Obituary of Derek Walcott who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992
Derek Walcott—one of the greatest Caribbean poets and playwrights—died on March 17 in Saint Lucia, his birthplace, aged 87. His death was rightly seen as “a loss to language” by one of his biographers. Indeed, language itself was his home as much as his own island Saint Lucia, which he once memorably described as “the territory of metaphor.”
I met Derek Walcott briefly back in 1995 in Boston. It was the first US city where I lived. In my late twenties, I was then a Fulbright Fellow assigned to what they called a “serious orientation about American education” prior to beginning my graduate studies at a university outside Boston. So I was dividing my time between Boston University (BU) and Harvard. Walcott was then a professor of creative writing at BU, while his good friend Seamus Heaney—the Irish poet—was teaching at Harvard.
I made several failed attempts to meet Walcott. But when I finally got an appointment, I was more than thrilled. I was already blown away by his “throbbing and relentless lines [that] kept arriving in the English language like tidal waves,” to use his friend Joseph Brodsky’s words. Also, by then, I had published in my mother tongue probably the first full-length essay on Walcott in Bangladesh.
But our meeting in Boston was disappointingly brief. I’m not sure if I could call it a conversation. But Walcott rather casually said a few serious things that I still vividly recall. First: “I love the English language.” And, then, something to this effect: The task of the poet is to name the nameless. I think Walcott’s poetic journey has been one of, among other things, naming the nameless in an exuberant, even explosive, energetic, evocative, richly sensuous language grasped in its intimate cadence. And to name the nameless, particularly against the backdrop of massive colonial ruins, is also to register resistance—simultaneously a poetic and political practice for Walcott.
Caribbean poetry by now traverses an inordinately vast and diverse terrain. Yet it is easy to identify Walcott as a major, distinctive voice in the Caribbean. Poet, playwright, painter, producer, director, theatre organiser, even set designer, newspaper columnist, cultural critic, and teacher, Walcott had been relentlessly active and productive for nearly five decades. He wrote more than 25 poetry collections and over 80 plays.
Exemplary of his massive web of affiliations not only to the Western literary canon but also to literary works from the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America, and even Asia (his “tri-continental” connections are yet to be adequately explored in contemporary Walcott criticism, I think), Omeros—consisting of seven books with a total of sixty-four chapters having three sections each—decisively foregrounds Caribbean fishermen and peasants and poor women
Given the staggering range and rigour and richness of Walcott’s work, it is impossible to do justice to the significance of his contributions in a very short piece like this one. All I can do is quickly comment on just a few aspects of his poetic work.
Of both African and European descent, Walcott resolutely identified himself as “absolutely a Caribbean writer,” to use his own words. Indeed, his creative work as a whole is nothing without the Caribbean, its “ordinary” people, its vibrant landscapes, its own languages, and its own music.
True, Walcott had a lifelong fascination with the Western literary canon, consisting of figures from Homer to Dante to Shakespeare and Milton to Defoe to Pound and Eliot to even Robert Lowell. Walcott heavily and even unapologetically borrows from this canon. But then he creatively Caribbeanizes it. This is variously exemplified in his work ranging from, say, his early collection In a Green Night (1962), through his Homeric epic poem Omeros (1990), to his collaborative work Morning, Paramin (2016).
What, in my reckoning, fundamentally characterises Walcott’s entire poetic work is his epic imagination jazzed up by his characteristic dramatic mode and his peculiarly poetic sense of history that remains organically tied to the Caribbean.
Walcott’s narrative scale and amplitude, luxuriant layering of details, constellations of memories and metaphors, and the generosity of vision represented by his characters, among other things, immediately attest to his epic imagination. Of course this is powerfully evident in his Omeros—an epic poem of more than eight thousand lines that demonstrate what Dante’s terza rima can do in Walcott’s hands to reproduce the “music of the sea.” His epic imagination also variously informs and inflects a number of his other poetic works, such as Another Life (1973), The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), The Fortunate Traveler (1981), and Midsummer (1981). Even in his plays and shorter poems, it is at work one way or another.
