by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
It’s not easy to sum up a person’s life. No one is just one thing, and no one stays the same from one year to the next, especially when a single event can radically alter someone’s life’s course. We are the sum of our years, our experiences, and the impact of the people we meet along the way.
Derek Walcott (1930-2017) was an outstanding poet and playwright. He was born in Castries, a harbor town, population about 20,000, which is the capital of the small island nation of Saint Lucia, located in the West Indies.
The French were the island’s first European settlers. They signed a treaty with the native Carib Indians in 1660. England took control of the island from 1663 to 1667, then was at war with France 14 times, so rule of the island changed frequently (it was ruled seven times each by the French and British). In 1814, the British took control of the island until its independence.
Because of the early French influence, the majority of islanders were Catholic, but the Walcott family were part of a Methodist minority. His mother taught at Castries’ Methodist school. The family was of mixed English, Dutch and African descent. Both his grandmothers were descendants of slaves. His father worked as a civil servant, but was a watercolorist and sometime poet. Walcott also had a sister and a twin brother. His father died at the age of 31, leaving his mother to raise three young children on her own. While they spoke the English-French patois of the island, his mother was fond of Shakespeare and other classic English writers, and often read them aloud to her children.
Walcott would later say: “I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation.”
Those villages stricken with the melancholia of Sunday,
in all of whose ocher streets one dog is sleeping
those volcanoes like ashen roses, or the incurable sore
of poverty, around whose puckered mouth thin boys are
selling yellow sulphur stone
the burnt banana leaves that used to dance
the river whose bed is made of broken bottles
the cocoa grove where a bird whose cry sounds green and
yellow and in the lights under the leaves crested with
orange flame has forgotten its flute
gommiers peeling from sunburn still wrestling to escape the sea
the dead lizard turning blue as stone
those rivers, threads of spittle, that forgot the old music
that dry, brief esplanade under the drier sea almonds
where the dry old men sat
watching a white schooner stuck in the branches
and playing draughts with the moving frigate birds
those hillsides like broken pots
those ferns that stamped their skeletons on the skin
and those roads that begin reciting their names at vespers
mention them and they will stop
those crabs that were willing to let an epoch pass
those herons like spinsters that doubted their reflections
those nettles that waited
those Sundays, those Sundays
those Sundays when the lights at the road’s end were an occasion
those Sundays when my mother lay on her back
those Sundays when the sisters gathered like white moths
round their street lantern
and cities passed us by on the horizon
Though he wrote poetry from an early age – a local paper published one of his poems when he was 14 – he originally studied painting with Harold Simmons, a local painter, journalist and folklorist, who expanded Walcott’s knowledge of Saint Lucia’s history along with teaching him painting techniques.
Walcott would choose English as the language of his poetry, but his awareness of British imperialism and his island’s past years of slavery often made it an uneasy choice. At the age of 18, he borrowed $200 from his mother and self-published his first book, called simply 25 Poems, which he sold on street corners. He began his college education at St. Mary’s College on the island, then studied at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.
Schizophrenic, wrenched by two styles,
one a hack’s hired prose, I earn
me exile. I trudge this sickle, moonlit beach for miles,
to slough off
this live of ocean that’s self-love.
To change your language you must change your life.
I cannot right old wrongs.
Waves tire of horizon and return.
Gulls screech with rusty tongues
Above the beached, rotting pirogues,
they were a venomous beaked cloud at Charlotteville.
Once I thought love of country was enough,
now, even if I chose, there is no room at the trough.
I watch the best minds rot like dogs
for scraps of flavour.
I am nearing middle
age, burnt skin
peels from my hand like paper, onion-thin,
like Peer Gynt’s riddle.
At heart there is nothing, not the dread
of death. I know too many dead.
They’re all familiar, all in character,
even how they died. On fire,
the flesh no longer fears that furnace mouth
that kiln or ashpit of the sun,
nor this clouding, unclouding sickle moon
withering this beach again like a blank page.
All its indifference is a different rage.
