It is difficult to think of a longer and more fruitful career in literature than the St Lucian Nobel laureate’sby Matthew Sperling / March 21, 2017 / Leave a comment
“For every poet it is always morning in the world,” Derek Walcott said in 1992 in his Nobel Prize for literature acceptance speech, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory.” Every act of poetic creation is a new dawn and a chance to define the world afresh, “because the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History.”
Walcott, who died on Friday morning at the age of 87, is himself a historical figure now. It is difficult to think of a longer and more fruitful career in literature. His first book, 25 Poems, was published at his mother’s expense in Trinidad in 1948, the same year that Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos was published—or, to put it another way, at a time when Walcott’s homeland, St Lucia, was still part of the British Empire and the prime minister was Clement Attlee. Walcott’s final book, Morning, Paramin, a collaboration with the Trinidad-based Scottish painter Peter Doig, appeared late in 2016. A creative span greater than a Yeats or a Goethe. If there is much in Walcott’s writing that seems unfashionable today—the high style, the rhetorical grandeur, the canonical allusions, the unhurried formal patterning—he already seemed a figure out of time when he first began. Consider “Ruins of a Great House,” from In a Green Night (1962), Walcott’s first book to be published outside of the Caribbean:
That Albion too was once
A colony like ours, “part of the continent, piece of the main,”
Nook-shotten, rook o’erblown, deranged
By foaming channels and the vain expense
Of bitter faction.
It is the voice of a poet channelling Donne and Shakespeare, refusing all verbal diminishment in the age of Larkinesque ironies and austerities, and it sounded no less alien in the 1960s than it does compared to the embarrassed mumbling or seminar-room smartness of much 21st-century poetry. In Walcott’s version, the postcolonial poet is not Friday but Robinson Crusoe, a new Adam tasked with naming every lifeform on the island; he is less of a Caliban, taught only to curse in the language of his masters, and more of a Prospero, fully in command of every word in the conjurer’s spell-book.