Walcott’s epic imagination has a deep political resonance as well. Its power resides in resisting the kinds of closures and constraints colonial and neo-colonial institutions and practices impose on the colonised. Its power also lies in re-telling a “history” of the dispossessed against the grain of colonial narratives.
A few words about Omeros. I think this work is an exemplary answer to the question “Is the epic dead?” Although I am aware that Walcott at one point denied any epic pretensions, I submit that he is almost singularly responsible for resurrecting, rewriting, and refashioning the epic in the late twentieth century, despite MM Bakhtin’s early declaration of the epic’s death. Indeed, Walcott creates a new kind of epic for our times. But here is a question: Can common, “ordinary,” ostensibly unheroic people be the epic heroes or epic characters? Walcott’s Omeros itself is a powerful answer in the affirmative.
Exemplary of his massive web of affiliations not only to the Western literary canon but also to literary works from the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America, and even Asia (his “tri-continental” connections are yet to be adequately explored in contemporary Walcott criticism, I think), Omeros—consisting of seven books with a total of sixty-four chapters having three sections each—decisively foregrounds Caribbean fishermen and peasants and poor women.
The epic’s peasant characters like Philoctete and Ma Kilman readily come to mind, as do his fishermen characters—Achille and Hector. Although there is no singularly central character in his epic, I think the island of Saint Lucia itself may be reckoned as a central character that comes to be represented by none other than the housemaid Helen. Walcott both narrates and dramatises the daily dialectics of their living—their ways of seeing, their ways of believing, their ways of being and even becoming—while deftly domesticating their dialects and even mobilising their wit, humour and verbal playfulness.
Walcott’s own poetic sense of history is also resonant on various registers in his epic, as it is in many of his earlier works. He makes the point that the real protagonists of history are not just a few “noble” individuals and leaders, but common, ordinary people themselves. For him history is not only a matter of the past but also a matter of the present—history is not in a state of being but in a process of becoming. Further, he explicitly spells out how the notion of “linear progress” in history is nothing but a “dirty joke.” Mark then the following lines from even his earlier work (“The Schooner Flight”):
I was at the wheel, Vince sitting next to me
gaffing. Crisp, bracing day. A high-running sea.
“Progress is something to ask Caribs about.
They kill them by millions, some in war,
some by forced labor dying in the mines
looking for silver, after that niggers; more
progress. Until I see definite signs
that mankind change, Vince, I ain’t want to hear.
Progress is history’s dirty joke.
Ask that sad green island getting nearer.”
But Walcott’s epic focuses not only on the history of Caribbean peasants and fishermen and poor women, but also on Native Americans in the US and the marginalised in Ireland and even Europe. I think Walcott’s scope here bespeaks his brand of internationalism which is more than today’s trendy cosmopolitanism. It is not for nothing that Omeros was already characterised as an “epic of the dispossessed”—an epic of those people whose lives are struggles and love made visible. I like this particular Walcott the most—the Walcott of the epic of the dispossessed. I also like to think that his Omeros is by far his most monumental achievement, with which Walcott has phenomenally extended the tradition of his great Caribbean predecessors—Saint-John Perse and Aimé Césaire.
I cannot help pointing out in passing that while I relish the kind of earthy peasant humour we find in Omeros, I also enjoyed the way Walcott had once made fun of VS Naipaul, calling him “VS Nightfall,” while offering such lines as: “I have been bitten. I must avoid infection. /Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.” It is also true that over the years I have been critical of some of Walcott’s glib utterances surrounding the questions of anti-racist and gender politics in the US. But I will save my critique of Walcott’s politics for another occasion. For now, however, I cannot but place Walcott in the company of my own favourite poets such as WB Yeats, Pablo Neruda, and Aimé Césaire—a constellation of poets Walcott himself deeply admired.
Azfar Hussain is a prominent Bangladeshi poet, translator and intellectual who writes in both Bangla and English. He is vice president of the Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS) and GCAS Professor of English, World Literature and Interdisciplinary Studies. He is also associate professor of Liberal Studies/Interdisciplinary Studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, USA. He has published — in both English and Bengali — hundreds of academic and creative pieces, including translations from several non-western languages. He has written on a wide range of topics in such areas as “third world” Marxisms, critical theory, cultural politics, political economy and theories and practices of interdisciplinarity.