His trip to Jamaica was only the beginning of a life full of journeys to other places.
After the Storm
There are so many islands!
As many islands as the stars at night
on that branched tree from which meteors are shaken
like falling fruit around the schooner Flight.
But things must fall, and so it always was,
on one hand Venus, on the other Mars;
fall, and are one, just as this earth is one
island in archipelagoes of stars.
My first friend was the sea. Now, is my last.
I stop talking now. I work, then I read,
cotching under a lantern hooked to the mast.
I try to forget what happiness was,
and when that don’t work, I study the stars.
Sometimes is just me, and the soft-scissored foam
as the deck turn white and the moon open
a cloud like a door, and the light over me
is a road in white moonlight taking me home.
Shabine sang to you from the depths of the sea.
cotching – to rest against or lean on for support (Jamaican English)
Shabine – a part-white mixed-race woman, used as the title of Hazel Simmons McDonald’s story about the infatuation of He, the unnamed storyteller, for Justine, a mixed-race woman of Saint Lucia.
In 1953, Walcott moved to Trinidad, where he worked as a theatre and art critic. The following year, he married Fay Moston, who came from a wealthy Jamaican family. They had one child, Peter Walcott, who grew up to be a well-known painter, now living on St. Lucia.
Walcott’s play, Drums and Colours, brought him a Rockefeller Foundation grant, and he went to New York City to learn the skills he needed to form a company in Trinidad, but soon realized that New York theatre was very different from what he envisioned, and returned to Trinidad. His marriage ended in divorce in 1959, the same year he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, which produced many of his early plays, most of them explorations of the myths and culture of the Caribbean. He remained the director of the Workshop until 1971.
During this period, he lived with, and then married Margaret Maillard, an almoner in a Port of Spain hospital, but also a painter and dancer. They had two daughters, Elizabeth and Ann, before they divorced.
Broad sun-stoned beaches.
A green river.
scorched yellow palms
from the summer-sleeping house
drowsing through August.
Days I have held,
days I have lost,
days that outgrow, like daughters,
my harbouring arms.
In 1962, his first major collection of poems, In a Green Night: Poems 1948–1960, was published by the prestigious Jonathan Cape publishing house. Derek Walcott was now a poet of note.
American poet Robert Lowell came to Trinidad to meet him, and strongly influenced Farrar, Straus and Giroux to sign Walcott as one of their authors.
In the 1970s, Walcott began teaching creative writing at top U.S. universities like Harvard and Columbia, while also publishing collections of his plays and poetry. In the mid-1970s, he had an affair with Norline Metivier, a young dancer in one of his plays. He married her in 1976, but it quickly ended in divorce.
Walcott was not entirely comfortable with his success in this mostly white upper-class world. He resisted being labeled a “black writer” insisting that he was a Caribbean writer.
Better a jungle in the head
than rootless concrete.
Better to stand bewildered
by the fireflies’ crooked street;
winter lamps do not show
where the sidewalk is lost,
nor can these tongues of snow
speak for the Holy Ghost;
the self-increasing silence
of words dropped from a roof
points along iron railings,
direction, in not proof.
But best is this night surf
with slow scriptures of sand,
that sends, not quite a seraph,
but a late cormorant,
whose fading cry propels
through phosphorescent shoal
what, in my childhood gospels,
used to be called the Soul.
From 1981 to 2007, he taught literature and creative writing at Boston University, and established Boston Playwrights’ Theatre to promote plays by new playwrights. In 1987, during one of his readings at Pittsburg, Walcott met Sigrid Nama, a Danish-Flemish-American art dealer. They lived together until his death.
So much rain, so much life like the swollen sky
of this black August. My sister, the sun,
broods in her yellow room and won’t come out.
Everything goes to hell; the mountains fume
like a kettle, rivers overrun; still,
she will not rise and turn off the rain.
She is in her room, fondling old things,
my poems, turning her album. Even if thunder falls
like a crash of plates from the sky,
she does not come out.
