Sir Derek Walcott, Nobel Prize-winning poet, playwright and essayist, died on March 17, 2017, aged 87.
This post is written in the memory of Derek Walcott, of whom I have no memories at all, neither of the man himself, nor of reading his poetry. With the news of the passing away of the Nobel laureate, his poetry has surfaced and being read and analyzed and remembered all over the world.
I now learn of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia that he belonged to, that shaped his poetry and that he borrowed from, all his life. I only knew of the other Nobel laureate from the Trinidad and Tobago islands, the inimitable V. S.Naipaul. There must be something about the islands that begets so much poetry and literary excellence. Incidentally, the two of them have been contemporaries, knowing each other well and later, falling out and having an acrimonious relationship.
Derek wrote majorly of the Caribbean, of the landscape and the topography, of its colonial past and its rich and varied culture, which came about due to the intermingling of influences over the centuries.
In reading his poetry, I learn of the pull of the native places and their place in our psyches, the ways they shape our narratives and the ways we go back to them in our memories, if in no other way.
In his poetry, Derek turns back again and again to St. Lucia…
…Didn’t I prefer a road
from which tracks climbed into the thickening syntax
of colonial travellers, the measured prose I read
as a schoolboy?
I also learn of the anguish and the muse of a creative spirit, at the empty days, of the pain of not being able to create.
… I am a musician without his piano
with emptiness ahead as clear and grotesque
as another spring?
– In the Village
Walcott was prolific, but he would still wait for inspiration, perhaps, waiting for the poems to arrive, without trying to force them.
If you know what you are going to write when you’re writing a poem, it’s going to be average.
I learn of the power of the creation that is brought about anew, when things break and the ways they are then glued together. The pieces are better than the whole; it is the healing power of love that brings life to it.
Break a vase, and the love that reassembles 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 its original shape.
-Nobel Acceptance speech.
I learn what home is and how exile affects the person with its pain and longing. All through his work, Derek talks of places and of being away from them, exploring them in his memory and the memories being even stronger than reality. There is a poignant nostalgia in his poetry.
I also learn of lives and of journeys…
Verandahs, where the pages of the sea
are a book left open by an absent
in the middle of another life –
I begin here again,
begin until this ocean’s
a shut book, and like a bulb
the white moon’s filaments wane.
I learn about the beauty of greeting myself at the doorstep, waiting eagerly for me to walk through the door, to hear about my day, to smile at the good fortune I had and the little things that went wrong. About knowing myself, as I have known my fears and struggles and desires; the unfulfilled ones and the unrequited passion.
…with elation, you will greet yourself arriving at your own door…
– Love after Love.
Derek’s lyrical poetry is a sensory extravaganza.
…I lived there with every sense.
I smelt with my eyes, I could see with my nostrils.
There is not just his home that is in his poetry, it is the deep sense of the places he is in, the painting of a picture through words. Being a trained artist and expected to be a painter when he was young, his skill of seeing things as paintings and pictures comes through as breathtaking beauty.
Roads shouldered by enclosing walls with narrow
cobbled tracks for streets, those hill towns with their
stamp-sized squares and a sea pinned by the arrow
of a quivering horizon, with names that never wither
for centuries and shadows that are the dial of time. Light
older than wine and a cloud like a tablecloth
spread for lunch under the leaves.
Derek talks of age that is no longer youth,
I have come this late
to Italy, but better now, perhaps, than in youth
that is never satisfied, whose joys are treacherous,
while my hair rhymes with those far crests, and the bells
of the hilltop towers number my errors,
because we are never where we are, but somewhere else
– In Italy
In White Egrets, published in 2010, Derek muses on his own mortality. Beautifully, he says,
be grateful that you wrote well in this place,
let the torn poems sail from you like a flock
of white egrets in a long last sigh of relief.
And, as he famously said,
No poems. No Birds.
– In the Village.