poet does not want to be caught up in movements, or involved with political parties or political agendas. In times of stress, people turn to poetry in search of spiritual strength. In some cases, a poet's works become representative of the people or a country in terms of stress without the poet choosing any such role for them. I will say it is true of Mandelstram for Russia or Lorca for Spain because they represent the truth of their respective societies. A poet sometimes becomes a representative of his people.

You may find a poet in an armed struggle for the cause of his country. That does not mean that the poet does not feel that he could easily be fighting on the other side too. But he will not be allowed to see what goes on on the other side because it is a kind of treachery. Poetry is a kind of treachery in terms of norms - that is why Stalin persecuted Mandelstram, and Lorca was killed. This is a reality in the form of contradiction. People are trying to choose sides; the trouble with poetry is that it cannot choose sides.

What do you think is the most appropriate language for a writer?

Broadly there can be three types of writers. One who says, "I will write in the language of the people however gross or incomprehensible." Another says, "No-body else can understand this." The third is dedicated to purifying the language of the tribe. It is the third who is attacked from both sides for pretentiousness or playing white. He is the mulatto of style. The traitor. The assimilator.

I cannot say how a Caribbean writer can write in any language other than the language of assimilation. The Caribbean is a bridge between the Atlantic and the Americas. This is historical, geographic and cultural in experience. This cultural experience comes from all kinds of sources. It is Indian, African, Chinese and so on. In terms of assimilation,the wider the intelligence,the deeper the experience. So, only by assimilation can it absorb the best elements of the experiences. For example, a Chinese grocer is a descendent of a great Chinese poet culturally. That is true of an Indian peasant in Trinidad and an African somewhere else. It is not exactly true to talk of unifying everything. But, one should be open to all those things in the Caribbean, or else one may represent only one aspect of the Caribbean culture. This assimilation may be resisted politically but it is culturally inevitable as Caribbean music will show you. The language may be English or French, but the blending of the melodies makes Caribbean literature interesting, diverse and even contradictory.

Who are the writers that influenced you?


Everything I have read thoroughly has influenced me, I hope. Right from reading the literature of the Anglo Saxons, the Jacobeans, or of the Shakespearean period or, for that matter, any English poet, one begins with a sense of apprenticeship. If one is lucky, one begins at an early age. I was lucky I started that apprenticeship. It included works from other languages, from other poets. Some of the influences are obvious in the works I did earlier. I think in terms of a collection of voices I hear in my head and the works of so many people I have read - it is a tribute to that. People trace the influences. I am not interested in originality. An originality of identity is the worst kind of vanity.

Why do you then write poetry? What drives you to do so?

I write because I have to do it. That is a voice in my head. I write for myself in the beginning. I do not write because I want to make other people better. I do not do it because I want to present my country or my race in a particular light. I am going through a process, the dictation of which says that out of these a phrase or a line is to be made. There is no direct intent. In prose, you have a direct intent. You have to start with a margin, from left or right or vice versa. In poetry what you think may be the beginning or the middle or the end. This does not happen in prose - you know where you are heading in prose. In poetry, you are not in control of the direction.

How has criticism contributed to your poetry?

Criticisms come from different directions. On the one hand, when they come from my own folks - from the Caribbean - they find me not rooted. From the other side - from the United States or from the United Kingdom - they find my language too ornate, exuberant, etc. They would say the same thing about my culture - our carnival, our music. That does not bother me. I would rather be identified with that direction of Caribbean culture - in terms of music, language, elan - than this sort of staid, reticent, pseudo-modest criticisms coming from places like New York or London.

Literature coming from former colonies are deeply influenced by the literature of their former colonising countries. So, this new literature is viewed as a derivative, also as subservient. What is your opinion?

It is stupid to blame people for history. You cannot blame a writer for the history he comes from. For example, the history of the Caribbean is a sad one - slavery, indenture, exploitation, acts of great cruelty. That is a part of the experience. To criticise one for expressing this experience in English or French is an extension of the same imperial attitude. Some think they are saving people. Saving from what? From a language? What is the damage done by the language? I do not understand it. If you want to write a novel - let us say, in Jamaican as opposed to English, Creole as opposed to French - you are free to choose.I think what happens is that a writer writes in a language he or she thinks in. I do not want to feel guilty for the fact that I think in English. If you want to say: "Oh! What a pity! Caribbean literature depends so much on English or on French", you can carry that point to the point of insanity.

What is the messsage you would like to give young writers?

It depends on where I am. If I am speaking to a young West Indian writer, things are a little easier. It is no longer difficult to see a book published. It is no longer surprising. Things are little easier, rather they have been made easier. But the writer should not get caught in race, religion or politics. He could be passionate about justice. In the Caribbean, people insist on certain ways to express oneself, such as the African way is very dictatorial, and that the Indian way is another kind. One has to avoid being labelled racially.

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