Derek Walcott: A Life in Poetry
Derek Walcott has spent a lifetime imbibing the rhythms of St. Lucia.
The Nobel laureate has always looked to his native island for inspiration as a poet, playwright and painter.
Walcott, 77, has published 13 collections of poetry, some of them epic in length.
A new book, Selected Poems, collects his work from 1962 to 2004.
Walcott speaks with Jacki Lyden about his years spent as a "fortunate traveler," when he split his time between Boston, New York, Europe and at home in the West Indies.
JACKI LYDEN, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Derek Walcott has spent a lifetime imbibing the rhythms of his native St. Lucia, and forging a life as a poet, playwright and painter. Now 77, he spent the past 30 years as a fortunate traveler, splitting his time between Boston, New York, Europe and his home in the West Indies. Here's Walcott reading the epic poem for which he won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature. It's a Caribbean odyssey called "Omeros."
Mr. DEREK WALCOTT (Poet): I sang the only slaughter that brought him delight, and that from necessity of fish, sang the channels of his back in the sun. I sang our wide country, the Caribbean Sea who hated shoes, whose soles were as cracked as a stone, who was gentle with ropes, who has one suit alone, whom no man dared insult and who insulted no one.
LYDEN: This week, we asked Derek Walcott to talk about a newly published compilation of his life's work called "Selected Poems." Thank you for joining us.
Mr. WALCOTT: Thank you.
LYDEN: You've published 13 collections of poetry over your lifetime, some of them of epic-book length. You began writing poetry though as a teenager and published your first poem when you were just 14, I believe 44 lines of blank verse entitled "1944."
Mr. Walcott, could you just take us back to that time and tell us a little bit about that poem and what happened when you wrote it?
Mr. WALCOTT: Well, it is the first poem I had published. It was in the local paper and the poem was about learning about God through nature. But that provoked the anger of a local priest, a Jesuit who thought that the poem was blasphemous if it pointed out that one could learn about God from nature and not necessarily from the church. So I got into trouble there, but that was okay.
LYDEN: Did you think of yourself at the time as a rebel?
Mr. WALCOTT: No. The rebellious part was just coincidence. It was that I grew up as a Methodist and I was in a Catholic majority. And the priests who thought us were very bigoted, semi-literate people with a lot of prejudices and conventions that I thought were very bad for the island. So in that sense, yes, I objected to that kind of, you know, virtual spiritual bondage.
LYDEN: Well, if the classroom was a bigoted place, how did you access poetry?
Mr. WALCOTT: Now, the example that I had from childhood was my father, who died very young, and he wrote verse and he also was a very good artist, a very good water color painter. So I knew from a very early age that that's what I wanted to do; I think I just wanted to continue my father's work, because he died at age 31 or something.
My mother was a schoolteacher and very, very encouraging. She understood what it meant when I said I wanted to be a writer; both me and my brother wrote. But also the country that I was coming from, the island I was in, hadn't been written about, really. So I thought that I virtually had it all to myself, including the language that was spoken there, which was a French Creole, and a landscape that is not recorded really, and the people. So it was a tremendous privilege to want to record all of that.
LYDEN: Maybe you would read for us a poem so identified with the island, the poem "Sea Grapes," which I believe you wrote in 1976?
Mr. WALCOTT: I don't know. You tell me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LYDEN: (Unintelligible) myself.
Mr. WALCOTT: "Sea Grapes." That sail which leans on light, tired of islands, a schooner beating up the Caribbean for home, could be Odysseus, home-bound on the Aegean. That father and husband's longing under the gnarled sour grapes is like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa's name in every gull's outcry.
This brings nobody peace. The ancient war between obsession and responsibility will never finish and has been the same for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore now wiggling on his sandals to walk home since Troy sighed its last flame and the blind giant's boulder heaved the trough from whose groundswell the great hexameters come to the conclusions of exhausted surf. The classics can console. But not enough.
LYDEN: It's a very, very beautiful poem.
Mr. WALCOTT: Thank you.
LYDEN: It certainly seems to have a direct connection to the epic that you would write decades later. "Omeros," the Greek name for Homer, of course. Could you talk a little bit about epic poems and the creation of "Omeros?"
Mr. WALCOTT: What I wanted to do in the book was to write about very simple people who I think are heroic, and this West Indian fisherman (unintelligible) St. Lucia fisherman who takes the risk of going out daily and whose devotion to his calling is not different from, say, the heroic effort that exists when you read about another marine culture, the Greek Archipelago. You can see on the beaches, you can see some splendid examples of black men on the beach who can look like silhouettes on a Greek vase, and that was one of the images that I had in mind.
LYDEN: You are from a small place, but you have resided in some big and important places - New York, Boston. Which of these places speaks to you the most?
Mr. WALCOTT: St. Lucia. Seriously, I have to go next week and I have to go next month also to a lot of different countries. I have to go to Canada and Germany and so on and so on. And it's very, very difficult for me to leave. It's just physically difficult because I'm not going to be able to swim.
LYDEN: It sounds as if this is not only a place to which you've physically returned but also poetically. Twenty years ago, one of your poems, we referred to it in introducing you, called "The Fortunate Traveler," there you talk about writing at 30,000 feet and seeing the world from a first-class airplane cabin, and those kinds of perspectives are of course very far away from the beaches of fishermen. Did privilege ever make it more difficult to write about work-a-day lives?
Mr. WALCOTT: Well, I don't have to think of the word successful at all because every day is a challenge, you know, and every piece of blank paper is a challenge. So there's no success, ever. I mean I think you can feel fairly satisfied of some work, if you're lucky, but generally the condition is not that. The condition is one of sort of restrained terror of the fact that you'll never write again.
LYDEN: Do you still feel that after all these years and all these achievements?
Mr. WALCOTT: If anybody told you differently, they'd be lying. Yes.
LYDEN: The poet and painter and playwright, Derek Walcott. It's been a real pleasure to speak to you today.
Mr. WALCOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.