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.
Walcott’s faculty for falling in love with the world came partly from a painterly attention to the play of light and the movement of waves. Sea and sky form constant horizons in his work, but they also provide a rule against which the inner movements of desire, self-reproach and historical harm can be measured. In Another Life, Walcott’s triumphant autobiographical poem published in 1973, the vision and the self-interrogation rise to a new pitch of imaginative authority:
One dawn the sky was warm pink thinning to no colour.
In it, above the Morne, the last star shone,
measuring the island with its callipers.
As usual, everywhere, the sinuations of cockcrow,
a leisured, rusting, rising and falling,
echoed the mountain line. The day creaked
wearily open. A wash of meagre blue entered the sky.
“Sinuations,” from Latin sinuare, to bend, to advance in a wavy manner; the perfect word for lines in which the traditional cock’s crow of betrayal winds its way so delicately into the emotional landscape.
Walcott discovered in Another Life how individual lyric units can be shaped into a larger discursive architecture. Building on this, the last few decades of his career were mainly given over to further poetic sequences that almost form one continuous poem, a leisurely cascade of loosely rhymed pentameters, divided and sub-divided by book and part, by roman and arabic numerals, fashioned into elaborately nested structures within structures. Omeros (1990): seven books, 64 chapters, 336 pages. Tiepolo’s Hound (2000): four books, 26 chapters each divided into four sections, 208 pages (with 25 of Walcott’s own watercolours interspersed into the text to boot). The Prodigal (2004): three parts, each made up of 18 cantos, each divided into three, four or five sections, totalling another 112 pages… There is certainly a sense of abundance, of a generous, relaxed and confident talent, in these books, but also a sense of workfulness. It is very much the work of somebody who got up at four each morning to write poetry, and at times these books demand an interminable patience from the reader. Walcott’s best book-length poem remains his first, Another Life, and the majority of the poems that seem likely to continue being cherished are found in Collected Poems: 1948–1984.
But marvels can be found on almost any page of his oeuvre. In the later work, writing becomes its own reward, an inexhaustible metaphor for perceiving the world. “This page is a cloud between whose fraying edges / a headland with mountains appears brokenly,” begins the 54th and final poem in White Egrets (2011). Characteristically, the metaphor shifts and proliferates, as more of the island becomes clear; valleys, roads and fishing villages emerge, until—still within the same single sentence, unrolled across 13 lines—it becomes impossible to say which is tenor and which is vehicle, the book and the world:
…a line of gulls has arrowed
into the widening harbour of a town with no noise,
its streets growing closer like print you can now read,
two cruise ships, schooners, a tug, ancestral canoes,
as a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes
white again and the book comes to a close.
Here the book comes to a close. On Friday morning there were two living poets to have won the Nobel Prize: Wole Soyinka, more of a playwright than a poet, and Walcott, more of a poet than a playwright, though his efforts in the latter arena have won many admirers. Today there is one poet fewer.