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The poet by whom the English language lives

Derek Walcott, the poet-chronicler of the island life, died, aged 87, in Saint Lucia, Caribbean, on March 17 after a long illness. He set out to be as transparent and truthful as possible, as he promises earlier on in Islands from In A Green Night (1962), his first serious volume of poetry, which collects his work from 1948 to 1960:

I seek,

As climate seeks its style, to write

Verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight,

Cold as the curled wave, ordinary

As a tumbler of island water.

He became not only the most distinguished poet and playwright of the English-speaking Caribbean but also one of the great writers of the modern age.

He was born Derek Alton, along with his twin Roderick Aldon, to Alix and Warwick Walcott in Castries, Saint Lucia, on January 23 1930 in what was then the British West Indies.

They were only a year old when their father died. It was their schoolteacher mother who provided the 18-year-old Walcott with the financial assistance that enabled him to publish his first book, 25 Poems, in 1948.

He attended the University College of West Indies at Mona, Jamaica, on scholarship and obtained a Bachelor of Arts, after which he moved to Trinidad in 1953 to become a secondary school teacher and critic.

It’s remarkable that the small population of Saint Lucia did not hinder it from producing not one but two Nobel laureates. Sir Arthur Lewis received the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in economic sciences in 1979. This was awarded jointly to him and American economist Theodore W Schultz “for their pioneering research into economic development research with particular consideration of the problems of developing countries”.

Walcott received the 1992 Nobel prize in literature “for a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment”. He is one of only three black recipients of the Nobel literature prize, together with the Nigerian dramatist, novelist and poet Wole Soyinka (1986) and the American novelist Toni Morrison (1993).

“It is no partisan or excess zeal that prompts me, at every opportunity, to claim Derek Walcott as one of the greatest poets, in any language or culture, of the twentieth century,” declared Soyinka. “Derek had a great feel for nature and history, within whose matrix he so lyrically situated and wove his island tapestry. His muse was the sea, but he celebrated his continent of ancestry, Africa, as his rightful bequest, without sentiment, and without blindness.”

In awarding the Nobel to Walcott, the Swedish Academy declared: “In him West Indian culture has found its great poet.”

That acclaim, though, was not always forthcoming. Fellow Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney remarked that “Walcott possesses English more deeply and sonorously than most of the English themselves,” seemingly echoing one of the great poets of World War I, Robert Graves, who said in 1964 that “Derek Walcott handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most (if not any) of his English-born contemporaries.”

In 1986, another friend who would be a Nobel laureate, Joseph Brodsky, highlighted “the unwillingness of the critical profession to admit that the great poet of the English language is a black man”.

In the November 10 1983 issue of the New York Review of Books, Brodsky paid a touching tribute to Walcott by citing these lines from WH Auden in In Memory of WB Yeats:

Time that is intolerant

Of the brave and innocent,

And indifferent in a week

To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives

Everyone by whom it lives.

Then Brodsky added: “There are few indeed who fall into that category; Derek Walcott is one of them. He is the man by whom the English language lives.” Although his work is elevated and enriched by the dissonances and impulses of high modernism, Walcott rarely failed, in more than half a century, to engage with his place and time with an immediacy of voice and vision that has a sensuous, seductive appeal all its own:

I’m just a red nigger who loved the sea,

I had a sound colonial education,

I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,

and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation …

These lines, taken from Walcott’s The Schooner Flight, ironically depict the poet-persona’s complicated ethnic and racial identity and its inherent possibilities: the richness and robustness of Walcott’s oeuvre seems to have come from the intricacy of that identity and yet a corresponding intimacy of landscape and vision.

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?

Betray them both, or give back what they give?

How can I face such slaughter and be cool?

How can I turn from Africa and live?

Witness how, in these lines from A Far Cry from Africa, Walcott tackles the struggle of the deracinated, caught between cultures.
The dilemma and despair of the exile trying to negotiate the liminal space of in-between – the space that has been able to hold the variety
and the vitality of his work for well over half a century, which now, poignantly, constitutes his lasting legacy.

Some of his other collections of poetry include Another Life (1973), Sea Grapes (1976), The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), The Arkansas Testament (1987), The Bounty (1997), The Prodigal (2004) and White Egrets (2010), among others. His epic, Omeros, appeared in 1990.

Walcott should be remembered for, among other reasons, co-founding, in 1959, the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, still the closest space the Caribbean has had to a national theatre. He also wrote – Ti-Jean and His Brothers (1958) and Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967).

Sea at Dauphin (1954), together with Soyinka’s The Swamp Dwellers (1958) and Athol Fugard’s The Island (1973), bears the influence of John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea (1904).

He should also be read for his sensuous appeal, his sensitivity to nature and the predicament of the human condition, the depth and complexity he brings to his explorations of exile and migration, history and displacement, language and the island life.

It seems only fair and proper to highlight an allegedly less flattering, less palatable aspect of his character and conduct, which would haunt him. In 1982, Harvard felt compelled to change to a pass the poor grade of a student of Walcott’s poetry class, reprimanding Walcott after the student had accused him of propositioning her and awarding her the low grade of a C when she declined his overtures.

Walcott may or may not have done a good job of clearing his name, if he ever bothered to.

This scenario and similar allegations of sexual impropriety at Boston would haunt his failed bid in 2009 for the professorship in poetry at the University of Oxford, England.

Ruth Padel, who also contested the professorship and seemed to have been implicated in a smear campaign against Walcott, may not have been immune to a certain pettiness, even if she eventually recused herself from the same poetry professorship.

It is important to discuss allegations of sexual impropriety against Walcott to revive the tension or conflict between the questionable alleged nature of someone’s personal or professional conduct and that person’s greatness won in their area of expertise.

Besides, the allegations should not be swept under the carpet in favour of acknowledging Walcott as one of the greatest poets ever to write in English – or any language. In spite of that, the art and artistry – the plays, paintings and, above all, the poetry – of Walcott has lived and lasted.

Walcott is survived by a son, Peter, from his marriage to Fay Moyston; two daughters, Elizabeth and Anna, from his marriage in 1962 to Margaret Maillard, and his German-born long-time partner Sigrid Nama.

Idowu Omoyele is a student of the Graduate School in Humanities at the University of Cape Town

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