Some Fine Photographs by Derek Walcott
March 20, 2017
Let me take you to the Derek Walcott poem most on my mind these days and then we will continue our conversation:
Broad sun-stoned beaches.
A green river.
scorched yellow palms
from the summer-sleeping house
drowsing through August.
Days I have held,
days I have lost,
days that outgrow, like daughters,
my harbouring arms.
This is a fine photograph: the world has been ordered into a few essential elements. Each item from the landscape contributes in a precise way to the overall picture. There are no complicated words, all are as simple as a stone. Yet how solid the impression made! The sense of a physical environment and all the picaresque associations we have with it (the beach; green days by the river) then meets another sense – the idea of movement through space and time. The lines “Days I have held, / days I have lost, / days that outgrow” invest the landscape with a feeling of time, loss and mortality which overwhelms the voice of the poem and the reader. How did Walcott write this incredibly emotional poem? We read it and immediately we are astonished. With a few painterly strokes, the poet has assembled a place and a feeling. The poet has managed to show us love, family and their imprint on the world.
I focus on this poem not only because of my admiration for it, but also to make a point about Walcott generally. In Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean, he has become famous for some of his flashier lines. For example, there is this oft-quoted extract from ‘The Schooner Flight’: “I’m just a red nigger who love the sea, / I had a sound colonial education, / I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me, / and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.” These lines are so well established here, even Trinidad and Tobago’s former president, George Maxwell Richards, felt at ease quoting them at his presidential inauguration ceremony in March 2003. Yet, taken out of context, their nuance is sometimes missed. They are a deliberate provocation, a subversion and re-appropriation aimed at undermining a system of marginalisation: returning Caliban to his rightful place. ‘Midsummer, Tobago‘ is on the opposite end of the spectrum of the Walcott style. It demonstrates his range, how he can quietly achieve powerful effects by poetic impressionism and restraint, just as he can by using complex, dramatic devices and elaborate forms, all the while drawing from a seemingly endless pool of analytically precise metaphors.
How has my work been influenced by Derek Walcott? On the surface, his work is stupendous. When we speak of it, we speak of a mammoth collection of concerns and techniques. In this regard, what bits I may have taken away from this ocean and applied to my own poetry is hard for me to say, as a poet is the last person who should be asked about their influences. While there have been moments when I have paraphrased a line or two (such as in the last line of the second section of my poem ‘Auden in Iceland‘) I have no qualms in warning readers that, generally, they may have trouble discerning any influence at all. But I would pray that if Walcott is not necessarily on the surface of my work, he is certainly behind it. There is no poet in the Caribbean who has been left untouched by him.
What for me stands out about Walcott is his devotion. He has spent his life building a mountain. His words have become their own landscape. We are left thrilled and dizzy. As Teju Cole recently remarked in a review of Walcott’s collected works,
“One inescapble conclusion from reading hundreds of pages of Walcott at once is the feeling that this is the life of an esctatic.
Indeed, Walcott once said,
I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation. What I described in Another Life—about being on the hill and feeling the sort of dissolution that happened—is a frequent experience in a younger writer. I felt this sweetness of melancholy, of a sense of mortality, or rather of immortality, a sense of gratitude both for what you feel is a gift and for the beauty of the earth, the beauty of life around us.
This is not to say Walcott has converted me to Catholicism. But I feel he has opened me up: inside, through language and images that unfold so fluently in the brain; and outside, by reminding me that poetry is a kind of love, a devotion to the world. He provides not just influence, but something better – inspiration. Just as Walcott looked to father figures as models for his art, poets after him look up at his work as a parent. We are Walcott’s children, and we secretly want to make him proud, even if some of us may end up becoming prodigal.
Like many in Trinidad and Tobago, I first encountered Walcott’s poetry at secondary school. I will never forget that English Literature class, in 1999, when Mr Perkins asked us to read Walcott’s poem about Carnival, ‘Mass Man‘. It was a hot afternoon at St Mary’s College on Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain. I still remember the light of that afternoon, streaming through the bay leaves of the trees that lined the front of the college in those days, and the smell of old wooden desks. At the age of 16, I was not prepared for what was about to happen.
We students read and read and read and read. Walcott’s lines were so simple, they flowed right past us, right over our heads: “Hector Mannix, waterworks clerk, San Juan, has entered a lion“, the poem began. What on earth was happening? The disorientation a first-time Carnival reveler or an alien visitor to the festival might feel fell upon that all-boys Catholic school classroom. It was only when Mr Perkins began to break down the poem, to critique it, did something else click. Until then, for many of us, poetry was a kind of ornamental art: inert, limited to literal surface meaning and rhyme, not necessarily with reason. That a poem could contain a torrent of buried truth about ourselves in the Caribbean, right there beneath the page, was the revelation.
We came to Walcott's great lines: “But I am dancing, look, from an old gibbet / mu bull-whipped body sings, a metronome! / like a fruit bat dropped in the silk-cotton's shade, / my mania, my mania is a terrible calm.”
At last, we saw our own history acting on Walcott’s stage. He had written a poem about Carnival, but it was a ghost story; a gothic horror about slavery, inadequacy and abandoned children. From that moment, the possibility of poetry: what it could simultaneously hide and reveal, what it could say and could do (and I insist that poetry can do) came. Poetry could be ours. I don’t remember anything else Mr Perkins ever taught me. All I remember is he brought Derek Walcott to me. And I am still learning.
With eternal gratitude, let us turn to my favorite Walcott poem, this section of Midsummer:
The midsummer sea, the hot pitch road, this grass, these shacks that made me,
jungle and razor grass shimmering by the roadside, the edge of art;
wood lice are humming in the sacred wood,
nothing can burn them out, they are in the blood;
their rose mouths, like cherubs, sing of the slow science
of dying – all heads, with, at each ear, a gauzy wing.
Up at Forest Reserve, before branches break into sea,
I looked through the moving, grassed window and thought ‘pines’,
or conifers of some sort. I thought, they must suffer
in this tropical heat with their child’s idea of Russia.
Then suddenly, from their rotting logs, distracting signs
of the faith I betrayed, or the faith that betrayed me –
yellow butterflies rising on the road to Valencia
stuttering ‘yes’ to the resurrection; ‘yes, yes is our answer,’
the gold-robed Nunc Dimittis of their certain choir.
Where’s my child’s hymnbook, the poems edged to gold leaf,
the heaven I worship with no faith in heaven,
as the Word turned towards poetry in its grief?
Ah, bread of life, that only love can leaven!
Ah, Joseph, though no man ever dies in his own country,
the grateful grass will grow thick from his heart.
Derek Walcott (1930 – 2017) is a West Indian poet, playwright, writer and visual artist. Born in Castries, St. Lucia, he has won, among many other honours, the Nobel Prize for Literature (1992), and the TS Eliot Prize (2011).
Andre Bagoo is a journalist and poet working in Trinidad. His second book of poems, BURN, was published by Shearsman Books (UK) and longlisted for the 2016 OCMBocas Prize for Carribean Literature. He was awarded The Charlotte and Isidor Paiewonsky Prize in 2017. His third book, Pitch Lake, is forthcoming from the Peepal Tree Press.in 2012.
This essay was first published in The Operating System. Republished here with the permission of the author.
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