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A Voice at the Edge of the Sea

An Interview With Derek Walcott

ISSUE:  Winter 2015

“I am going down to the shallow edge to begin again,

Joseph, with a first line, with an old net, the same expedition.
I will study the opening horizon, the scansion’s strokes of the rain,
to dissolve in a greater fiction than our lives, the sea, the sun.”

—Derek Walcott, from “Italian Eclogues, iv”

Derek Walcott. (Photograph by Danielle Devaux, Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux)Joseph Brodsky—the Joseph addressed in the epigraph—once said that when you hear Derek Walcott’s voice, “the world unravels.” It is a voice concomitant with the sea, and by connection, history. As I listen to its garrulous rise and fall from the veranda of his home by the sea in Saint Lucia, the sphinx-head bluff of Pigeon Island keeping watch in the distance, an opposite understanding of Brodsky’s statement takes hold: This is the voice that knots worlds together, or more accurately, “re-knots” worlds into the singular experience called the Caribbean. 

After six decades of making the language that has elevated his Antillean world into the permanence of poetry, Walcott, at eighty-four years old, a Nobel laureate, maintains there is “so much to do still.” Such a statement is impressively humbling—a mark of the vigor of a poet whose love of his island and the poetic craft has never diminished, for whom these two things have congealed into one great echo. Though moments of silence gather during our talk—moments when he looks out to the humming sea—his voice returns with the fulgent light “that reads like Dante” of his poetry, each time with greater magnificence. There were often, too, glittering moments of irreverence and laughter, including his fondness for puns, such as those by James Joyce, one of which he recited from memory.

Walcott’s poetry, from its very early beginning, possesses a chromatic fluency that accelerates the sensual pulse of the moment, converting ordinary images beyond their actual reality, into the colloquial magnitude of fable. His landscape, named, vivifies “every neglected, self-pitying inlet / muttering in brackish dialect, the ropes of mangroves / … / losing itself in an unfinished phrase.” The “unfinished,” fragmentary by nature, is a vital feature of Walcott’s poetics, which resemble his life and belief that “poetry is an island that breaks away from the main.” 

In 1964, Robert Graves praised Walcott’s international debut, In a Green Night, for handling “English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most (if not any) of his English-born contemporaries.” The true aspect of that inner magic is its outer votive life not at the core of English, a life that is the multitudinous heritage of the Caribbean, finding sublime utterance in Walcott. Shabine, the poet-persona of the brilliant poem “The Schooner Flight,” declares what the phantasmagoria of that self is: 

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. 

“English,” Walcott once remarked, “is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination,” and from this private sensibility evolves an oeuvre—seventeen poetry collections, nine volumes of drama, and a book of essays—of a pelagic imagination, inexorably striving against the stream, with unparalleled strength and beauty. 

Recognized for a lyric torque of elemental potency in such poems as “Love After Love,” “Coral,” “Star,” “A Sea-Chantey,” among many others, it is the lush, anticipatory cadence of his serial style, beginning with the book-length poem Another Life (1973), in which the full force of dramatic poetry coheres into the tremendous music that has secured his lasting reputation. That music reaches its oceanic magnanimity in the epic poem Omeros (1990);in it Walcott’s genius for breaching the membrane between metaphor and metonymy reads, in the words of one of its stunning moments, like “doors dissolve into tenderness.” The collections following Omeros, The Bounty, Tiepolo’s Hound, The Prodigal, and White Egrets, all move serially, completely in sway with the early vow made in “Islands”:

                                      to write
Verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight,
Cold as the curved wave, ordinary
As a tumbler of island water;
Yet, like a diarist, thereafter
I savour their salt-hunted rooms. 

To savour, yes, and to repeat and conclude with the last line of the epigraph to Brodsky—a poem I consider to be the verbal companion of Van Gogh’s “The Painter on His Way to Work”—we read Walcott’s poetry and we “dissolve in a greater fiction than our lives, the sea, the sun.”

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Ishion Hutchinson: Every time I arrive here in Saint Lucia, I remember these lines from your early poem “Homecoming: Anse La Raye”: “and never guess you’d come / to know there are homecomings without home.” How has the tension or paradox of home evolved for you?

Derek Walcott: I don’t think we ever have complete homecoming. There is always a little extra left that we need to occupy, or something to contradict the elation of being home. 

What contradicts the elation of being home for you?

I think the reality of being in the Caribbean, the poverty, the reality of the illiteracy; it is a reality a lot of writers do not try to confront. I guess the poverty particularly. 

From the standpoint of craft, what enabled you to achieve the amazing synthesis of autobiography and the reality of your island in your work—I am thinking especially of Another Life?

One of the big influences on the book [Another Life] is Pasternak’s My Sister—Life. He is a tremendous writer.

What about, and this is going to sound academic, someone out of the twinned idea in the Romantic tradition of self and landscape, Wordsworth in particular?

That’s very academic. 

Let me stop. 

(Laughing.) No, no. You can ask the question. I think we do not make [a] distinction about people’s nationality. I mean, the move from Wordsworth to Pasternak is basically very simple, and there is no real distinction between Englishness and being Russian. In fact, it is a good, surprising comparison because the affection Wordsworth has for his landscape and Pasternak for his is identical. 

You have said you consider yourself at the beginning of a Caribbean tradition. What do you think has happened or is happening in that tradition?

