Last night Derek Walcott, previous winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, was awarded this year’s T. S. Eliot prize for the best collection of poetry published in the UK or Ireland. Walcott’s winning book, White Egrets, tackles the big themes: art, world politics, personal loss. Walcott’s assurance comes through with every topic he turns his pen to, in one poem raging at the literary giant Conrad for the belittling term with which he names Africa, “Here’s what that bastard calls ‘the emptiness.”’ Elsewhere he shows the connection between global events and the mundane, “‘So the world is waiting for Obama’ my barber said…’I wish him luck,’ and luck waits in each/ gable-shadowed street that leads to the beach.” It’s a beautiful book, full of empire, history and bird metaphors.
Besides Walcott, there were nine other poets shortlisted for this year’s award, including one other Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney. On Sunday the shortlisted poets came to The Royal Festival Hall to give readings from their collections. Walcott was busy, but to give the man his due it was his eighty-first birthday, and the South Bank is a fair way from St. Lucia.