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walcott’s dizzying array

I experienced the election of Barack Obama partly through the poetry of Derek Walcott. There was no obvious reason why this should have been so: Walcott is not a nakedly political poet, nor is he American. In the run-up to the election, he hadn’t been particularly in the public eye, not much more than usual. There had been the spat with V.S. Naipaul, but that was a passing thing, a small scrolling item on the news-ticker, a pair of elephants trampling a distant patch of grass.

Yet his work was reviving itself in me. I had read the poems for years, had probably dulled them a little with familiarity. But, as America’s hectic electoral year rumbled to its close, I picked up the Selected Poems and began to dip into it for comfort and wisdom; and not just for those, but also for the sheer exhilaration of experiencing a master remake the world through his words.

Walcott came to mastery early. He was eighteen, a mere sapling, when 25 Poems, his first collection, was published. That was in 1948. The vigour of those poems, the ambitious reach of them-he employed a Miltonic-Wordsworthian blank verse-were a prophecy. Right from the beginning, the gift for startling imagery was there: not many teenagers can illuminate a poem with “the variegated fists of clouds” and “the bowels of the hours.” Forty-three years later, the sapling had become a stout oak, and he was awarded the Nobel.

This public acclaim can become a problem. Any winner of a great literary prize, especially that eminent one bestowed by the Swedes, risks becoming an institution. The books accumulate like unpaid bills, dusty, seldom read, found fit to furnish rooms and not minds. As August Kleinzahler put it, certain poems come down to us in Nobel-ese, full of their own importance, imprisoned in seriousness. But is this true of Walcott? A reputation can be a dreadful thing, setting up expectations that have nothing to do with the work of sitting down and writing. But let us remember that the proof of poetry is nowhere but in poetry. Walcott’s are fresh, with no hint of fustiness or mildew, perpetually surprising in their beauty and exactness: “Days I have held, days I have lost, days that outgrow, like daughters, my harboring arms.” Who would not wish to express the thought of past time in such invigorating language?

He achieves stateliness by opposing stateliness; his civilisation is of hybrid and brindled things, shot through with Caribbean slang and wit, and every poem from his half-century of creativity seems suffused by sea air. The first of his books I encountered was Sea Grapes, a collection from 1976 that I accidentally found some twenty years later in a small local library in Michigan. To fall into one of those poems was to plunge like a body into clear water, and then be brought aloft again by the water’s swell. The title poem began: “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.” And its final line was: “The classics can console. But not enough.”

This had the air of a manifesto, and it was fully manifested in his book-length poem, Omeros, published in 1990. A remix of Homer, Omeros lays down, in St. Lucian patois and English, a well-wrought narrative of Achille (a poor fisherman), Helen (a strong and beautiful local girl) and Hector (his rival for Helen’s love). The narrator, presumably Walcott himself, meditates on the history of the islands; the clashes and struggles that have brought them to their present form; the Dutch, French, English, African and native Caribbean origins; the consolations offered by the classics.

Such material can be heavy going, but in Walcott’s skilled hands, it is bright-hued, flecked with light and good humour; silvered. When half-literate Achille is teased for his boat, which he’s named In God We Troust, he shoots back, “Leave it! Is God’ spelling and mine.” The smile is still playing on our lips when Walcott ends that verse with: “After Mass one sunrise the canoes entered the troughs/ of the surpliced shallows, and their nodding prows/ agreed with the waves to forget their lives as trees;/ one would serve Hector, and another Achilles.”

Such is the sense one gets from Walcott’s work: a talent held in trust, a gift deployed on our behalf, the shallows surpliced and the depths equally sanctified. It is commonplace, I suppose, to refer to such people as a treasure. And yet, opening the books, I feel how literal this description is.

The pleasure one feels, in fact, is darkened (if the reader is himself a writer), by a little cloud of envy. This poetry is an intimate, an embarrassingly intimate, connection to language, the connection we all hunger for when we set pen to paper. The metaphors and figures spin off the page in a dizzying array, page after page of lush description, the boon of a painter’s eye. The rhymes, slant or fitted, thrum to-and-fro like ocean waves, like the call and response of the black church. One imagines the poems set to music, a poet who sings and sings because he sings so well.

There must be some hope that generations to come will remain alive to such thrills. Is there anywhere else in human endeavour where the fleeting moment, and its eternal echo, are as expertly pinned as in a poem? But, in all countries, poets receive shabby treatment-they are honoured when it is convenient, but the deeper honour of being read and properly cherished is denied them. But there’s no arguing about taste. Walcott, or other poets, might mean nothing to some, even to intelligent people with open minds, and that is fine. Poetry, perhaps, is also found in other forms. So, I confess a private joy: these lines delight and trouble and heal. I find sustenance in the craft of lyric verse. It enlarges my world. And Walcott’s verse, as much as that of anyone now writing, honours that craft.

For me, on the 4th of November last year, as I attempted to make sense of the moment (Barack Obama-black, smart, with a precious instinct for human rights-just about to enter into the centre of world history), it made a kind of sense to reach for Walcott. I took The Arkansas Testament, in which his Antillean and black sensibilities confront the American South. Walcott captures America’s lassitude, its small beauties and small uglinesses. It was for me, on that day, at the moment of still hoping for a favourable outcome in the evening, the perfect note: “Afternoon sun will reprint/ the bars of a flag whose cloth-/over motel, steeple and precinct-/must heal the stripes and the scars.” The day had found its words, and I headed out to Harlem to meet the prophesied result.

And the following day, as fate’s sense of humour decreed it, the president-elect was seen holding a volume of Derek Walcott’s Selected Poems.

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