Derek Walcott

Unfettered mind

Print edition : April 14, 2017

Derek Walcott, a May 2007 photograph. Photo: PEDRO REY/AFP

The poet Derek Walcott (1930-2017) lived life on his own terms.

DEREK WALCOTT studied French, English and Latin in university but chose to write in English. His words were his subjects; the world of literature was his kingdom. He never came to New Delhi, or to much of Asia. But his works did. His own world was limited, but that of his imagination was unbounded. He had few friends; those in the rarefied circle were party to the world of a loner, a man who believed in love, yet did not always back it up with humility and patience. Each of his wives inspired him to pen special words; his partner Sigrid Nama stood by him, too.

His first wife left him after two tumultuous years in the mid 1950s. This was a prelude to a succession of marriages, each following a familiar script: fleeting love, lasting sorrow. They combined to give Walcott’s life a tinge of melancholy, and his writing a sense of sadness; indeed, as he often said, poetry is “very happy when it is very sad”. He was often guilty of mistaking lust for love and affable company for sensual intimacy.

When he was close to 80, he is said to have propositioned one of his female students after she read out to him an erotic poem she had composed. It was an indiscretion that was to have repercussions, immediate and durable. After the girl complained that Walcott had given her a lower grade because she had spurned him, she was given a higher grade. It was a hard pill to swallow, the support of his friends notwithstanding. It put an end to Walcott’s aspirations to rise further in Oxford University.

Indeed, as the incident proved, Walcott could be both wise and reckless, witty and indiscreet. His failure to draw a line would always be held against him. But if one had said that to Walcott, he would have taken it happily. He lived his life on his own terms. He wrote in his own way, too.

Walcott started writing early. His first set of poems was out when he was 14, helped no doubt by his schoolteacher mother who somehow believed that her son would rule the world of literature. Indeed, he was a much loved boy, and from early on set about to prove his mother right. The presence of his twin brother, Roderick, only made things easier; one brother put pen to paper, the other opted for the crests and troughs of theatre. It was to be a decision that would sit easy with both, barring the tumultuous years of unforgiving adolescence. Later, when Derek also started writing plays, they even collaborated on stage.

on the highway of literature

The first step he took at the age of 14 when he came up with “1944”, the poem being named after the year of its publication, set Walcott irrevocably on the highway of literature. Right until the age of 87, Walcott penned a world all his own. Yet such was the power of his imagination that his immediate, personal thoughts and expressions found universal acceptance.

At heart he was a Caribbean writer, never mind that he detested the classification of poets and writers and, indeed, artists, into white or black, Caribbean or European. Maybe without realising it, Walcott brought the spirit of the region to his writings, making the English-speaking world sit up and take notice. Here was someone who understood the language in a way uniquely his own, independent of the British method and spirit. He could caress words, he could make them glisten like the beach sand. He could also make them hurt, like the rays of the sharp sun on the shore. Maybe there was a colonial hangover, maybe there was an influence of local folk lore. And there was certainly an unavoidable stamp of faith.

As the years rolled by, for Walcott writing became like love-making, instant, passionate, natural. How a particular passage would finally pan out, he never knew. It was all about the moment; for how long he would write, or how briefly, did not matter. He did withdraw to relatively less frequented hotels and restaurants when he wanted to write though.

Occasionally, he just wrote when the urge overcame him, wherever, whatever. He tapped into oral tradition, landscape, social mores, and undoubtedly the classics. From Homer to Shakespeare to Yeats, even Dante, he considered nobody too big, no writer flawless, no word worthless. Incidentally, his was a sea-facing house with calm waters and swinging branches of trees completing the picture. The sea helped him discover a raging storm inside his chest. The trees gave him the freedom of swinging freely, fearlessly.

His parents were his major influence. His mother was instrumental in shaping the man he was to become, the poet the world admired. The hymns and the poems she sang as she went about her chores at home, introduced young Derek to the rhythm and metre of words. Not to forget his father, who was a watercolourist. He passed away when Derek was just one.

Walcott chose to paint with words, no detail too fine for him, nothing too trivial. Incidentally, he did not always keep the watercolourist in him in the background. The artist was always there, or thereabouts, lurking in the shadows. The painter in him emerged when he designed the covers of many of his books.

Posterity usually talks of a masterpiece to judge the worth of a writer, a poet or an artist. In the case of Walcott, whose oeuvre included poetry, theatre, painting, academics and even journalism, it was all epic, even his relatively smaller works —remember Jean Rhys? Well, not many have forgotten. For many beyond St. Lucia, the West Indian island where he was born in 1930, The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979) was a passport to durable acquaintance though it was preceded by a long way by works such as Twenty Five Poems (1948), and Another Life (1973). Not to forget In a Green Night: Poems (1962).

His Omeros, which came in 1990 and was followed by the Nobel Prize in 1992 as also the W.H. Smith literary award, reminded his readers of Homer’s The Odyssey. Walcott did not always talk about himself, yet he penned an autobiographical poem, Another Life, in which he talked of his father. He waited much longer to repay his debt to his mother. It came in 1997 with The Bounty. Soon after came Tiepolo’s Hound, in which he gave a panoramic view of his life, his indiscretions, his failings, his strengths, his character. It featured at length his art works. In many ways the book was a blend of the pen and the brush. Of course, he signed off with “Morning, Paramin”.

He chose his friends with care. Among them he counted Joseph Brodsky and Arthur Miller. Little surprise there, considering Walcott himself was no mean playwright, having written and directed around 80 plays. Yet, he considered his theatre as not much more than a vain exercise! The Capeman, a massive flop, fits the description. Not so his other works such as Dream on Monkey Mountain or Ione, which he penned soon after his first marriage failed. He spent a number of years of his early life in Trinidad, where he wrote 20 plays and founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. His theatre of those years was charged up, often highlighting racial prejudices and political inequities. He raged against the division of theatre into white man’s theatre and black theatre.

Yet, with Walcott one could say that his words had no race, no religion, no country, no continent. In all his works there was no doubt a reassertion of his Caribbean identity, but this in turn found a resonance across the world, the local transforming into the global. His poems, though based in his place of origin, traversed the universe of human emotions.

Walcott did not lack detractors, the chief among them being the formidable V.S. Naipaul, a man whose trajectory of life and literature often ran parallel to Walcott’s. Naipaul is a man difficult to like, let alone love. Walcott made no attempt or even pretence, at either and was happy to dub Naipaul “NightFall”. Not for a moment did the impropriety of the expression affect him. He said it, as he meant to say it. Just like his poems, his plays. He did not forgive easily. Back in 2008, at the Calabash festival, he remarked: “I have been bitten, I must avoid infection. Or else, I will be dead as Naipaul’s fiction,”

For a man who did not interact with people unless compelled to, Walcott, surprisingly, taught at a number of places, including Boston, Yale and Columbia. His students were not always happy with his ways; two of his female students alleged improper advances.

Often his students were at the receiving end of his own expectations. He brooked no mediocrity and wanted to hear nothing but intense debate on literary greats from his students. It often proved too tall a task for youngsters and left them feeling slighted. It left Walcott seething. His contemporaries sniggered about Walcott’s own ways of conversation, both oral and written. He was seldom above innuendos and not often politically correct. He hardly ever answered his snail mail.

Yet, give him a pen and Walcott was a warrior. Give him a stage, Walcott was a soldier. Let him walk the long miles of life, Walcott would come back a loner, a touch wistful, a touch nostalgic. The knight of the Order of St. Lucia can rest easy. Derek Walcott will need no favour from anybody. His place in the pantheon of literary greats is safe.