Nobel Prize-winning writers would almost certainly baulk at the faintest idea that they might work to a “mission statement”. But when St Lucian poet Derek Walcott wrote, “I seek/ As climate seeks its style, to write/ Verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight/ Cold as the curled wave, ordinary/ As a tumbler of island water,” in his breakthrough 1962 collection In A Green Night, it served as quite the introduction to what would be become a peerless body of work.
Here in these five simple lines were the motivations, aspirations and interests of a 32-year-old imbued with a profound love of his Caribbean island, its rhythms, language, symbolisms and connections with the ocean. As he would go on to write: “for what else is there/ but books, books and the sea”.
Thirty years later, when Walcott – who died on Friday – became a Nobel laureate, the committee described his work as “a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment”. Walcott had more than achieved what he had set out to do.
The Nobel committee also noted that “West Indian culture has found its great poet”, but Walcott’s influence and critical acclaim reached well beyond the sun-kissed shores of the Caribbean, even if he saw chronicling a place with “unfinished associations” – slavery and indenture, effectively – as key to his work.
There was something rather moving about the director of one of the region’s biggest literature festivals, says Marina Salandy-Brown, noting this weekend that he had “proved beyond doubt that English is the property of no single nation or culture”.
That was Walcott’s real achievement: he could marvel at the Caribbean’s constant capacity for renewal, but through verse steeped in myth, folklore and metaphor, make global connections and comments on colonialism, history, landscape and love. The work of the great writers – Chaucer, Yeats, Shakespeare, Dante – was channelled and shaped. And all of this was achieved with a clear-eyed sense of the power, adaptability and magic of language – he often switched between patois and English.
Flick through the collections that would follow In a Green Night in the 1960s and 1970s and there’s a rare commitment to both metaphor and realism. The Castaway (1969) responded to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and the continued effects of colonisation. The Gulf (1970) sees The Gulf of Mexico, which separates St Lucia from the United States, as a cipher for the juxtaposition of Walcott’s feelings about the wider world and his homeland, his adult life and his childhood. But it’s also a comment on the social divides wracking America: “The Gulf, your gulf is daily widening.”
It’s not altogether surprising that it was often said of Walcott that he had a painter’s eye, building layer upon layer of imagery to a thrilling crescendo – he did after all train as an artist. And perhaps, for the uninitiated, his major exhibition is the 600-page collection edited by Glynn Maxwell in 2014. The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013 gathers together a staggering 65 years worth of his work, revelling in the full range of his palette.
It doesn’t, however, include what many consider to be his masterwork: 1990’s Omeros. Given it’s a 64-chapter epic poem, it’s perhaps not such a shocking omission, but this reworking of Homer’s Odyssey set in St Lucia is a neat summation of all of Walcott’s concerns; marrying the classical with the native, the historical with the contemporary.
Such references to the classical texts sometimes caused Walcott problems; some political Caribbean poets suggested that such fidelity to tradition was too colonialist – although Walcott was typically belligerent in his response. Talking to The Guardian in 2008, he said any artist must make maximum use of the resources of tradition. “The biggest absurdity would be: ‘Don’t read Shakespeare because he was white,” he argued.
And even if the generations of Caribbean writers that have followed his success weren’t recognisably Walcottian in their style, the fact that he encouraged written expression in any form was enough. True, some of his writing for theatre was patchy. But it was St Kitts born author and playwright Caryl Phillips who grasped what Walcott’s legacy might be for writers emerging from a colonial context.
“Walcott knows full well that history gives weight to literature and rescues language from becoming merely descriptive or decorative,” he said.
Yet Walcott refused to rest on his laurels. White Egrets, his quite incredible collection exploring death, mortality and a life lived, was published in 2010, when Walcott was 80.
A year later, it had won poetry’s biggest award, the TS Eliot prize, chair of judges Anne Stevenson calling it “moving and technically flawless … this collection was the yardstick by which all others were to be measured. These are beautiful lines; beautiful poetry”.
In one section, Walcott considers the moment of his own death, when “my shadow passes into a green thicket of oblivion”. But with his timeless poetry. Derek Walcott will never pass into oblivion.