Well, what I think is quite apart from what I knew might [have] happened. What has happened is astonishing. The amount of young, good writers is quite phenomenal, I think. Don’t you think?

Absolutely. Because of your work and others who were at the beginning, now we are able to see ourselves in a way which illuminates our own attempt of what is possible. 

Yes. In a way it was inevitable though. You can’t have such a history and so much urgency to talk in the experience of that history. You can’t muffle those voices, you know, they would be articulated, they would be uttered anyway. It is just that they are being very well uttered. 

In both poetry and prose?

Not so much prose. 

Why is that so?

Because you have to be, for you to write prose, really, really great to do it. You can get away with a lot [in] poetry. You have things that are for you—your history, your race, your language, all these things. You begin with pluses. I don’t think you begin this way with prose, that you need them at the beginning. But they are inevitable in poetry, they are inside you, you know. 

One of the great prose works of not so long ago is Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau, which you have praised—

Oh yes. 

For its “adjectival style” over the nominal. What exactly is the adjectival style?

You’d have to have a melody. An example in mine—in fact I did not remember that is one of the qualities of Patrick’s work—in fact I don’t remember that now, but if I saw it I will know it.

You said it is the gesture of the storyteller. I get that to mean it is expansive, broad gestures, which I think of as an element of your work. It made me think about the usual thing of poetry as compressive, more so than with prose.

The people who have influenced me or whom I have imitated are writers who are compressors, like Hemingway particularly. Pasternak, too. But I think if you are influenced by great poets like that writing prose, that what you pick up from them or what you have to pick up, is what I would call simultaneity. The one instance of several things going on, and I think in any West Indian instance there is a tremendous amount going on, in race alone, you know what I mean?

I do. We have been talking about prose, and you have published essays, but never any fiction. 


You never wrote any? 

Yeah, I wrote a very bad novel. A terrible novel. I think if you deal with theater, it takes up where the novel might anyway; you have to deal with plot, character, and the story, very fictional. 

On occasions you have spoken about poems you return to—Walter de la Mare’s “Farewell,” for instance—not necessarily for their technical brilliance, but for the force of the benediction. Are there any of your own poems you go back to for the same reason?

That’s a very good phrase, “force of the benediction,” that is [a] terrific way to put it. […] I have read parts of work of mine that are irrepressible in terms of reciting them. 

I have seen you recite “The Light of the World,” and it brought you to tears. 

Yes, yes. It is a long poem. 

It is a majestic poem. 

(Laughs.) Thank you. 

You told Edward Hirsch in an interview when your Collected Poems (1983) came out that there are “deficiencies” there. Has The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1948–2013 corrected those deficiencies? 

I don’t remember what poems, if any. There weren’t many alterations or adaptations or changes in this collection. It was done by Glyn Maxwell, so he ran the whole thing. It is his book, kind of. He did a good job, I think. 

He did a phenomenal job. So there were no revisions to any of the poems?

Not really, no. 

It made me wonder—since some of your earliest poems are here—about the impulse to revise early work. [W. H.] Auden, for example, famously revised his early work. [Robert] Lowell is another. Did you have that impulse? 

No, I can’t say so. I’d probably rewrite. I would just write another poem, or something. 

Are you writing poems now?

Yes. I am working on a book about a painter. I think the shape is going to be several poems. I think so. The painter is Peter Doig. You know him? […] He lives in Trinidad, a Scotsman. I like him a lot.

Would you say the new poems resemble the serial blank verse of White Egrets?

I have not done enough yet, I don’t know. I have done a few like that, but in fact I don’t know quite what I am doing. I think constantly I am trying to find a natural link between prose and poetry. For me, unless a writer has that quality—I mean if a prose writer has that quality then it makes good poetry; the prose, as it is done in Pasternak. You don’t have to scan it, it divides itself rhythmically. 

You have never done a book that is a mixture of prose and poetry. 

No. I don’t believe in the idea actually, although I practice it. I think for a poet to set out to do a prose and poetry book is a kind of cop-out. If he has set out to do it, then it is a cop-out. If it has happened, then it is a different thing. See what I mean?

It seems to happen in some contemporary poets really well. The one that comes to mind now is Alice Oswald. 

I like her a lot. You know her? […] You must tell her how much I admire her work. I really enjoy it. 

I will. Speaking of that, I read in Bremen [Germany], and Les Murray was present. I know you admire him. 

Les is great, really terrific. 

What would you regard as your greatest strength as a poet?

I can’t tell. I think there are lots of times when I have maybe caught the light in certain passages—certainly they are informed by the presence of the light a lot. The Caribbean light at sunrise and sunset. 

Do you have a favorite of your collections?

I think it would be what do I enjoy reading. I like reading “The Spoiler’s Return,” maybe because it is so direct. 

There is a recent documentary, Poetry is an Island, about your life. What do you think of it?

I think it is very well done, it is not fussy and it gives a lot [of] room to my friends. It is good; the director, Ida Does, is a sensitive woman. 

As you mention friends, I did want to ask you, finally, about your late friend Seamus Heaney. Is there a memory of him that endures with you?

When I sit here I can see him at the edge of the water [Walcott points to the sea] or sitting on one of the chairs, you know. Yes, he’s right there, I see him at the edge of the sea.  


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Lennox Raphael's picture
Lennox Raphael · 8 years ago

Well done. Derek is special. I consider him a friend. He makes Language.


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