Derek Walcott: 1930-2017, A Poet Of Hope And Healing

Fiji’s leading writer Satendra Nandan’s The Seven Seas and book of essays, “Dispatches from Distant Shores” was released last month.   The Caribbean has produced two literary Nobel laureates: Derek
15 Apr 2017 10:29
Derek Walcott: 1930-2017, A Poet Of Hope And Healing
Writer Derek Walcott with a copy of his book Omeros.

Fiji’s leading writer Satendra Nandan’s The Seven Seas and book of essays, “Dispatches from Distant Shores” was released last month.


The Caribbean has produced two literary Nobel laureates: Derek Walcott in 1992 and VS Naipaul in 2001.

Both  come from the two diasporas: one from slavery, the other from indenture. The former a poet, the latter a novelist.

No two writers from the same region could be more different in their creative sensibilities and their responses to history’s outrages and possibilities than the poet and the novelist.

I’ve known some generosity from both these remarkable writers. I began reading Naipaul in the 1960s; Walcott I discovered in my eclectic reading of poetry from many parts of the world in English or English translations. I’ve written quite a few pieces on Vidia Naipaul, but none on Derek Walcott.

Perhaps because Naipaul and I, like  many of this Indian diaspora, have common roots and routes.

Walcott, born in 1930, died last month. Naipaul, born in 1932, lives in London.

Walcott found the intense inspiration of his poetry in the islands of the Caribbean, in ‘the spoils of history’. Born in  St Lucia, a speck in the sea, he spent his formative years in Trinidad and later in the USA.

He published his first poem when he was barely 14-years-old, steeped in Wordsworthian blank verse, believing that one’s life should be imbued with Nature  – it is Nature that should be worshipped.

For Nature has the healing power to redeem the human condition. And this has never been more relevant than now with our awareness of climatic catastrophes: through a variety of mindless activities whose consequences we see daily in floods and famines, fires and rising seas; not to mention the millions of refugees on their desperate journeys across oceans and continents to escape the devastation wrought by human beings.

Walcott, like most of his generation , was profoundly influenced by English and American writers, but discovered his own unique voice, rhythm and language. He became the creative conscience of the Caribbean.

By the age of 19, he had published two slim volumes of poetry at his own expense and his poems show his eclectic readings of world literatures.

The richness of Caribbean history–its fragmented mirrors of massacres, slavery, indenture; of brutal and brutalising exploitation by colonising powers; peoples of many colours, climes and crimes became his rich ore of poetic explorations through words and metaphors.

What to some writers would have appeared an arid world, where nothing was created, became the rich mine for the poet to recreate and remake.

His masterpiece, Omeros, published in 1990, is a retelling of Homer’s epic the Iliad with West Indian  characters, extrapolations, mixed history and multiple identities.

Where others saw despair, Walcott sowed hope and beauty of the peoples: their landscapes, the seascapes and lives. The very seas were history through which travellers  and conquistadors came to the Caribbean, as did cricketers and literary traditions.

Walcott made the most of his complex inheritance instead of being obsessed with some limited and limiting sense of a single identity caught in history’s cobwebs.

Through his writings and travels he became profoundly aware of the pain of history, but in that colonial cauldron he also found the ethical  and cultural depth of human experience of people of different islands and continents.

He loved the life of his people: these were people returning home without a home, redeeming the fate of many who carry in their personal baggage the relics and scars of colonial inheritance, coups, racism, dispossessions, violence and numerous violations by the temporarily powerful–described brilliantly in Naipaul’s  ironic novel The Mimic Men.

Shakespeare’s last play The Tempest has Caribbean echoes, but it’s also a drama of reconciliation, wisdom and grace. Caliban’s cry is heard across the globe but the sighs and groans of history have to be transcended to create a new, vibrant and a future world.

In his Nobel Lecture, ‘The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory’, Derek Walcott writes:

Break a vase, and the love that re-assembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.

The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars.

This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places. Antillian art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming synonym for pieces broken off the original continent.

It’s a wonderful image and, with some variation and history’s latitudinal adjustments, it is true of the islands in the South Seas, particularly Fiji.

Derek Walcott’s Nobel Lecture should be compulsory reading in every postcolonial university. And it should be especially read and understood by the educational administrators of more established universities.

Significantly, his lecture begins in a village named Felicity in Trinidad on a plain that still grows sugar cane and to which indentured cane cutters were brought after emancipation and even today they’re defined as East Indians–the Naipaulian heritage .

For Vidia Naipaul it was a place to escape from to a metropolitan European city where ‘real culture’ was created with plunders from the colonies that fill the museums and art houses of ‘civilizations’ in so many cities.

In contrast Walcott saw immense possibilities in his island homes–a new vision of human relationships built on the debris of the past, but looking at the new dawn breaking over the incandescent splendor of the seas and its ancient connections with the continents: African, Asian, European. It’s in the freshness of this vision that poetry is truly conceived.

It’s in this turmoil of cultural connections, in the seemingly disconnected lives, Walcott forged his poetry with a sense of celebration and lyrical communication.

Derek Walcott published thirteen collections of poetry, seven volumes of drama and one book of essays, What the Twilight Says.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990.


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