Don’t you know I love you but am hopeless
at fixing the rain ? But I am learning slowly
to love the dark days, the steaming hills,
the air with gossiping mosquitoes,
and to sip the medicine of bitterness,
so that when you emerge, my sister,
parting the beads of the rain,
with your forehead of flowers and eyes of forgiveness,
all with not be as it was, but it will be true
(you see they will not let me love
as I want), because, my sister, then
I would have learnt to love black days like bright ones,
The black rain, the white hills, when once
I loved only my happiness and you.
His Homeric epic poem Omeros, published in 1990, is considered by many critics as Walcott’s major achievement.
BOOK SIX – Chapter XLIV
In hill-towns, from San Fernando to Mayagüez,
the same sunrise stirred the feathered lances of cane
down the archipelago’s highways. The first breeze
rattled the spears and their noise was like distant rain
marching down from the hills, like a shell at your ears.
In the cool asphalt Sundays of the Antilles
the light brought the bitter history of sugar
across the squared fields, heightening towards harvest,
to the bleached flags of the Indian diaspora.
The drizzling light blew across the savannah
darkening the racehorses’ hides; mist slowly erased
the royal palms on the crests of the hills and the
hills themselves. The brown patches the horses had grazed
shone as wet as their hides. A skittish stallion
jerked at his bridle, marble-eyed at the thunder
muffling the hills, but the groom was drawing him in
like a fisherman, wrapping the slack line under
one fist, then with the other tightening the rein
and narrowing the circle. The sky cracked asunder
and a forked tree flashed, and suddenly that black rain
which can lose an entire archipelago
in broad daylight was pouring tin nails on the roof,
hammering the balcony. I closed the French window,
and thought of the horses in their stalls with one hoof
tilted, watching the ropes of rain. I lay in bed
with current gone from the bed-lamp and heard the roar
of wind shaking the windows, and I remembered
Achille on his own mattress and desperate Hector
trying to save his canoe, I thought of Helen
as my island lost in the haze, and I was sure
I’d never see her again. All of a sudden
the rain stopped and I heard the sluicing of water
down the guttering. I opened the window when
the sun came out. It replaced the tiny brooms
of palms on the ridges. On the red galvanized
roof of the paddock, the wet sparkled, then the grooms
led the horses over the new grass and exercised
them again, and there was a different brightness
in everything, in the leaves, in the horses’ eyes.
I smelt the leaves threshing at the top of the year
in green January over the orange villas
and military barracks where the Plunketts were,
the harbour flecked by the wind that comes with Christmas,
edged with the Arctic, that was christened Vent Noël;
it stayed until March and, with luck, until Easter.
It freshened the cedars, waxed the laurier-cannelle,
and hid the African swift. I smelt the drizzle
on the asphalt leaving the Morne, it was the smell
of an iron on damp cloth; I heard the sizzle
of fried jackfish in oil with their coppery skin;
I smelt ham studded with cloves, the crusted accra,
the wax in the varnished parlour: Come in. Come in,
the arm of the Morris chair sticky with lacquer;
I saw a sail going out and a sail coming in,
and a breeze so fresh it lifted the lace curtains
like a petticoat, like a sail towards Ithaca;
I smelt a dead rivulet in the clogged drains.
Ah, twin-headed January, seeing either tense:
a past, they assured us, born in degradation,
and a present that lifted us up with the wind’s
noise in the breadfruit leaves with such an elation
that it contradicts what is past! The cannonballs
of rotting breadfruit from the Battle of the Saints,
the asterisks of bulletholes in the brick walls
of the redoubt. I lived there with every sense.
I smelt with my eyes, I could see with my nostrils
In spite of his success, both his professional and domestic lives were stormy and complicated. He was often short of money until he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.
In 2009, Walcott applied for the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry, but withdrew his candidacy after reports of sexual harassment surfaced, one involving a lawsuit settled out of court, during his time teaching at Harvard and at Boston University. Instead, he took up the position of scholar-in-residence at the University of Alberta Canada, for the next three years.
