The Caribbean presented him, Walcott, with the opportunity to work through this complexity. He wrote and spoke of the islands as a realm of possibilities, “of a man and his language waking to wonder here.”
Derek Alton Walcott, the St. Lucia-born poet, playwright and painter who died on Friday March 17, 2017, at the age of 86, often said that language in the Caribbean was new. The poet was an Adam, lucky to find favour with a world of things without names, and facing the tough but exhilarating task of naming that world in all its freshness. Walcott did just that.
Poetry and drama were his forte, and he published scores of unforgettable titles in both, a formidable body of work which simultaneously belongs to him and is dedicated to the cultural genius of the Caribbean. As a painter he was just as stylistically accomplished; all the first editions of his books from the late 1970s were illustrated with his own paintings, which were notably evocative of the Caribbean landscape, and did not have to be signed to be identified by an educated looker.
His was a style and cadence easy to recognise but difficult to imitate (poetry), and a feel for Caribbean speech as a comic delight (drama). It is just as well that these two aspects of his art come together in Omeros, his 1989 summa and masterpiece. One of his many characters from that volume rises and shrieks in frustration:
When cutlass fit cut smoke
When roosters surprise their arsehole by shitting eggs
Black man go get rest from God.
What’s this, a prayer or a curse? But what can be more delightful than street speech expressive of vivid imagery in an epic poem?
Walcott’s range was broad: from Thomas Hardy’s sublimely English syntax to the earthy jocularity of patois; from the punishing hours of raucous rehearsals with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop to the serene but equally grueling hours of sitting alone at a desk, squeezing poetry out of old things in longhand. He belonged to the generation of Caribbean writers in English and French, brought to international awareness in the postwar period, which also happened to coincide with the explosion of literary talents from the post-colonial world in general.
Whether or not this was a matter of “happening to coincide” is not so easy to pin down, but there is much that is striking about the appearance of these writers, especially from the Caribbean: George Lamming, Jean Rhys, Jan Carew, Andrew Salkey, V.S. Naipaul, Edgar Mittelholzer, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Maryse Conde, Edouard Glissant, and Wilson Harris. They began to publish in the early to mid-1950s, slightly ahead of their African colleagues, and had for forerunners the likes of C.L.R. James and Aimé Césaire, who were equally distinguished as political figures.
By temperament Walcott was ill-suited to what he saw as “political excitement” and “sociological statements,” and he never gave any quarters on that front, preferring, in a manner of speaking, to let his work speak for him.
Migration and exile were both thematic and practical necessities in the lives of these writers, their islands being small and sociologically dependent on England and France.
Walcott’s trajectory was slightly different. Unlike most of his fellow Caribbean writers he did not emigrate, and he made the islands his base from early on. Though born in St. Lucia, in the British West Indies, in 1930, he attended college in Jamaica, lived, taught, and published there, quickly settling in Trinidad, where he founded the Little Carib Theatre (later named Trinidad Theatre Workshop), in 1959. From the early 1980s he began to teach in various US universities but by 1982, the year after he won a MacArthur Foundation grant, he found “a kind of even balance, geographically and even mentally between the United States and Trinidad.”
This resolve to stay back in the Caribbean would give Walcott’s work the integrity and grounding that are one with the cultural landscape of the region. As historians and cultural critics have argued, the Caribbean is perhaps the best example of the successful mixing of all the cultures and races of the modern world. Slaves from the African continent, indentured labourers from China and the Indian subcontinent, labourers and landowners from Europe, remnants of native ethnicities from South America, have all played a role in the process of creolisation that made the Caribbean a world like no other, the newness that Walcott celebrates.
He was himself of mixed race, born of a white father and a black mother. In his early poetry, he was conscious of this heritage, and it stayed with him throughout. Add to this the fact of Caribbean literature coming to its own in the context of revolutionary activities around black identity, and we had writers under pressure to reflect such political commitments in their works or lives. By temperament Walcott was ill-suited to what he saw as “political excitement” and “sociological statements,” and he never gave any quarters on that front, preferring, in a manner of speaking, to let his work speak for him.
The last eight lines in the poem “A Far Cry From Africa,” from his 1962 volume In A Green Night, provide the most resonant declaration of this attitude:
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?
Denizens of small islands, Lamming and Walcott composed on a grand scale, as if determined to demonstrate in writing the grandeur that is absent in the physical size of their countries.
It is an incredible political statement calibrated in aesthetic terms. This brother knows his mind, and he is not joking! Versions of this aesthetic outlook can be found in poems like “The Castaway,” “The Schooner Flight,” “The Sea Is History,” and many others. Like Wole Soyinka, another poet-playwright with whom his career coincided, Walcott was one of those writers who figured out early how literature actually worked, in relation to the historical world. It is no surprise that Tejumola Olaniyan and Harry Garuba, two Nigerian scholars who have written with compelling insights about Walcott’s poetry and drama, often compare him to Soyinka. The basis of those comparisons is the writers’ refusal to assume a simple equation between the creative act and cultural identity.
The Caribbean presented him, Walcott, with the opportunity to work through this complexity. He wrote and spoke of the islands as a realm of possibilities, “of a man and his language waking to wonder here.” In Dream on Monkey Mountain, perhaps his best play, the protagonist Makak, an old charcoal burner whose life as a denigrated black man was ennobled by the glorious dream of a return to Africa, returns to work at the end of the play. Walcott said to an interviewer puzzled by this ending: “You forget that Makak is a charcoal burner…He has to face reality, too. He has to come down to the market every Saturday to make a living.” Caliban and Prospero are fated to be permanent residents.
Walcott did not publish much expository writing; in fact, he once confessed to “a distrust of prose.” His only published essay collection, as far as I know, is the 1998 volume titled What The Twilight Says. He was something of an aesthete of poetry, and in an old-fashioned, unembarrassed sort of way.
Yet it was this form which gave Walcott the chance to clearly spell out the tension between the literary vocation—a dedication to the “possibilities” of language—and the noisy demands of “history and sociology.” In “What the Twilight Says” and “The Muse of History,” two essays published in the early 1970s, and appropriately as reflections on his devotions to poetry and drama, Walcott celebrates the artistic sufficiency of the Caribbean, without even positing, as Stuart Hall admirably did, that the region had anything to teach the world. He felt that it did, but he did not make the claim, content to highlight how a writer fully conscious of tradition might relate to African and European heritages. He returns to this theme in “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory,” his Nobel lecture given in 1992, focusing on the construction of a performance based on the Ramayana, but tellingly using the French word (Antilles) for the Caribbean. Clearly, he has come to terms with his work, as a poet divided to the vein, “a mulatto of style,” for whom a choice between these “old worlds” was out of the question. “One went about his father’s business. Both fathers’.”
The Anglophone Caribbean writer whose works bear meaningful comparison with Walcott’s is Lamming, not so much Naipaul, to whom he was often compared because they were both visible at the same time in the Anglo-American literary world. Denizens of small islands, Lamming and Walcott composed on a grand scale, as if determined to demonstrate in writing the grandeur that is absent in the physical size of their countries. And there was Glissant (d. 2011), the Martinican novelist and philosopher, who has Walcott’s grandeur of conception and rhythm, and to whom he looks physically identical. Glissant is the poet and philosopher of relation, of the archipelagic imagination, and Walcott concludes “The Muse of History” with these word: “I accept this archipelago of America…and give the strange and bitter and yet ennobling thanks for the monumental groaning and soldering of two great worlds…”
Four great worlds, one might quibble, or more.
Akin Adesokan teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature, Indiana University, Bloomington, USA.
Image credit: Credit Chris Felver/Getty Images (2000).