Today is the birthday of Derek Walcott, my favourite contemporary poet, and for the occasion I'm posting two of his poems. Walcott was born in the city of Castries on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, and had from an early age a strong sense of his dual heritage of part European, part African. This duality is a very strong presence in his poetry, and it is strengthened by the tension between the heritage of Saint Lucia's colonial past, and the modernity of Saint Lucia as an independent country. Walcott has expressed a great fondness for, and a significant debt to, writers from early modern England, while also showing admiration for the modernist movement, perhaps most tangibly Ezra Pound.
This sensation of belonging and yet not belonging, of being modern and at the same time part of something very old, are two prevailing themes in Walcott's poetry. In some of his poems, Walcott unifies the old and the new in various ways, such as communicating through old poems through epigraphs, or by moving elements from the old world into the Caribbean. This latter technique is the fundamental feature in his long poem Omeros, where elements of the Homeric epics are translated into a Saint Lucian setting. Another example can be found in the cycle of poem called A Tropical Bestiary, which was published in his Collection The Castaway (1965). The title of the cycle refers to the old medieval bestiaries in which the allegorical aspect of animals were explained, and Walcott describes animals of the New World with an allegorical poetry reminiscent of the Middle Ages.
The Whale, His Bulwark, from A Tropical Bestiary
To praise the blue whale's crystal jet,
To write, 'O fountain!' honouring a spout
Provokes this curse:
'The high are humbled yet'
From those who humble Godhead, beasthood, verse.
Once, the Lord raised this bulwark to our eyes,
Once, in our seas, whales threshed,
The harpooner was common. Once, I heard
Of a baleine beached up the Grenadines, fleshed
By derisive, antlike villages: a prize
Reduced from majesty to pygmy-size.
The boy who told me couldn't believe his eyes,
And I believed him. When I was small
God and a foundered whale were possible.
Whales are rarer, God as invisible.
Yet, through His gift, I praise the unfathomable,
Though the boy may be dead, the praise unfashionable,
The tale apocryphal.
Pieter van der Heyden, Big Fish Eat Little Fish, after a drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Courtesy of The British Museum
Another poem from the same collection enunciates the divided nature of Walcott's heritage - a division he himself expressed through the phrase "divided child" in his autobiographical poem Another Life. The poem in question is Codicil, a poem of exile where the contrasts of belonging and yet being a prodigal can be sensed very poignantly.
Schizophrenic, wrenched by two styles,
one a hack's hired prose, I earn
my exile. I trudge this sickle, moonlit Beach for miles,
to slough off
this love of ocean that's self-love.
To change your language you must change your life.
I cannot right old wrongs.
Waves tire of Horizons and return.
Gulls screech with rusty tongues
Above the beached, rotting pirogues,
they were a venomous beaked cloud at Charlotteville.
Once I thought love of country was enough,
now, even if I chose, there's no room at the trough.
I Watch the best minds root like dogs
for scraps of favour.
I am nearing middle-
age, burn skin
peels from my hand like paper, onion-thin,
like Peer Gynt's riddle.
At Heart there's nothing, not the dread
of death. I know too many dead.
They're all familiar, all in character,
even how they died. On fire,
the flesh no longer fears that furnace mouth
that kiln or ashpit of the sun,
nor this clouding, unclouding sickle moon
whitening htis Beach Again like a blank page.
All its indifference is a different rage.
These two poems not only showcase two of the major themes in Walcott's poetical oeuvre, they also emphasise his dual nature as a poet both in touch with the traditional and the modern. The first poem, drawing on medieval culture and the idea of a near-mythological past, is written in a rhyme-scheme somewhat reminiscent of the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, whom Walcott much admired in his early verse. The second, however, also contains the occasional rhyme, but is first of all written in free verse, yet drawing on aspects from the tradition writers - his reference to middle age is possibly a reference to Dante.
Derek Walcott has nourished his sense of being prodigal for decades, yet after he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992 he was duly commemorated in his home city. Columbus Square in Castries was re-named Walcott Square in his honour, and stands as a suitable reminder that in order to be a true prodigal, one has to return to one's home.
The entrance of Walcott Square, Castries
The bandstand in Walcott Square