Beginning in 2010, he also became the Visiting Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex. In the same year, he published White Egret, a book of poems, which was his last collection of new poems.
Derek Walcott died at aged 87, after a long illness, on the island of Santa Lucia, March 17, 2017.
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Awards and Honours
- 1969 Cholmondeley Award
- 1971 Obie Award for Best Foreign Play (for Dream on Monkey Mountain)]
- 1972 Officer of the Order of the British Empire
- 1981 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (“genius award”)
- 1988 Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry
- 1990 Arts Council of Wales International Writers Prize
- 1990 H. Smith Literary Award for poetry (Omeros)
- 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature
- 2004 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement]
- 2008 Honorary doctorate from the University of Essex
- 2011 T.S. Eliot Prize (for poetry collection White Egrets)
- 2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (for White Egrets)
- 2015 Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry Lifetime Recognition Award
- 2016 Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Lucia
- 1948 25 Poems
- 1949 Epitaph for the Young: Xll Cantos
- 1951 Poems
- 1962 In a Green Night: Poems 1948—60
- 1964 Selected Poems
- 1965 The Castaway and Other Poems
- 1969 The Gulf and Other Poems
- 1973 Another Life
- 1976 Sea Grapes
- 1979 The Star-Apple Kingdom
- 1981 Selected Poetry
- 1981 The Fortunate Traveller
- 1983 The Caribbean Poetry of Derek Walcott and the Art of Romare Bearden
- 1984 Midsummer
- 1986 Collected Poems, 1948–1984, featuring “Love After Love”
- 1987 Central America
- 1987 The Arkansas Testament
- 1990 Omeros
- 1997 The Bounty
- 2000 Tiepolo’s Hound,includes Walcott’s watercolors
- 2004 The Prodigal
- 2007 Selected Poems(edited, selected, and with an introduction by Edward Baugh)
- 2010 White Egrets
- 2014 The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948–2013
- (1950) Henri Christophe: A Chronicle in Seven Scenes
- (1951) Harry Dernier: A Play for Radio Production
- (1953) Wine of the Country
- (1954) The Sea at Dauphin: A Play in One Act
- (1957) Ione
- (1958) Drums and Colours: An Epic Drama
- (1958) Ti-Jean and His Brothers
- (1966) Malcochon: or, Six in the Rain
- (1967) Dream on Monkey Mountain
- (1970) In a Fine Castle
- (1974) The Joker of Seville
- (1974) The Charlatan
- (1976) O Babylon!
- (1977) Remembrance
- (1978) Pantomime
- (1980) The Joker of Seville and O Babylon!: Two Plays
- (1982) The Isle Is Full of Noises
- (1984) The Haitian Earth
- (1986) Three Plays: The Last Carnival, Beef, No Chicken, and A Branch of the Blue Nile
- (1991) Steel
- (1993) Odyssey: A Stage Version
- (1997) The Capeman(book and lyrics, both in collaboration with Paul Simon)
- (2002) Walker and The Ghost Dance
- (2011) Moon-Child
- (2014) O Starry Starry Night
- (1990) The Poet in the Theatre, Poetry Book Society
- (1993) The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory, Farrar, Straus
- (1996) Conversations with Derek Walcott, University of Mississippi
- (1996) (With Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney) Homage to Robert Frost, Farrar, Straus
- (1998) What the Twilight Says (essays), Farrar, Straus
- (2002) Walker and Ghost Dance, Farrar, Straus
- (2004) Another Life: Fully Annotated, Lynne Rienner Publishers
- (2016) Morning, Paramin Derek Walcott; illustrated by Peter Doig, Farrar, Straus
- Derek Walcott, from The New Yorker
- Hummingbird on Saint Lucia
- Saint Lucia Coat of Arms
- Old West Indies boat
- Milky Way over the ocean
- Caribbean beach
- Cormorant in flight, photo by Stephen Ramirez
- Dark rain
- Brick wall with bullet holes
- Cottage hall tree with mirror
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud